Ernie Kovacs Centennial - 1/23
The word "pioneer" is thrown around a lot to describe those who helped shape a medium, but Ernie Kovacs qualifies for the title because he was a true television innovator. Watching kinescopes of his programs for the first time is a little shocking for those for who think of I Love Lucy as representational of what comedy was in 1950s television. While other producers were essentially recreating vaudeville or the visual equivalent of a radio program, Kovacs took the medium and the comedy genre and turned it on its head, inside out, and upside down, exactly as a kid takes apart a toaster to see how it works. Kovacs himself said, "This TV medium has never been fully explored. It's completely different from movies and the stage. It has to be developed on its own." The result was both hilarious and surreal, underscoring the tragedy of Kovacs' death in a Los Angeles car accident and the fact that he is not better remembered, fifty years later.
Ernest Edward Kovacs was born on January 23, 1919, in Trenton, New Jersey. His Hungarian immigrant father, Andrew, had been a policeman and a bootlegger who made enough money to buy a twenty-room mansion in the best part of town. When Prohibition ended, essentially putting the bootleggers out of business, the family suffered a reversal of fortune. As a high school student, Kovacs became interested in theater and thanks to his drama teacher at Trenton Central High School, Harold Van Kirk, he obtained a scholarship to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Like many drama students, he would spend his summers in stock theater. During a run in Vermont, he came down with pneumonia, which developed into pleurisy and for a year and a half, Kovacs was in the charity wards of several hospitals and not expected to live. As he recuperated, he developed his comedic sense and often entertained the doctors. This brush with death made him fatalistic; his wife and co-star, actress-singer Edie Adams, later said that Kovacs would often tell her that he wouldn't have a long life and was determined to enjoy whatever time he had left.
Kovacs' poor health kept him out of World War II and he spent that time as a disk jockey at WTTM in New Jersey. He would stay at the station for nine years until he branched out into television with WPTZ in Philadelphia, where he wore a barrel and shorts for his audition. There, Kovacs did several different types of shows, from fashion to cooking to an early morning program called Three to Get Ready which allowed him to unleash his zany humor. In 1952, Kovacs transferred to New York where he would become known nationally for his various shows for NBC, CBS and the now-defunct Dumont network. While the surviving shows are sometimes uneven, there are moments of genius that, unlike many of his contemporaries, hasn't dated. Kovacs explained his comedy as being eighty percent sight gags, "No pantomime. I work on the incongruity of sight against sound." A good example of this was Kovacs' "Kitchen Symphony" in which inanimate objects like egg-slicers and water faucets would be manipulated in time to the music, or The Nairobi Trio; the latter featured three "gorillas" wearing raincoats and derby hats and playing music. Kovacs' most expensive gag (which cost $13,000) had him playing a used car salesman. As he hit the car to prove its reliability, the car fell through the floor. It was off-the-wall humor and some of the audience was left puzzled by it. Edie Adams remembered, "He was an acquired taste. On the show, we never tried to analyze his humor; we just did it. He preferred to leave the performing to me, and the rest of the cast. He really wanted to write and create visual effects." Kovacs himself explained, "The people I respect get it. It might take everyone else a little longer." His friend, Jack Lemmon, said that Ernie Kovacs was fifteen years ahead of his time.
The characters Kovacs created were unique, like the martini-swilling, inebriated poet Percy Dovetonsils, who was supposedly based on Alexander Woollcott, drunken chef Miklos Mohlnar (with Kovacs speaking authentic Hungarian), and Auntie Gruesome. He was a big fan of silent movie comedian Buster Keaton (with whom he later became friends) and a big opponent of all the loud, volume enhanced programs and commercial pitches on television. As a protest, most of his 1957 program, The NBC Saturday Night Color Carnival was done without dialogue. It was so well received that the US government entered it as its only television program screened at the 1957 Brussels World Fair. That same year, Ernie Kovacs signed a movie deal with Columbia and moved to California. Being paid just to act in someone else's project made him realize how hard he'd been working in New York, where he often survived on two or three hours of sleep a night. "This is the life! I never realized how much fun performing could be! For nine years, I've been writing, directing, producing, and acting in my own shows on TV. And what a struggle that is!"
Seeing Ernie Kovacs on film, playing roles like a commanding officer in his first movie, Operation Mad Ball (1957), "The Meanest Man in the World" in It Happened to Jane (1959), a drunken writer in Bell, Book and Candle (1958), a crook in Five Golden Hours (1961 - Kovacs' own personal favorite), or, as the policeman in Our Man in Havana (1961), is not the same as watching his television programs. While the films are entertaining and Kovacs is good in them, they contain nothing of the comedian's true sense of humor. Most comedians would have been put into films that were similar to their stage or television work. Kovacs' programs were too surreal for film and the studio must have understood that it would not translate to a feature.
Perhaps the constraints of working with a single character in a typical comedy provoked Kovacs to let off steam off when he was not on-camera, as co-star Noel Coward wrote in his journal, "Ernie Kovacs is VERY sweet and good-natured, but I think we are ALL prepared to brain him. The jokes are endless and ceaseless and exhausting to a degree. [...] Between every take, it's the gaiety or some gag he's thought up for his bloody TV show. AND he's a little fluffy on the lines. But good, I know. I've become so SQUARE in his eyes, I'm positively CUBIC."
Ernie Kovacs made ten films in four years and still managed to do television in between. His last program was taped on December 2, 1961 and aired on what would have been his 43rd birthday, January 23, 1962. Ten days earlier, Kovacs and Adams had attended a party at the home of director Billy Wilder. Dean Martin's wife, Jean, later said Kovacs told her he was depressed. His out of control spending and refusal to pay taxes had created a serious financial situation and Kovac's wife, Edie Adams, was forced to work (even though she admitted she loved it). Kovacs had arrived at the party driving their Rolls Royce and Adams drove the 1961 Corvair station wagon (the same brand that Ralph Nader would write about in his book, Unsafe at Any Speed). Kovacs decided to leave the party around 1:00 am and opted to take the Corvair. The police later theorized that at the intersection of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Blvd., Kovacs took his hands off the steering wheel to light his ever-present cigar. The car skidded on the wet pavement, hit the median in the street, and crashed into a pole. Kovacs died almost instantly. After his death, Kovacs' friends, notably Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon, wanted to do a television special to raise money for Adams. While touched, she refused, saying, "I can take care of my own kids." For the next few years, Adams worked hard to pay off all of Kovacs' debts. Although she remarried twice, she remained, until her own death in 2008, Kovac's greatest champion. If not for her foresight in saving the few remaining tapes of his shows, the genius of Ernie Kovacs might have been lost forever.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Day, Barry Coward on Film: the Cinema of Noel Coward
Holsopple, Barbara, "Legendary Ernie Kovacs Still Ahead of His Time" Pittsburgh Press 14 Apr 77
Horton, Andrew: Ernie Kovacs & Early TV Comedy: Nothing in Moderation
"An Electronic Comic and His TV Tricks" Life 15 Apr 57
Pack, Lindsy E. Ernie Kovacs Show, The (Various) from The Encylopedia of Television by Horace Newcomb.
Spigel, Lynn TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television
Thomas, Bob "Ernie Kovacs Flirts with Film Career" The Telegraph-Herald 7 Apr 57