Eugene opens his thermos. When he attempts to pour himself a glass of milk, it comes out at an angle, missing the glass. When Ernie Kovacs presented this trick, it had never been done before. I had no idea how it was done when I saw it at age three, but I was entranced and dissolved in laughter. This show and King Kong are what I remember of TV that year. It worked because the camera and the set are tilted 18 degrees from level. If you viewed it from behind the camera it would have looked like this:
Ernie Kovacs was the most original comedic talent in the days of early television. In a time when all the successful comedy stars just did a version of onscreen Vaudeville, Ernie saw TV as a new avenue of expression, a unique medium. Using cheap props and home-made special effects he made impossible things happen “live”, and on early videotape that had to be cut with razor blades. Ernie lampooned everything respectable, orderly or predictable. He was only moderately popular with audiences. Many viewers didn’t understand what he was up to. His good friend Jack Lemmon suggested that Ernie was always 15 years ahead of his time. I probably “got” him because my parents enjoyed odd comedy and, being a child, my own sense of humor was still in formation.
Ernie was freed from conventional thinking by dying – almost. He had been heavily influenced by his high school drama teacher back in Trenton, NJ, and studied acting in Manhattan. Then he lived in an unheated slum apartment and went hungry long enough to end up in the hospital with pneumonia and pleurisy. He lived in the hospital for 19 months. He was not expected to survive. However, he was a failure at dying, which became his impetus to try out anything he thought of that amused him. One day before he was taken to his regular fluoroscopic exam he cut up the foil inside gum wrappers and arranged them on his stomach under his gown. When the Drs. turned on the machine, they saw the words “OUT TO LUNCH”. From that time on Ernie Kovacs did whatever he could to tilt the ordinary world a little off-kilter.
He went back to Trenton and formed a theatrical troupe, wrote for the local newspaper, and worked in local radio. Then he got a job at NBC’s Philadelphia TV affiliate WPTZ hosting the first regularly scheduled morning show (7-9am) broadcast in a major market. It had been assumed previously that no one would watch that early.
At WPTZ he began improvising camera tricks including reverse polarities, scanning, superimposition, and putting a kaleidoscope over the lens and moving it in time with music. Ernie broke rules. He would talk to the off-camera crew during shows, and point the camera at areas beyond the set or the studio. He would introduce segments from the control booth. The success of the WPTZ show, Three to Get Ready was a factor in NBC’s creation of the Today Show. WPTZ picked up the network show for broadcast and canceled Ernie’s.
Though his humor was ahead of the curve, Ernie was also a 1950s man. He drank and smoked big Cuban cigars and played cards non-stop. Like me, he got married twice. His second marriage was to a talented, yummy blonde named Edie Adams. She was already his on-stage partner. He didn’t want the act to end when the sketch was over.
NBC hired Ernie for network shows because he would accept any time slot as long as he could do his own thing. From 1951-57, Kovacs created several short-lived comedy series that featured a growing cast of regular characters like Matzoh Hepplewhite, a flamboyantly corny magician who banged a gong to get drinks from his female assistant, and Wolfgang von Sauerbraten, German disk jockey:
He often based sketches on inspirations he got from music. You may have seen this one before, but I think The Nairobi Trio is essential to understanding how Kovacs’ comedy works. The effect is based on tension and release, just like in music. The repeated peril toward the ape-conductor is the tension. It gets released by the actions of the ape with the xylophone mallets. It’s funny because we think we know what will happen, and then the expected result is interrupted, extending the tension, then finally completed, like a punch line. It’s a perfectly constructed joke made from visuals and sound effects – without dialogue.
In 1957, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin broke up their act. Lewis was offered 90 minutes in prime-time to do with as he wished. He decided to use 60 minutes. No one but Ernie Kovacs was willing to follow brash, noisy Lewis. Ernie offered an entire half-hour of comedic sight gags with music and sound effects, but without words. The show won a Sylvania Award (the pre-cursor to the Emmys) and no one talked about the Lewis special afterward.
The critical success of “The Silent Show” launched a movie career of sorts. The first film, Operation Mad Ball, had Ernie playing a captain who was the comic villain. It made money, so in typical Hollywood fashion Ernie got immediately cast in several more films as captains who were comic villains. He complained to the trade papers, “Please, no more captains.”
Ernie did manage to do other things that were more personally satisfying, if less financially successful. He wrote features for MAD Magazine which was my prime choice of material when I was first learning to read.
He also worked on records, wrote a humorous novel based on the life of Pat Weaver,and continued to make specials for television. These specials from 1961-62 were the pinnacle of his “back of the head” writing style. They include more elaborate works like the “Musical Office” which used edited music by Esquivel.
Rain is rare in Los Angeles, but it rained the day Ernie died. He lost control of his car on a wet road and completed the quick exit he had been expected to perform in the hospital 23 years previously. He was 42 years old. I was eight. Edie spent the next 40 years paying off Ernie’s debts, buying up his endangered tapes and preserving his legacy.
The anarchic attitude, styles and sketches of Ernie Kovacs directly influenced the Today and Tonight shows, Captain Kangaroo, Laugh-In, Sesame Street, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson. Much of my own sense of humor was indelibly branded by Kovacsian absurdity. It’s where my “announcer voice” comes from.
It’s still my favorite style of comedy.