The 18 Degree Tilt

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.


Filed under humor, Technology, Television

27 responses to “The 18 Degree Tilt

  1. Mikey,
    I’m a few years younger than you, and I only saw Ernie on PBS (I think) in reruns, and only a couple of times. I didn’t get it. It unnerved me. I remember an episode where the camera was looking up from under a glass floor, and maybe there were gunfighters standing above, but I may be mixing memories. My wife and her older sisters were big fans of the Nairobi Trio YouTube video you linked to, and oddly enough, she just showed me and my daughter that film a few weeks ago. My five-year-old thought it was hilarious. I think it’s spooky as hell. Thanks for this little trip through one of TV comedies maddest minds.

    • You’re quite welcome. Since most of my orientation to humor comes right from Ernie, I’ll try not to unnerve you too much.

      As he would have said it, “Great mimes stink alike!”

      • Kristen Esbensen

        Thank you for this. Your words and descriptions make me simultaneously sad and happy. Sad that we lost his genius too early. Happy and grateful that we had it at all.

        Kristen Esbensen

  2. Cat

    I love this blog because it’s cool that you’re a young-souled artifact (I kid). So you have your stuff that you admire that is usually older than mine (although my poetry/literary preferences are fairly archaic usually), and it’s really interesting to check that out and then compare what I value in the same way. Do you get what I’m saying? Whatever. Okay, for instance, one of my favourite comedians is George Carlin. Or was. He died. 😦 He was pretty “old” technically and first came onto the scene in ’77, but it was his later stuff that was just sheer genius. He was really quick and dark and awesome.

    • Cat

      Also, Tina Fey + Amy Poehler. There aren’t enough chick comedians, but those two are greatness.

    • I liked George too, from day one. Carlin went through a rather amazing transformation. He began as a popular “traditional” stand-up, and then chucked it all in the late ’60s, grew his hair and BECAME the George Carlin you are talking about. Here’s a clip of him on Tonight Show from 1966 with his original “look” and part of the “newscast” routine which was his most famous one at the time. —

  3. Crikey! I don’t think I would even have recognized GC in that clip if you hadn’t been talking about him.

    • The transformation of George Carlin AFTER he became famous and successful is almost worth a post in itself. He was considered the “next Bill Cosby” until he went all LENNY BRUCE.

  4. Interesting post. Don’t believe I ever heard of Ernie K.. Such a shame he passed away so young.

    • I agree. Fortunately I was alive long enough to get infected, as were many in the TV biz. There is no cure. Being clued in by Ernie lead me to all other forms of anarchic comedy like Marx Bros. & W.C. Fields (in films) and Carlin, Monty Python and Richard Pryor on TV and records.

  5. Pie

    I’d not heard of Ernie Kovacs before reading this post, and why should I? As far as I know he was not part of British culture, or comedy, though you say he influenced Monty Python. I had a look at the ‘Mac The Knife part 4’ YouTube clip. Some of the little sketches made me laugh out loud. He was seriously out there.

    • Once I thought more about the dates and the people involved, I think I should retract that. Kovacs and the Pythons share aspects of absurdist theatre in both their work, but the Pythons were probably largely begat by the Goons. Spike Milligan especially shares similarities to Kovacs in “white magic” (impossible things happening) comedy and a taste for odd juxtapositions. I’ve edited the post to remove that, though I’m still glad to have introduced you to Ernie.

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  12. Mikey,
    I have no idea who this person was but your post inspires me to learn more:) The idea of tilting the set for the first sketch in this post is inspired, a very early use of special effects and playing with the audiences perceptions shows a real appreciation for the “whole” of a performance, the “magic” of the experience and not just the punchline.
    Thanks for introducing me to something new!

    • Everyone has unusual individuals that inspire us at some early age. My childhood was chaotic and painful, so I gravitated toward a TV comic who portrayed life as chaotic, but humorous because it’s absurd. Ernie gave me a survival skill. I’m glad you enjoyed learning about him.

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