|Artwork by Drew Friedman|
The Ernie Kovacs Collection
Whenever a clip of Ernie Kovacs pops up in a TV special about show-business history, the focus tends to be on one of his whimsical visual gags or kooky characters. The biggest revelation of the long-overdue six-DVD box set The Ernie Kovacs Collection is how funny Kovacs could be when he was just standing in front of a camera and talking, as “himself.” Kovacs started his showbiz career as a stage actor in the ’30s, while still in his teens, then moved on to radio before becoming a staple of local Philadelphia television in the early ’50s, as a host of just about every imaginable kind of TV format—some of which, like the morning show, he helped invent. In those early days, Kovacs worked loose, tossing out asides, puns, and winks. He looked like a Latin lover, but sounded like a traveling salesman.
The first disc of The Ernie Kovacs Collection assembles surviving examples of Kovacs plunging headlong into a new medium, in shows like 1951’s Ernie In Kovacsland and 1952’s Kovacs On The Corner. He wanders through sets full of props—sometimes wandering off the set, making sure to point out the cameras and microphones to home viewers—and picks up objects seemingly at random, to make absurdist jokes. Sometimes the routines are spontaneous, as in one bit where Kovacs gets annoyed and smacks a head of lettuce around while making a salad. Sometimes they’re carefully planned, as in another bit where he hears a gong every time he lifts a hat. The production back then wasn’t slick; the sound dips in and out, and sometimes there’s an unplanned lag before a gag. But it’s impressive even now to see someone try to turn live television into his own Looney Tune, full of surreal surprises and quick blackout sketches. (And this was more than a decade before Laugh-In.)
In the liner notes to The Ernie Kovacs Collection, author/fan Jonathan Lethem sums up the comedian’s weaknesses, writing, “It should be said that much of his work is too conceptual and deliberate and even awkward to be smoothly seductive to the viewer’s hilarity; it often presents itself as humorous while actually being only interesting and uncomfortably odd.” That’s most evident in Kovacs’ 1959-61 panel show Take A Good Look, in which he challenged celebrities to guess why a guest had recently been in the news, with the “help” of short skits that were barely related to the topic. It was a straight-faced parody of game shows, in keeping with Kovacs’ habit of mocking genre conventions and the mechanics of television. (As in this Kovacs fake-commercial: “Eat food. Food fills you up. It gives you all the vitamins you can’t get in vitamins.”) Like Bob & Ray, Nichols & May, and Mad magazine, Kovacs used mainstream media to transmit messages about the inherent silliness of culture both high and low, from the Superman comics Kovacs spoofed as “Superclod” to his version of Romeo And Juliet, where no one can remember who’s a Capulet and who’s a Montague.
But beyond mere wiseacre-y, Kovacs had a sense of how artificiality could be beautiful as well as deceptive. The highlights of The Ernie Kovacs Collection appear on discs four and five, in the form of the specials he shot for NBC and ABC between 1957 and his death in 1962. There, with more resources at his disposal—and with a general understanding by all concerned that it was okay if he failed to reach more than a niche audience—Kovacs tried to distill his act to a pure form of delight, mixing dry-witted jokes with ingeniously strange flights of fancy. He’d have his wife Edie Adams sing while he created psychedelic in-camera effects (in 1959!), or he’d stage Swan Lake with ballerinas wearing gorilla suits, or explore an elaborate scale model of a city with his camera, to the sounds of a Béla Bartók concerto. Kovacs achieved effects on television usually only seen in avant-garde film, and he did it with a welcoming smile.