I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Ernie Kovacs

by Ben Gray
July 19, 2014

If you had to sum up his career in a single word, you'd probably say that Ernie Kovacs was a comedian. But that's a silly thing to say, so my advice is: don't try to sum up his career in a single word. Instead, you should probably say that he was not only an innovative comic whose work inspired everyone from David Letterman to Monty Python, but he succeeded in time slots that had never been tried, edited unrelated scenes together at a rate that had never been seen, pioneered new visual techniques, and presented audiences with surreal landscapes they weren't always prepared to deal with. He took television from its infancy, when it was but as a slight evolution of stage performance, and he made it a medium of its own. He was arguably television's first genius, and even when he was alive, its most under-appreciated visionary.

To understand how important Kovacs really was, you have to realize just how primitive TV was back then. When Kovacs started work on Three to Get Ready in 1951 (the first TV show to air at 7:30am – until that time, no one thought people would watch a morning show), the most popular TV shows were variety shows, like Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and Texaco Star Theatre. A standard variety show format would basically be a series of unconnected performers and comedians presented by an emcee such as Milton Berle or Arthur Godfrey. It would be a little bit like watching America's Got Talent except that there was no competition, no one ever got buzzed off, and if David Hasselhoff got drunk and belligerent, the network wouldn't try to exploit his alcoholism for the sake of driving up ratings. In other words, it was basically just an old-fashioned vaudeville show, taped in front of a live audience and broadcast very soon after the actual performance. The only difference, really, was the fact of the camera. Not any of the action.

The other major format, of course, was the familiar situation comedy show, represented most successfully at the time by The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy. Naturally, these shows were slightly different from the stage in that they were short, ongoing, episodic narratives as opposed to strung-together performances or long-form plays. Nonetheless, the presence of a live audience meant that the possibilities for these shows were quite limited. They were still thinking of the frame of the camera as being equivalent to the dimensions of the physical stage, and editing was essentially limited to shortening the scene changes. Even having more than two or three different sets in an episode was incredibly rare.

Ernie Kovacs changed all that. The difference is perhaps most striking in his “Mack the Knife” sketches. These sketches (barely even qualifying as sketches at all, really), were nothing more than an unrelated series of 10-30 second vignettes, strung together by recurring images of an oscillator and the ongoing rendition of "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" from The Threepenny Opera. The vignettes themselves had absolutely nothing to do with the song, of course - they could be anything from a person frying an egg to a standing shot of a painting, but they gained an ambiance and a sense of continuity from the soundtrack. From there, though, things would get weird. Using a variety of visual tricks like split screens, reverse polarities, superimpositions, and some other things Kovacs invented, the sketch would make it look like egg-yolks fall right through the pan, paintings burst through their frames, and milkshakes suddenly appear from nowhere. He would routinely fit together about ten different scenes into four minutes of TV – something we rarely see even today, even on our most radically experimental shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, or the famously manic Robot Chicken, which also play strongly on an audience's reactions to the unexpected. This was a new way to do comedy – quick, surprising scenes that couldn't take place anywhere other than television. Small wonder Kovacs sometimes had trouble finding an audience (or, for that matter, a studio) in the conservative 1950s.

Beyond the technical aspects of his work, the spirit of delivering a brand of television which takes place in some world of unsettling, surreal impossibility, might be the most definitive aspect of Kovacs's style. Much as with Tim and Eric, it's all about “the unexpected”, but it doesn't always make sense to refer to it as “comedy”. Take, for example, the scene which opens upon a bathtub, then reveals a hand reaching up through the drain, grasping helplessly before being eventually sucked down. Or take the famous commercial Kovacs created for the cigar company Dutch Masters, in which he sits underwater with a cigar in his mouth, then exhales white smoke into the water around him. Are those things funny? Well... not quite, but they're definitely unusual and hypnotic. They're a bit like looking at one of those Salvador Dali advertisements for Alka Seltzer. They take the mundane someplace surprising and sometimes beautiful.

Kovacs's whole career is marked by trying to push traditional entertainment someplace it had never been before, whatever the cost. Before he had a TV show, he was a disc jockey for a local radio station in Trenton, NJ, and he became famous for broadcasting his shows live from the cockpit of an airplane and for standing directly in front of a moving train until the last possible second. One time he dropped a car into deep pit on camera, costing the studio $12,000 for the sake of one sight gag and about 10 seconds of television. His tombstone reads “Nothing in Moderation” - a sentiment that he took extremely seriously.

That sentiment is also why so little of Kovacs's work is still around for us to watch. At the time of his death in 1962, Kovacs owed his studio hundreds of thousands of dollars for his constant running over budget. In an effort to “recoup costs”, the studio started taping over his segments, a practice which is now unthinkable, but which had no repercussions at the time. Lucky for us, his wife Edie Adams (who can be seen in many of Kovac's sketches) took it upon herself to pay off Kovacs's debts and save as much of his work as she could. What remains is a testament to the pioneering spirit that Kovacs took with his work, the drive to make something that no one had ever seen before. Only a few shows today can claim that kind of ambition, but even the ones that can't owe a huge debt to Ernie Kovacs, one of the few who made television what it is now.


Ben is co-Editor of Network Awesome Magazine and a snappy dresser from Boston, MA. He has a few weekly columns in The Weekly Dig, and occasionally shows up to read his poetry at things. He loves raves, pulp literature, online dating, and looking at pictures of robots on the internet. As co-editor of NAmag, he is suddenly very very busy and he loves every minute of it.