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Ernie Kovacs & Early TV Comedy

[ Film and Media Studies ]

Ernie Kovacs & Early TV Comedy

Nothing in Moderation

By Andrew Horton

The first study of pioneering TV comedian Ernie Kovacs and his influence on later shows, ranging from Laugh-In to Letterman.

2010

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Paperback

5.5 x 8.5 | 140 pp. | 11 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-72886-8

Among the pioneers of television, Ernie Kovacs was one of the most original and imaginative comedians. His zany, irreverent, and surprising humor not only entertained audiences throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, but also inspired a host of later comedies and comedians, including Monty Python, David Letterman, much of Saturday Night Live, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Captain Kangaroo, and even Sesame Street. Kovacs created laughter through wildly creative comic jokes, playful characterizations, hilarious insights, and wacky experiments. "Nothing in moderation," his motto and epitaph, sums up well Kovacs's wholehearted approach to comedy and life.

In this book, Andrew Horton offers the first sustained look at Ernie Kovacs's wide-ranging and lasting contributions to the development of TV comedy. He discusses in detail Kovacs's work in New York, which included The Ernie Kovacs Show (CBS prime time 1952–1953), The Ernie Kovacs Show (NBC daytime variety 1956–1957), Tonight (NBC late-night comedy/variety 1956-1957), and a number of quiz shows. Horton also looks at Kovacs's work in Los Angeles and in feature film comedy. He vividly describes how Kovacs and his comic co-conspirators created offbeat characters and zany situations that subverted expectations and upended the status quo. Most of all, Horton demonstrates that Kovacs grasped the possibility for creating a fresh genre of comedy through the new medium of television and exploited it to the fullest.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Nothing in Moderation
  • Chapter 1. An Overview of the Postwar Era and the Ernie Kovacs Shows in the Context of American Television Comedy
  • Chapter 2. The Flow of the Philadelphia and New York Kovacs Shows: Comic Surrealism, Verbal and Visual
  • Chapter 3. Silents Please! Ernie, California, and Working with Music, Sound, and Surrealistic Visuals on His Specials
  • Chapter 4. Ernie in the Movies: From Comic Director to Supporting Character Actor
  • Chapter 5. The Kovacs Legacy: "I Don't Know. I Just Do It!"
  • Appendix: Summary of Ernie Kovacs' Personal Life
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

I know what television is not. It is not photographed radio or vaudeville.

Ernie Kovacs

 

Kovacs can't be boxed into comedy's usual confines, least of all the cramped container that is network TV.

Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny

 

Question: what do Monty Python, David Letterman, much of Saturday Night Live (especially in its early years), Larry David (especially in Curb Your Enthusiasm on which he works without a script), Flight of the Conchords, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, The Uncle Floyd Show, Captain Kangaroo, and even Sesame Street, to offer but a short list, have in common? One answer is quite simple: they all reflect—whether knowingly or not—the imaginative and wildly creative comic jokes, ludic characterizations, hilarious insights, and zany experiments handed down by Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962) from his years in television and late 1950s Hollywood cinema. "Nothing in moderation" was not only Kovacs' wholehearted approach to comedy and to life but is also the line on his tombstone in Los Angeles' Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

Ernie Kovacs was one of the most original and imaginative early television comedians in the United States. Throughout the 1950s until his death in 1962, he never ceased to create laughter visually, verbally, musically, as well as through the manipulation of sounds, on that ever-changing new medium, television. He made clear that he understood a lot about this new form of entertainment entering American homes everywhere beginning in the early 1950s when he 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" (Rico xiii).

Kovacs' Comedy: An Introduction

Consider three Kovacs' moments. In the first, Ernie, his handsome Hungarian-American face beaming, thick moustache in place, and a cigar, as always, in hand, sits on a tree branch in the studio, talking to the camera and thus to us, the audience, while he saws through the branch. We, of course, are waiting for him to cut all the way through and fall (an expected suspense), but to our surprise, when Ernie finishes cutting through the branch, the tree falls down, and he and the branch remain secure in studio space. In her extremely thorough biography of Kovacs, Diana Rico captures this aspect of his comic art: "Whether visual, verbal or a combination of sight and sound, a Kovacs joke always subverted expectation" (ix). In short, surprise overtakes suspense in Kovacsland, and the result is laughter.

In a second Kovacs moment, Ernie is billed as a world chess champion who, blindfolded, takes on eight seated challengers. We expect him to trip and fall on one of the challengers or tables (anticipation, once more), but again to our surprise, he plays a move at each of the eight tables on each chessboard; turns and looks at us (the camera), even though he is blindfolded; and then walks off as all eight tables collapse. Kovacs, commented Ken McCormick, the editor of Ernie's 1956 novel Zoomar, "not only lived TV but the whole media. The whole world was just like one big apple in front of a boy who was hungry" (Walley, Nothing in Moderation 125).

A third Kovacs moment for our introduction features the bespectacled poet, Percy Dovetonsils. Ernie played this character for years with a lisp, an inimitable twist of his lips, and a shaking of his head after sipping his ever-present martini. In this scene, Percy opens his large poetry notebook and begins to read "Ode to a Housefly":

Oh, hail to thee, tiny insect so small,
Swimming around in my bourbon highball.
Back stroking, breast stroking, movement of wing.
Now up on the ice cube, poor cold little thing.

He continues on for another four verses as the sound of laughter from the live audience fills the studio. Kovacs was a master at creating oddball and satiric characters, and Percy Dovetonsils was perhaps his most memorable. As David Walley notes, "Born with a cigar in his mouth and possibly a deck of cards in his hands, Kovacs' sardonic wit regularly lanced the banal" (Nothing in Moderation 10).

A Carnival of Creativity

Television is called a medium because it is seldom rare or well done.

Ernie Kovacs

There was never anyone exactly like Ernie Kovacs in television comedy before he came on the scene in 1950 and certainly not after he left about a decade later. Like other early TV comics such as Sid Caesar, Kovacs had both the privileges and the headaches of joining this new American entertainment medium as it was just beginning to become "national" and extremely popular. There were no set industry rules, thus a free spirit such as Kovacs was fortunate to find sponsors who allowed his "carnival" of creativity and humor to flourish.

Most shows didn't last long in the early days of television. But Ernie Kovacs left a memorable legacy that includes not just one show but also, as we will discuss in more detail in this study:

  • A series of shows on local Philadelphia TV (1950-1952)
  • Then in New York:
    • Kovacs Unlimited (CBS affiliate), 1952-1954
    • The Ernie Kovacs Show (CBS prime time), 1952-1953
    • The Ernie Kovacs Show (DuMont affiliate), late night, 1954-1955
    • The Ernie Kovacs Show (NBC), daytime variety, 1955-1956
    • Tonight (NBC), late night comedy/variety, 1956-1957
    • A number of quiz shows, such as Take A Guess; One Minute, Please; Time Will Tell; and What's My Line?
    • Finally, in Los Angeles: infrequent appearances and "specials," such as several monthly Ernie Kovacs Shows for ABC shot in 1961 and 1962, the year he died.

Half a master of improv and half dependent on his own tireless writing and preparation as well as on the work of a dedicated group of writers and studio assistants, Kovacs made millions laugh on radio as well as on television with his own brand of zany, irreverent, and surprising humor.

The Comic and the Comedian: Remembering Ernie

Kovacs was an indelible part of my own childhood. When I was growing up in the 1950s, no one made me laugh louder and more frequently than Ernie Kovacs. The sheer nutty brilliance of the man, his wife Edie Adams, and his comic co-conspirators—including writers Rex Lardner, Deke Heyward, and Mike Marmer and actors Barbara Loden, Peter Hanley, and Trigger Lund—has come back to make me laugh again and again through the years, often at unexpected moments.

Let's be more specific. As a child allowed to watch several hours of television a day, I became hooked not so much on I Love Lucy or even Disney's Mickey Mouse Club, but on Ernie Kovacs' various shows from this period. I was too young to analyze what it was that I enjoyed so much about his humor, but in retrospect, I realize that Kovacs was much further "out there" as a comedian than anyone else, including my other favorites, Sid Caesar and Steve Allen. I constantly entertained family and friends by acting out the Nairobi Trio, those three apes who always mischievously pulled stunts on each other, particularly angering the middle ape, as the same tune, "Solfeggio," played every time. I would hum the song and pretend to play the xylophone, turning like some kind of a robot and zapping the "ape" (be "she" my sister, mother, grandmother, or "he" my father, grandfather, or a friend) over the head with my imaginary hammers (often substituting other objects).

It is not surprising then that other film and television scholars of my age share similar childhood memories. David Bordwell speaks of how impressed he was as a child by a sequence featuring Eugene, the "silent" character who was seated at a table that:

appeared to be horizontal, but revealed itself to be treacherous. For whenever Mr. Kovacs [Eugene] set something on top of it, it rolled or slid out of control [thanks to a canted camera and tipped set]. This is the sort of thing no fifteen-year-old ever forgets: practical magic!

John Belton also shared much childhood laughter over Ernie's carnivalesque appearances and comments that:

I haven't seen Kovacs since I was a kid. I have a vague sense that he and Jonathan Winters took comedy off into avant-garde directions while still getting mainstream laughs. And the variety format certainly worked for him.

Milton Berle put it this way: "A comic says funny things but a comedian says things funny." As we will explore in the following chapters, Kovacs was a comic at times, but much more than that, he was a born comedian because it was the way he made you laugh that counted. The laughter could be because of his strange costumes—take Percy Dovetonsils or the Nairobi apes, for example—or his mixing of visual humor with verbal wit. But it could also simply be his habit of looking at you (that is, the camera) as if he were talking to you directly as he smoked his ever-present cigar.

More to the point, a comic tells jokes, but a comedian is a character, that is, he or she is someone we feel has a "center" from which all this humor and laughter emerges. And it is now clearer than ever that Kovacs was one of the most original comedians in American television history, a character who was, as all who knew him agree, basically the same on camera as off (Walley, Nothing in Moderation 22).

As we begin this study of one of America's rare comic talents, I must acknowledge the difficulty of finding any complete set of his work available on DVD or video, except for the items mentioned in the Works Cited section. Alas, much of his early production was recorded on kinescopes and was subsequently lost. I have tried to draw many examples from available sources that readers can find to purchase, but by necessity, especially for the early Philadelphia shows and some of the New York shows as well, I have drawn upon my research and viewings of the tapes that can only be seen at the Paley Center for Media in New York (formally the Museum of Television & Radio in New York and Beverly Hills, www.paleycenter.org) or the UCLA Film and Television Archive (www.cinema.ucla.edu). There is a hope that new material will be released on DVD and video before too long. But we will never have the "complete sets" and seasons we find in media shops or on the Internet of television shows from Seinfeld and Friends to I Love Lucy and M*A*S*H.

Finally, I wish to note that I spend almost no time in these pages on Ernie's biography since that is not the subject of my study. The Works Cited section does cover books that do justice to a summary of the complexity of Kovacs' life, especially Diana Rico's thoroughly researched book, Kovacsland. I do, however, acknowledge the importance of understanding that he was born of Hungarian parents, Andrew John Kovacs, a businessman, and Mary Chebonick, in Trenton, New Jersey. Without going into a history of Hungarian humor, I will note that Ernie's love of the ethnic characters he created throughout his life was clearly in part a reflection of his richly ethnic background.

No one since Ernie's time has been exactly like this comic force of creativity, but I mention several comedians in the pages that follow who have certainly prospered from inheriting Kovacs' carnivalesque spirit. Terry Gilliam, the American member of Monty Python, is one such heir. As fellow Python member Michael Palin describes Gilliam's work:

It's the most wild and exciting part of Python, I think, the Gilliam edge. If Python was made up of six Gilliams, there would be this total explosion of creativity and bits of Python splattered all over the walls (Ashbrook 9).

How easily "Kovacs" could be substituted here should be easy to imagine!

"Nothing in moderation" is on Ernie's tombstone, and these three words well summarize his approach to comedy, television, and life. It is also worth noting some of the hundreds who showed up for his funeral. The bevy of friends and admirers included Billy Wilder, Groucho Marx, George Burns, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny, Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Jayne Mansfield, Buster Keaton, William Wyler, James Stewart, Danny Thomas, Donna Reed, Milton Berle, Kirk Douglas, and Sam Goldwyn (Rico 301). Such a list goes beyond an appreciation of humor and touches on what Kovacs meant to them as a friend, mentor, and human being.

As Diana Rico notes, "Ernie made those around him feel special" (284).

Andrew Horton is the Jeanne H. Smith Professor of Film and Video Studies at the University of Oklahoma, an award-winning screenwriter, and the author of twenty books on film, screenwriting, and cultural studies.

"As Andy Horton amply demonstrates, Ernie Kovacs not only played a significant role in the development of TV comedy, but he has also had a lasting impact on several generations of comedians to follow. Horton's study of Kovacs illuminates the development of TV comedy and shows how Kovacs evolved as a performer throughout not only his TV career, but also through his work in movies. This is an important subject and Horton is well qualified to tackle it. He understands comedy (its history and development) and has a sympathetic understanding of his subject. His work is thoughtful and persuasive."

—Stuart Y. McDougal, DeWitt Wallace Professor of English, Macalester College

"To my knowledge, this is the first serious (non-biographical) study of the comic vision of one of America's funniest television comedians. It fills a crucial gap in scholarship on Kovacs and television comedy in the 1950s. The book is very readable and will also be of interest to the general public. . . . Horton writes in an engaging and lucid way. This is a very entertaining book."

—John Belton, Professor of English and Film, Rutgers University

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