“Ernie’s contract is reported to contain a clause forbidding him ever to consult a psychiatrist. The network is afraid if he ever became normal he’d be ruined.” — Dorothy Kilgallen
The Ernie Kovacs Collection (Shout! Factory, April 2011) contains the best TV comedy I never saw.
That could be true for anyone old enough to have seen these original broadcasts of 1951-1962 yet who lived where free-to-air television came late — Australia, for example, from the mid-1950s, or Hong Kong c. 1967. Our contemporaries in America were blessed — including this 11-year-old boy:
The Ernie Kovacs Show knocked me sideways into a world where the bizarre and the daft and the preposterous all lived happily alongside wisdom, wit and perception. I had never experienced anything so visually absurd and inventive. It was sublime. It hurt. I was 11 years old—was this some form of child abuse? If it was, it was one of the most momentous things that ever happened to me. Ernie Kovacs scarred me for life. I’ve never recovered.” — Terry Gilliam (2011)1
To foreigners, it really did seem the two greatest comedians on American TV — Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962) and Sid Caesar — were secrets hackable only through the widely distributed Mad magazine, which published and illustrated some of their work.
This writer so discovered Sid Caesar in 1959 but was ignorant of Mad‘s Ernie Kovacs articles in 1955-1958.2 So Ernie first appeared on the radar in 1960 as an actor stealing scenes, or trying to, from my favourite star, Alec Guinness, in Columbia’s Cinemascope comedy Our Man in Havana (UK, 1959) directed by Carol Reed. And like the Salt Lake Tribune said, the closest friendship to emerge from Havana “was that of Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs, who had never met each other prior to starting work in the new movie.”3
Thereby opened an intriguing possibility for American film comedy, sadly one never to bear fruit.
Was Ernie Kovacs so utterly unlike anyone else in 1950s radio or television? Yes . . . and no. The Kovacs influence clearly touched Monty Python’s Flying Circus (below) through the wonderful graphics of Terry Gilliam. But another Monty parent, just as important, was Irish-British comic Spike Milligan, the principal creator of BBC radio’s The Goon Show (c. 1951-1960), in which he co-starred with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. Even L’Express, the later French equivalent of Time, described Spike in 1958 as “the greatest comic of English-language television.”4 I cannot say if Ernie ever “exported” to Europe but can say, as a school kid at that time in Australia, that a week without Spike and his Goons was almost unbearable! Many Americans must have felt that way about Ernie.
Even the simple line drawings of Ernie’s posthumously published How to Talk at Gin (New York: Doubleday, 1962), as “illustrated by the author in a moment of grandeur,” evoke something of Spike’s own work, like his line illustrations for an early literary effort, A Dustbin of Milligan (1961) or even titles like Spike’s The Little Pot Boiler — A Book Based Freely on His Seasonal Overdraft (1963).
Prescient words from “Voice of Broadway” columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, way back in 1951, seem to describe Spike but were of course for Ernie, then on the air at NBC-TV’s Philadelphia affiliate WPTZ: “Viewers seem to loathe him on first sight, or immediately think he is the funniest man alive. He does whatever comes to mind — and all kinds of things come to his mind . . . Ernie’s contract is reported to contain a clause forbidding him ever to consult a psychiatrist. The network is afraid if he ever became normal he’d be ruined.”5
Posthumous outings of his small-screen work would appear on U.S. television as early as 1968, notably ABC network’s The Comedy of Ernie Kovacs on April 9 that year. The hour-long special triggered an appraisal of Ernie’s impact by Variety critic “Frie.” Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, Frie observed, then hailed as “the only programming innovation of the season” was clearly indebted since “much of the material . . . was done by Kovacs years before.”6 Doubtless Dan Rowan and Dick Martin would agree since the debt had a family connection. In 1959-1960, Martin’s wife, singer Peggy Connelly, played comic foil to Ernie on ABC-TV’s comedy/panel production, Take a Good Look.
In 1977, John Lollos of Video Tape Network assembled top Kovacs segments into ten half-hour programs for weekly airing on PBS from April. As Variety‘s “Bill” (March 23) noted, Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live were clear Kovacs beneficiaries, but also, “some might suspect, that other PTV hit, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.'” The ten shows would be marketed in five videotape cassettes during the 1990s.7 There are other retro examples.
Apart from comedy, The Ernie Kovacs Collection’s musical and dance sequences — for example, pianists Ferrante & Teicher’s excellent and very amusing take on “Oh Susannah” (The NBC Morning Show, disc #6) or Edie Adams’ singing any time — hint at the musical treasures sadly unavailable to this package due to prohibitive permissions costs. But what the Collection retains, music included and dated comedy material aside (mercifully little), should please comedy and music fans, eggheads and movie buffs alike.
However, disc #6’s inclusion of the trained-seal sketch “Leonard and Lola” from The NBC Morning Show (1956), is a mistake. Trainer Lola (Edie) and baggy seal-suited Leonard (Ernie) replicate an ingenious, far superior earlier model done entirely in pantomime and human dress by Imogene Coca (trainer) and Sid Caesar (seal) in the Max Liebman-produced Your Show of Shows. Perhaps there are few comic options for writing a seal skit but, as the Caesar/Coca version is around on DVD, this one should have been cut.
That gripe is a lone exception to an overall rule: the Collection is essential to anyone interested in the therapy of laughter.
On 23 February 1957, a segment in The Perry Como Show (NBC) had the ever-relaxed Perry looking peeved because his guests, Ernie Kovacs and singer Tony Bennett, were late! Suddenly, two pairs of legs in pressed slacks advanced towards the host.
Said Kovacs offscreen: “Tony and I couldn’t get dressed in time, so we just sent out our legs.”
In all, 1957 was a peak year for Ernie. He was the cover story for Life magazine’s April 15 issue (pp. 167-179) that “exposed” his two-camera gags like the legs business above (Ernie’s line is directly cited from that issue). It was Life‘s second timely look at screen comedy — here, just over a decade in for the new medium, broadcast TV, the most voracious consumer of comedy material ever known. The unsigned article essentially recognized Ernie’s arrival as a great American comic or — at least — comic TV’s best hope in a time of trial, like now! The article closes with a segment entitled “Comedy Crisis Worries Comics” through interviews with big-timers like Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, and Sid Caesar. With Ernie too, though, unlike the others, he had rarely survived long enough on any one network or slot to personally build the vast number of comedy fans that Life said were fleeing television’s stale recipes for laughs.
Those who love cinema probably love Life.8 Eight years earlier, the magazine had run James Agee’s splendid essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” concerning cinema — “anyone who has watched screen comedy over the past 10 or 15 years is bound to realize that it has quietly but steadily deteriorated”9 — but his words reverberated in that 1957 essay. Agee’s rich portraits of the early masters, principally Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton, had reminded us of what they and lesser craftsmen had given the movies and of what we had lost. For the later TV essay, considering the medium’s appetite, Gleason said: “Even Chaplin wouldn’t last long on TV and he was the best.”
Life‘s “comedy crisis” differentiated TV and cinema in a way easy to grasp — via their audiences: the accidental, non-communal one of TV, a random composite of countless home units each with different domestic distractions, versus the determined-to-be-entertained mass audiences in theatres who, through investments of physical discomfort and money, were “predisposed to laugh in a way” they never would at home.
As Jack Lemmon, one of Ernie’s later close friends, put it to AP writer Jay Sharbutt: “People think of [Buster] Keaton as a comic. But they don’t realize he also was one of the great, innovative film makers. Well, Ernie was that way in the early days of television.”10
Indeed, many of his gags reprise old cinema tricks, notably matte shots whose multiple exposures on the same film strip had simultaneously and so early (1890s) multiplied the moving image onscreen of French cine-pioneer Georges Méliès. The difference was: TV did it live. A carefully designed set could instantly have Ernie upside down, feet planted on the “ceiling” while vacuum-cleaning it. Elementary. But who else was doing it so successfully on TV?
When 1957 dawned, Jerry Lewis, a solo star since his recent “divorce” from comedy partner Dean Martin, had begun his ascent toward becoming, for a while, Hollywood’s only star, director, producer, and co-writer in one, arguably its first since Chaplin. Jerry had accepted NBC’s proposition — a 90-minute slot for his own-produced “comedy special” with final say over material and supporting artists. Belatedly, he opted for only one hour, leaving a half-hour hole in NBC scheduling. Other comics rebuffed the network’s invitations to complete the “90 minutes” — too little preparation time, the certainty of running a bad second to Jerry, and so on — but Ernie, with a recent good run of hosting Steve Allen’s Tonight Show,11 put up his hand. The network assented, nervously awaiting his rapidly produced, unheard-of “silent” show. Not exactly silent, for he would talk briefly at the beginning, then a beautiful woman would commence an announcement before getting a pie flung in her face, a singer would voice a tune without lyrics, and there’d be music by the Nairobi Trio, Ernie’s musical running gag, the legendary threesome in ape suits and evening wear. Above all were the sight and sound gags of his set piece for the evening: “Eugene” — a talk-free adventure of the likeable social misfit he had created while co-hosting Tonight.
Innovations everywhere! Opening the show and throughout it was a dizzying display of specially created, squash-and-stretch, animated figures and titles — twisting and spinning in all directions to music — superimposed live onscreen by John Hoppe and his Mobilux company. Just how they were done and so superimposed — no stop-frame animation this — Mr. Hoppe wasn’t telling as he had a personal industry to protect. It would be just one talking point later, second only to Ernie’s “silent” comedy-adventure of Eugene lasting about 12 minutes (not half an hour as some said). Its story was simple: Eugene stumbles into a gentleman’s club where Silence is golden; havoc follows.
Someone should hand-count its gags like the library books that, when opened, signal their contents — tubercular coughing from the book Camille; a live dove emerging from the last page of War and Peace. His most surprising gag depended on skewing the studio set to a 15 degree “lean” before tilting the camera, making it all look horizontal so that, to the viewer, liquid pouring from a flask inexplicably fell at a straight 15 degree angle to the left while food similarly defied gravity by rolling “horizontally” and helplessly off the table. On balance, from the reviews, he stole the day from Jerry. That “silent” show graces disc 4 of the Collection.
The opening credits for Kovacs Unlimited (WCBS-TV) of May 28, 1952 go:
A Television Show?
EDDIE HATRACK Will Play
EDITH ADAMS will sing
ERNIE KOVACS will . . . UH . . .
UH . . .
Kovacs Unlimited Is The Shortest 45 Minutes In Television.
It just seems long.
There are broad time gaps in this entire collection — courtesy of willful destruction (see “Edie, etc.” below) — but, laughs aside, it chronicles the life of an unusual comic plying his personal world view that, as they say, “puzzled then delighted” millions of viewers throughout 1950-1962. It sank or swam essentially through the decisions of its star — the consistency, like it or not, of one Ernie Kovacs.
Yet for a “zany,” “nihilistic” “surrealist” “way out” funnyman, he comes across as a man with the common touch, occasionally manic if the script or idea so required, but generally gentle, reflective, deliberately paced, never (as screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière would observe in another context) “confusing comedy with speed.” His personal warmth makes repeat viewings easy and even improves his best material the second, third, or fourth time around.
The hero of the Collection itself is Edie Adams (1927- 2008), Ernie’s widow as well as his most regular performing partner and a major singing, acting, comedy talent independently. Her 1950s Broadway career — famously in musical shows Wonderful Town (1953) with Rosalind Russell and as Daisy Mae in Lil Abner(1955) — intersected her appearances on Ernie’s random series and specials across all the networks — NBC, CBS, the short-lived DuMont, and ABC. As her son Joshua Mills, the Collection’s executive producer, observes in its accompanying booklet, she was right there when much of the material cooked in Ernie’s brain. As wife and confidant, she thus became a de facto first editor. But historians have greater reasons to thank her.
On March 6, 1996, Edie testified before the Library of Congress on the subject of “Saving TV’s Golden Years,” reserving harsh words for video pirates and iconoclasts. Three months after Ernie’s death (January 1962), his former co-workers at ABC warned her the network was using his preserved shows as “used tape” for over-recording news, weather reports, and public announcements.
She quickly bought whatever of his material the network still had, yet “somehow about 30 of the 60 Take a Good Look (panel) shows got lost in the shuffle.” [Recently] the “collector who lifted them now wants to charge me an extraordinary amount to repossess my own shows!” Of his earlier work with CBS, “I knew even then [1952-1953] what Ernie was doing was special . . . Maybe it was my Julliard training with its endless discussions of “what is art?” I just know I had never seen anyone [on TV or live] who did the things Ernie did.”
While acquiring other old network material, she gradually learned the fate of their mid-1950s shows performed for soon-to-be-defunct network DuMont and preserved in its library. “In the early 70s,” DuMont assets were sold to a purchaser with responsibility for preserved old shows in its library and “expense of storing them in a temperature controlled facility” to be settled by one of the deal’s negotiating lawyers. He offered to “take care of it” in a “fair manner.”
“At 2am the next morning,” she added, he took care of it by filling three huge trucks “with all the stored kinescopes and 2″ video tape” (including Ernie’s and others’ DuMont shows), loaded all onto a waiting barge, which headed into open water, “made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped them in Upper New York Bay!”
The volume of what she has conserved at personal cost from 1950s TV is measurable in hours, but its value is incalculable. Like someone said, these are “cave paintings” of early broadcast television.
Edie Adams’ full testimony appears online at: http://www.loc.gov/film/pdfs/tvadams.pdf.
Ernie’s first and only novel, Zoomar,12 is said by Edie to have been written in 13 days, though he had claimed to NEA correspondent Erskine Johnson to have put on “eight pounds sitting down for 13 weeks” writing it.13
No matter. He apparently considered it a movie property, and why not? It begins as many good movies do: a great death scene — this of an ant in a bathroom on page 1 crawling over a foam-padded brassiere, up and over a tissue box, carefully negotiating nail scissors, and ambling across a mirror when — wham! Like a Terry Gilliam-drawn foot for Monty Python — down crashes a pot of Special Night Cream . . . . A fine death scene, confirmed by the page’s last sentence: “How many country ants were laid to rest by Elizabeth Arden?”
The book is dedicated thus:
To Edie, my dear wife.
It is difficult to say, in this dedication of a book, which, to be so dedicated, should be a collection of fine poems or at least prose of deep tenderness, how much I thank you for your love and the great kindness and happiness you have given me. This is hardly a private place to say very much. So for here, at least, on your reading this as you open the first volume, know that without you, there would have been no book, ever.
Her reverse tribute, a year later, was published in The American Weekly as a two-page essay, “What a Husband,” “told” by her to John M. Ross, revealing interesting traces of Kovacian humour. She describes a painful outcome of Ernie’s early career as a young actor in summer stock when performing in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1939. With near-sleepless days combining the grind of daily rehearsals and nightly shows capped by late night/early morning poker sessions, “of course, the pace caught up with him. He became seriously ill with pleurisy” and for the next eighteen months “was shuttled from hospital to hospital as a charity patient.” One positive result was his education in music: “He read two or three books a day and listened to recorded operas and classical music by the hour. (I spent five years at the Julliard School of Music but his musical knowledge tops mine).” She talks of best-selling Zoomar that would soon “be made into a movie.”
They married (Edie reveals) on September 12, 1954, after eloping to Mexico City. “Our ceremony was in Spanish, which neither of us understood. For all I knew, the judge could have been sentencing us to the gallows.”
The whole appears in San Antonio Light of 20 July 1958, pages 10 and 12 — highly recommended “further reading.”
In scanning “Ernie Journey” below, that select list of show reviews, bear in mind that from July 1953 until mid/early1955, Ernie’s estranged wife Bette (originally surnamed Wilcox [perhaps from her earlier marriage] or Shotwell — this is unclear) had abducted their two daughters, though he was their legal guardian. While working as a funnyman in that period, Ernie was frantically hiring private detectives to trace the girls — eventually succeeding in 1955 in Florida, home state of Bette’s parents, the Shotwells. Details of his divorce from Bette are also unclear. Presumably he divorced her in absentia in order to marry Edie in Mexico on September 12, 1954, though Bette would continue to style herself “Mrs Kovacs” until at least 1962, when she would try again, though fail (September 1962), in the Los Angeles Superior Court to regain custody of the daughters who clearly wanted to live with Edie.
The 1953 “kidnap” story goes missing almost entirely in contemporary newspapers. But three items published well after the respective beginning and end events give us a rough time frame for this drama. The July 1953 “kidnap” broke only in November as revealed, for example, in Walter Winchell’s “In New York” column: “Edie Adams (the Eileen of ‘Wonderful Town’) is the innocent bystander in the Ernie Kovacs story which broke Thursday in Newark, where police chased a car — in which his children were ‘kidnaped by the Mrs.'” (Charleston Daily Mail, Sunday, November 1, 1953, page 35). Also on November 5, 1953, Virginia’s Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg) ran an “international” picture of Ernie from “last July” in New York reading to daughters Kip, 4, and Betty, 6, shortly before allowing his estranged wife “to take the girls on a vacation.” Still unable to locate them (the caption continues), Ernie had charged “his wife and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Shotwell” with abducting them. The girls were clearly back by June 24, 1955, when California’s Long Beach Independent (24 June 1955, page 28) could announce that evening’s airing of “Person to Person” featuring Ed Murrow’s interview with Ernie and Edie: “We’ll visit them in their New York apartment and meet their two children.”
That drama would be central to the two-hour telefilm Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter (Monday Night Movie) aired at 9 pm on May 14, 1984, by ABC-TV. It was written by April Smith and directed by Lamont Johnson, starring Jeff Goldblum (to good notices) as Ernie, Cloris Leachman as the first Mrs. Kovacs (Bette), Melody Anderson as Edie Adams, and a cameo from Edie herself as Mae West. In generally praising the result, Variety‘s “Tone” said it in a nutshell: “[Film] really sizes up the enormous emotional reservoir of one of TV’s true giants. Telefilm gives a new meaning to ‘The Show Must Go On!'”
Hollywood’s outpouring of sorrow over the loss of Kovacs, killed in a car crash Jan. 13, attested to the imprint he had made during his brief stay here . . . He was an original. He followed no one, and no one will follow him.
So wrote movie-TV writer Bob Thomas for his AP report flashed across the U.S. to, among others, the Great Bend Daily Tribune of January 28, 1962.
The happiest final memories of Ernie were surely the party farewells outside the Los Angeles home of filmmaker Billy Wilder in the early hours of January 13. Ernie, in great form, had spontaneously amused the twenty or so guests at the Wilders’ “baby shower” for comedian Milton Berle and wife Ruth, proud adopters of a three-week-old baby boy. Others present were actors Kirk Douglas, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, and Yves Montand. Ernie and Edie, one of Hollywood’s most loved couples, had arrived in separate family cars, he in the Corvair station wagon, she in the Rolls Royce. He had just finished a busy day shooting a TV pilot starring himself and his idol, Buster Keaton. For the return home, he and Edie swapped vehicles. Eager to resume preparing his new TV special, Ernie chattily farewelled friends, cigar as ever in hand, and, knowing Yves Montand was staying at an L.A. hotel, offered him a lift there. The French actor-singer declined, which probably saved his life.
Within minutes of the above, along rain-soaked Santa Monica Boulevard close to the Beverly Hills Hotel, Ernie’s Corvair skidded at high speed over the sidewalk, sideswiping a rigid power pole; the impact killed him, probably instantly. Police soon appeared to pry the Corvair from its death hug of the pole. Among the revealed visible remains on the pavement — apart from blood streaks and broken glass — was an unsmoked cigar.
Ernie Kovacs was interred on January 15 at Forest Lawn’s Hollywood Hills Cemetery following the funeral service at the Beverly Hills Community Presbyterian Church, some six blocks from the fatal scene. Pallbearers included Joe Mikalos, Lemmon, Sinatra, Dean Martin, and directors Billy Wilder and Mervyn LeRoy. A Who’s Who of mourners surrounded them: producer Sam Goldwyn; directors Vincente Minelli and William Wyler; actors Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, Kim Novak, Greer Garson, Janet Leigh, Polly Bergen, Buster Keaton, Herbert Marshall, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, George Burns, Donna Reed, Kirk Douglas, Jayne Mansfield, Herbert Marshall, and Jo Ann Morrow, among others. Per Kovacs’ request there was no eulogy, but “Jingo” of next day’s Appleton Post-Crescent said Ernie was”cut from the same cloth as the great comedians of the silent films, the Masters who made America the center of the world of laughter.” James Bacon — the same man who gave cub reporter Ernie Kovacs his own column in Bacon’s The Trentonian in latter 1940s’ Trenton? — likened the turnout to “those of the funerals of Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.” He cited the minister who had cited Ernie so: “I was born in Trenton, N. J. in 1919 to a Hungarian couple. I’ve been smoking cigars ever since.”
Soon after the sadness, a new Ernie Kovacs book appeared — How to Talk at Gin (Doubleday, NY, 1962) — its jacket adorned with admiring comments, with no hint of the recent tragedy. There was Kim Novak (“as wild and wonderfully crazy as he is”), Jack Benny (“I’ve just given it to my writers and told them to read it”), Alec Guinness (“I’ve seen him at it and regret to say — it’s all true”), Groucho Marx (“Kovacs in book form is like Kovacs in any form — unpredictable and funny”), George Burns (“no cigar smoker can be this funny”), and Richard Conte (“adds fun to the sometimes grim game”).
What do all the name-dropping and proofs of postmortem good feeling for Ernie, for his widow Edie, and for their three daughters signify for him as cinema’s lost opportunity? The shocked personal reactions and news headlines about him across America over the next few days measure, if anything at all, his personal standing nationwide, throughout the Hollywood community, and among his co-workers in television who reportedly displayed their affection in a paid-for letter published in a contemporary trade journal. Such a network would surely have grounded his movie career-in-waiting as a comic author, having already been that for so long on television. He contemplated at least two movie “properties,” one based on “Eugene” as a vehicle for friend Alec Guinness as well as his own novel Zoomar (see illustration), a TV industry satire based on his dense knowledge and experience of the business.
He and Alec had hit it off in Cuba. Otherwise disappointed by Our Man in Havana, Guinness later recalled in his memoirs: “There were two great and unexpected pleasures in making that film.” The second was spending an evening with Ernest Hemingway. The first? “Getting to know Ernie Kovacs . . . Kovacs was as different as could be; outrageously extrovert, wild, rash, gipsy-like and, in a Goonish way, just about the funniest man I have ever met.”14
One of the “extras” from the Collection shows home movie footage of Ernie in early 1959 at a swimming pool in Havana with Havana co-star Jo Morrow and an unidentified other woman. One shot has him experimenting with “smoking” underwater by releasing milk from his mouth — sure enough, perfect “smoke” visually, a gag he later used on TV. It was just as technically ingenious as one of his more expensive gags (reportedly costing $12,000) featuring a car salesman (Ernie) caressing a vehicle that instantly crashes through the floor. The animated logo introducing each disc in the Collection co-opts that famous gag.
Given another decade or more, could Ernie have produced film gems equivalent to Preston Sturges’ best comedies, or have challenged Jerry Lewis as American cinema’s primary comedy “auteur” in the early to mid-1960s by whatever term then used for such an all-in-one film clown?
Undoubtedly. Fractionally less than a month after his death, on February 10, 1962, the Directors Guild of America’s annual awards dinner granted him the recognition that eluded him in life — as the “best television director of 1961” for a TV special that had reprised elements of his “silent” show of 1957. It was surely a springboard for his directorial career in cinema, had he lived.
But that prospect — his being compared with so few contemporary international star/filmmaker/co-writers like Jacques Tati, Jerry, Pierre Etaix, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks in the 1960s then, too briefly, Elaine May next decade — died in a banal car crash in Beverly Hills just before 2 a.m. on Saturday, January 13, 1962.
More biographical details about Ernie are easily pursued online, whether they concern his journalism and radio stints in the late 1940s, his financial problems. the densely packed entry on him in Wikipedia, or, better, ways to explore his activities in contemporary newspapers through subscription-based or free archival links.
But a simple overview of his work through selected citations from contemporary reviews provides a useful perspective of his breaking down critical and viewer resistance over the years. Some critics liked him and stuck with him from day one. The following chronology of only part of his cluttered career — ping-ponged between networks from early morning to late night — demonstrates his workaholism through some incredible daily combinations of near-unscripted morning radio shows of up to three hours per session, with the more carefully scripted morning to afternoon TV shows down to heavy-time writing-performing for prime-time evening TV. His energy was legendary, admitting to a regime of less than two hours’ sleep every morning.
The Variety citations are drawn from Garland Publishing’s priceless resource, VARIETY Television Reviews 1923-1988 (New York/London, 1989) — many notices appearing just days after the premier episode. Others come from the variety of journals accessed through subscription to Newspaperarchive.com, a great assist to showbiz and social historians especially of the United States.
The list discards his many other TV appearances as actor or talk-show participant. ABC’s panel show Take a Good Look is a fine example of Kovacs lunacy grafted onto familiar formulae. As Peggy Connelly told UPI’s Hollywood correspondent Vernon Scott, the show was “fixed” (for laughs), being more a comedy than panel show: “The idea is to make the panel look as stupid as possible, which Ernie is very good at doing”15 Such good sports show up in the Collection‘s disc 4 example originally aired on ABC-TV, July 21, 1960. They include panelists Edie Adams with actors Jack Carson and Cesar Romero — and Peggy Connelly in other roles.
(Review dates are in brackets.)
NBC or NBC-Affiliate Programs
Pick Your Ideal
1950 (Sept. 27) — Thursdays, 1.15pm, 15 min, WPTZ, Philadelphia: Variety‘s “Gagh” reports Ernie emceeing this weekly “combination fashion and audience participator” for TV.
Three to Get Ready (began late 1950)
1951 (Jan. 11) — Mon-Fri, 7.30am, 90 min., WPTZ, Philadelphia: Al Morton, for Philadelphia’s Chester Times (p. 36), was one of the earliest to “get” Ernie’s drift. He pointed out the huge chasm between, on the one hand, prolonged success on radio where a cheerful voice tone between records and announcements will do (Ernie’s erstwhile career from 1949 Trenton), and on the other hand being “on” on TV where you must look cheerful forever. As Morton wrote in disbelief: “Yet, a disc jockey has been placed before a camera for 90 minutes each morning and, moreover, is getting away with an amazingly creditable performance. The hardy soul in question is Ernie Kovacs who presides over WPTZ’s “3 to Get Ready” weekday show every morning at 7.30 . . . he has accomplished the impossible in a very short period on the air.”
Morton’s “TV Roundup” continued to monitor Ernie’s work and encourage readers to do likewise. The show demonstrated to formerly dubious networks that there were indeed audiences for early morning TV.
1951 (Feb. 7) — Variety’s “Gagh” praises show’s voluminous mail-in (3,500 reactions in two weeks), noting that Ernie also hosts the same channel’s popular cooking/comedy program “Deadline for Dinner” and: “In spite of overall zany quality, Kovacs can turn on the steam for a serious project, such as getting his early morning viewers to write a sick child.”
1951 (Dec. 5) — Mon-Fri, 7.00am, 120 min., WPTZ, Philadelphia: with Edythe Adams, Tony De Simone. “One year old last week” per Variety‘s “Gagh” who notices Ernie’s considerable improvement without loss of show’s “Hellzapoppin” appeal. “Energetic Kovacs does almost anything that comes to mind. He draws, writes sketches, sings, clowns, plays at the piano [and] gets across studio feeling, never hesitating to bring in associate producer Andy McKay [and others].”
Time for Ernie (14 May to 29 June, 1951)
1951 (May 16) — Mon-Fri, 3.15pm, 15 min., NBC-TV, Philadelphia: Variety‘s “Stal” calls this a “buildup” for Ernie, the “Philadelphia disk jockey who does a three hour early morning show cross-the-board for WPTZ” — though “maybe he was just pushing too hard on the opener” — toward his evening slot as summer replacement for popular puppet program Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Ernie Kovacs Show aka Ernie in Kovacsland (from 2 July to 25 August 1951 as summer replacement for Kukla, Fran and Ollie)
1951 (Jul 25) — Mon-Fri, 7.00pm, 30 min., NBC-TV, Phladelphia: With Edith Adams. Per Variety‘s “Gilb,” Ernie’s “harum-scarum informality” is “over the head of moppets,” the usual timeslot audience. Show had a “chopped-up, disjointed effect” though Miss Adams, a winsome blonde, displayed a voice that equaled her pulchritude.”
1951 (Aug 23) — per Chester Times‘ Al Morton: “We went out on a limb for Ernie when he was ‘wet behind the ears’ . . . we still feel that television needs more of his diversified type of humour.”
Kovacs on the Corner (from 7 January to 28 March 1952)
1952 (Jan. 9) — Fridays, 11am, 30 min., NBC-TV, Philadelphia: With Edythe Adams, Dave Appell Trio, and Pete Boyle. From Variety‘s “Gagh”: “Kovacs continues his unpredictable and zany character right from the kickoff [ . . . ] Opener (7) was the first studio audience for Kovacs” (critic perhaps warming to latter’s “faculty of making everything seem ad-lib”).
Kovacs Unlimited (began 21 April 1952)
1952 (Apr. 23) — Mon-Fri, 12.45pm, 45 min., WCBS-TV, New York: With Edith Adams, Andy McKay, Trig Lund, Eddie Hatrack. Variety‘s “Gros” calls it an “amiable format” and Ernie a “master of the lull . . . he’s got a zany creativeness that makes him a distinctive TV entity . . . production assists are top drawer” while approving show’s “frivolous visual effects.”
1952 (June 16) — The Record-Argus, Greenville, PA: “Tops in Town: . . . Pretty Edith Adams’ caroling on Ernie Kovacs zany TV shot.”
1953 (July 8) — Mon-Fri, 8am, 60 min., WCBS-TV, New York: At worst, per Variety‘s “Horn”: “Informal to the point of sloppiness [though] perhaps the weirdest, wackiest and wildest show on tele,” featuring EK’s familiar uninhibited camerawork and sound effects with viewers “either loving or hating the calculated madness.”
Ernie Kovacs Show
1954 (Apr. 14) — Mon-Fri, 11.15pm, 60 min., WABD, New York: with Edith Adams, Eddie Hatrak [sic] trio, Peter Hanley, Sam Levenson, Morey Amsterdam, Jacqueline Susann, Vincent Sardi Jr. Says Variety‘s “Rose”: “This one’s real gone . . . probably the wackiest entry (on or off TV) since Olsen & Johnson initially installed their ‘Hellzapoppin’ at the Winter Garden. [It] should settle down to perhaps the most frantic hour on the video circuits.” Praise for Edie’s vocals and poet Percy Dovetonsil’s (Ernie) “Ode to Spring.”
Tonight (2 weeks’ substitution for Steve Allen ending Sept. 9, 1955)
1955 (Sept. 7) — Mon-Fri., late (90 minutes), NBC-TV, New York: Fulsome praise from Variety‘s “Chan.” Though as different comedy-wise “as any two could be, [Ernie and Steve Allen] have one thing in common — their literateness.” Show includes Ernie’s Percy Dovetonsils’ poem, the “now-minor classic” of “Thoughts While Falling Off the Empire State Building.” The whole 105 minutes “shows no signs of flagging.”
Ernie Kovacs Show (12 December 1955 to 27 July 1956)
1955 (Dec. 14) — Mon.-Fri., 10.30am, 30 minutes, NBC-TV, New York: With Edie Adams, Matt Dennis, Archie Koty orchestra, Bill Wendell . . . “NBC has returned Ernie Kovacs to network telecasting after a four-year absence from its airlanes,” while urging that the ensemble find its place in late-night TV, “later the better” — from Variety‘s “Trau.”
Ernie Kovacs Show (2 July to 10 Sept. 1956)
1956 (July 4) — Mondays, 8.00pm, 60 minutes, NBC-TV, New York: With Edie Adams, Hamilton Trio, Al Kelly, Henry Lascoe, others — directed by Barry Shear. Show features Edie’s classic, Mae Westish “Clowdy Faire — YOUR Weather Girl” rightly praised here by Variety‘s “Jose”: “Kovacs seemingly has a lot of material, but more important is his air of confidence in himself and his staff, and apparently a knack of being able to hang onto the mike for long periods and retain interest.”
EK had developed some consistently funny “straight” characters: the marvelous martini-laced Percy Dovetonsils, American poet-laureate, who came all the way with Mr. Kovacs from Philadelphia — where a pair of cheap magic-shop spectacles with painted-on eyes and two kiss-curls had defined his look — to share his aesthetic world on New York television; “Mr. Science,” teamed in his appearances in the Collection with a young boy next door, “Johnny,” far too bright for his would-be mentor;”Mr. Question Man,” for whom scripted questions, often long and relayed deadpan by Bill Wendell, are as funny as the pauses and answers of Mr. QM (EK) himself. One “viewer’s” letter, after cataloguing some bizarre behavioral symptoms of her best friend’s husband, concludes: “The psychiatrist told my friend her husband has a severe case of extremal, psycho neurotic pathological schizophrenia with collusion of the cerebella lobotomy . . . what is this!” Question Man (glancing at newspaper): “This is Wednesday.”
Ernie Kovacs (Tonight) (Fall 1956 to early 1957)
1956 (Oct. 24) — Mon. & Tues., from 11.30pm, NBC-TV, New York (taking these nights off Steve Allen): With French actor Louis Jourdan. “Ernie Kovacs demonstrates that he’s a funny man practically any time of day or night,” says Variety‘s “Jose.” “There was an occasional film clip of Elvis Presley making with his flying hips and guitar to the background of Chinese music . . . . absolutely weird.”
Festival of Magic (Producers Showcase — May 22, 1957)
1957 (May 31) — Mon., 8.00 to 9.30pm, NBC-TV, New York: This features on another Kovacs-related DVD, not in the Collection. Produced by The Miracle Factory LLC (www.miraclefactory.net) as a remastered record of this remarkable 1957 show containing the only-known complete video study of Cardini’s world-renowned card-illusion number. Available generally in libraries as a reference record for professional magicians. Ernie, the show’s emcee, wrote a whole act around his between-acts duties, boasting his own love of performing magic, adding dialogues from disgruntled furry creatures who’ve worked with him (e.g., a rabbit) and two average joes, as if in a pub watching him on tele, with disparaging remarks. Ernie wrote in a quartet of NBC vice presidents sitting onstage to monitor his work for the network. Somehow, they all perish after he inducts them as volunteers into his own between-acts illusions that go wrong. Very funny. The original 1957 show was produced by Showcase Productions, Inc.
Kovacs on Music (Special)
1959 (May 27) — Fri., May 22, 60 mins., 8.00pm, NBC from Hollywood. A wonderful combo of EK as both a comic and sophisticated, music-savvy host — with Edie Adams, Louis Jordan, James Darren, and André Previn and his Orchestra. A special effects highlight combines miniature dancers strutting their stuff to music over gigantic black and white keys on a vast piano — shades of Tom Hanks’ and Robert Loggia’s dancing-on-piano-keys sequence in Penny Marshall’s later film Big (1988).
- Online at www.erniekovacs.com and www.edieadams.com — naturally.
- From the “Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia”: a good introduction to Ernie’s TV beginnings in Philadelphia, noting technician Carl Weger’s role in realising Ernie’s wilder technical-gag ideas — see www.broadcastpioneers.com/kovacsinphilly.html
- The Life “comedy” articles mentioned above — issues of 5 September 1949 and 15 April 1957
- Nothing in Moderation: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs, by David G. Walley (Drake Publishing, US, 1975) for an account of its subject’s upbringing in Trenton, N.J., including his unpaid stint from the mid-1940s as a columnist for The Trentonian published by Sam Jacobs
- Books by Ernie Kovacs: (1) Zoomar (Doubleday, NY, 1957 or Bantam Books, NY, 1959) and (2) How to Talk at Gin (Doubleday, NY, 1962).
- The multi-volume collections of Variety‘s TV reviews (see notes) — collectively an unbeatable history of TV from the 1920s until today
- Edie’s 1958 view of husband Ernie in daily newspaper San Antonio Light of 20 July 1958, pages 10 and 12
- To repeat, Edie’s LOC conservation testimony at: http://www.loc.gov/film/pdfs/tvadams.pdf
- DVD: Festival of Magic (2009), produced by The Miracle Factory LLC (www.miraclefactory.net) — remastered version of the Producers Showcase evening presentation aired on NBC-TV, May 22, 1957. Important resource for professional magicians and, for Ernie fans, laughs. Try any major city library.
#24, July 1955, p. 47, Classics Dept., “Tom Swiffft and His Electric Ping Pong Ball” by Victor Applesauce (Ernie Kovacs) — a “classic skillfully digested into a condensed, simple, hard-to-read version” by “Mr. Ernie Kovacs . . . (writer, lecturer and TV comic).”
#25, September 1955, p. 28, Fairy Tale Dept., “The Sleeping Beauty as told by Ernie (Pierre Ragout) Kovacs.”
#26, November 1955, p. 35, Movie Dept., Part II, “At Home with Lorelei Latour” by Ernie Kovacs.
#29, September 1956, p. 10, Game Dept., Ernie Kovacs explains “Gringo.”
#31, February 1957, p. 15, Ernie Kovacs Dept., “Why I Write Poetry” by Percy Dovetonsils.
#33, June 1957, pp. 14, 42, Ernie Kovacs Dept., “Kovacs’ Strangely Believe It!,” Parts I and II.
#37, January 1958, pp. 13, 30, 34, Ernie Kovacs Dept., “Strangely Believe It!,” Parts I, II, and III.
#38, March 1958, pp. 19, 31, Ernie Kovacs Dept., “Strangely Believe It!,” Parts I and II
#40, July 1958, p. 19, Ernie Kovacs Dept., “Strangely Believe It!”
#41, September 1958, p. 33, Ernie Kovacs Dept., “Strangely Believe It!”
#42, November 1958, p. 27, Ernie Kovacs Dept.
- Reproduced in full by kind permission of Terry Gilliam through his London agent, Casarotto Ramsay and Associates Ltd. It also appears in the Collection‘s booklet. [↩]
- I.e., Absolutely Mad, which has crystal-clear copies of all pages of all issues up to 2006 on DVD-ROM produced by GIT (Graphic Imaging Technology) in the U.S. [↩]
- The Salt Lake Tribune, 17 January 1960, page 14W. [↩]
- “Spike Milligan, le plus grand comique de la télévision anglaise, etc.” in L’Express, 20 March, 1958, Paris — see page 21 under “ANGOISSE — Le clown ne rit plus.” [↩]
- See her column, “The Voice of Broadway” in The Oneonta Star, July 13, 1951. [↩]
- Review by critic “Frie,” dated 17 April, 1968 — all Variety citations are drawn from those priceless volumes, Variety Television Reviews 1923-1988, published by Garland, New York/London, 1989. [↩]
- First-stop inquiry points exist online at www.erniekovacs.com and www.edieadams.com. [↩]
- As early as its issue of April 25, 1960, Life International (pp. 72-79) contributed a simply-worded, immaculately illustrated introduction to “new” French cinema in “‘The New Wave’ — A Group of Young Directors Stimulate the Cinema World.” It compares well with the screen comedy articles mentioned here. [↩]
- See Life, 5 September 1949, pp 70-88. [↩]
- See Burlington [N.C.] Times-News, March 1977. [↩]
- He temporarily split the week with main host Steve Allen, who did the other nights. [↩]
- First published by Doubleday in 1957. Illustrations here are from the 1959 edition by Bantam Books, New York. [↩]
- Burlington (N.C.) Daily Times News, 24 April 1957, page 2A, headlined “Ernie Kovacs Loses Gags, Cigar, Some Weight.” [↩]
- Blessings in Disguise by Alec Guinness, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1985, see pp. 204-205. [↩]
- See Anderson Daily Bulletin, Dec. 17, 1959, under heading “Peggy Connelly Has Zany Job on Kovacs’ New Show.” [↩]