November 06, 2017
Hall of Fame

Ernie Kovacs: Hall of Fame Tribute

Jack Slater

His tombstone sums up his life and his work exactly:

Ernie Kovacs
Nothing in Moderation.

When Kovacs died in an automobile accident in Los Angeles 25 years ago, he took with him the madcap, imaginative, utterly visual brand of humor that helped define television as a medium capable of producing its own style of comedy.

“When people around him were doing old vaudeville material,” television critic Harriet Van Home once told an interviewer, “Ernie was the first one to see the visual possibilities of television.” He was also, she adds, “the first surrealist in television.”

Kovacs’s comedy, with its heady mixture of wit, slapstick, and satire, frequently depended on the eye to evoke laughter — the eye, and Kovacs’ own finely-tuned sense of the absurd.

For instance, on January 19, 1957, Kovacs surprised, then thrilled NBC viewers when he sent Eugene (sometimes known as The Silent Show) into the nation’s living rooms. Dispensing with dialogue and depending entirely on silence, the half-hour show centered on a good-natured, somewhat shy Everyman named Eugene, portrayed by Kovacs, who wandered into a stuffy men’s club to eat a meal.

With the aid of a set tilted at a 15-degree angle and a curved camera lens, Eugene’s food rolled away from him when he put it on the table, creating the illusion that the character had entered an alien world, a cockeyed world which refused to obey basic physical laws. Eugene’s predicament seemed to epitomize the irrationality of the world.

The show, a triumph for television technology, was a commercial and critical success. Immediately after it aired, NBC’s New York switchboard lit up with congratulatory calls. Kovacs, then 38, briefly enjoyed the wide public acceptance he felt had eluded him in general throughout his television career.

“Kovacs created most of his comedy in the heat of the moment when the beady little red eye of Camera One was on,” asserts his biographer David G. Walley in his book, appropriately titled Nothing in Moderation. "Rather than scripts, he preferred visions — an automated office where the water cooler gurgled and the file cabinets sang like trumpets, a hand coming out of a bathtub to scrub the back of a pretty girl, the White Rock fairy taking a bath in the effervescent brook of ginger ale-land."

Brash, profane, larger than life, and addicted to steambaths and oversized cigars, Kovacs seemed to be made for the passions and the excesses of show business. Born and reared in Trenton, New Jersey, he grew up poor, then very rich, then suddenly very poor again when his father’s prosperous bootlegging business collapsed at the height of the depression.

After graduating from Trenton High School, Kovacs, who wanted to be an actor, won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. In 1941, following unsuccessful attempts to break into theater, he landed a job as a radio announcer at Trenton’s WTTM. Here he remained for nine years, producing, among other things, his own morning wake-up show and interviewing celebrities for the station’s Talk of the Town program. It was at WTTM he developed the ad-lib skills and sardonic wit that became his calling card.

On March 20, 1950, he took his first plunge into television at WPTZ, an NBC affiliate in Philadelphia. His show, Deadline for Dinner, was a half-hour, straitlaced, twice-a-week cooking program Kovacs gleefully turned into a comic ordeal of culinary and slapstick disasters. To management’s surprise, the show became a hit.

In November of that year, he was given another show to resurrect: Three to Get Ready, an early morning program of news and weather produced by the station on a miserly budget. The program’s format was revised by Kovacs to include modest giveaways, Polish or Yiddish versions of popular songs, cartoon drawings by the host, windup toys synchronized to music, and camera innovations (then mostly untested) that allowed Kovacs to stage interviews with mirrored images of himself. Sandwiched somewhere between the antics and the technology, the news and the weather also got on the air. This show, too, became a hit, startling the management, who believed an early morning audience didn’t exist for television.

Kovacs’s reputation as a hit maker soon reached NBC Brahmins, who decided in late spring of 1951 to give the budding iconoclast his first network assignment, a 15-minute afternoon variety show. After six weeks, however, the network canceled It’s Time for Ernie and promptly offered Kovacs a vehicle that would serve as a summer replacement for the popular Kukla, Fran and Ollie program. The new show, Ernie in Kovacsland, allowed the comedian to finally hire some personnel: a secretary and a singer. The latter, Edie Adams, eventually became his wife.

Early in 1952, NBC gave him one other program, Kovacs on the Korner, another tightly budgeted daytime variety concoction, but by April, Kovacs bade farewell to Philadelphia and moved to New York and CBS.

At WCBS-TV, the comedian made his debut with Kovacs Unlimited, another variety vehicle. Although he was growing restless with this sort of fare, he continued to hone his craft through it, experimenting with the visual content of his humor. During this period he often took a popular song, showed the lyrics on screen, then added the funny visuals. The September Song thus began:

When I was a young man courting the gals, I played a waiting game
Drugstore-wolf whistling at passing girl. He is zoot-suit type, 1890 era. They are both old fashioned.
If a maid dissuaded me with tossing curls
Girl saying no, throwing curls at man a few feet away. (She is pulling curls off head and throwing them.)
When I plied her with tears in the place of pearls
Necklace of tears on girl’s neck. She says, “Hey, dese poils are wet!”

The success of these visual experiments led him to respect his audience. He once wrote in Life magazine:

The television audience of today is a sophisticated, alert, discriminating audience, quick to reject the inadequate. The picture of a nationwide audience holding its sides in ecstatic empathy as a smiling young man runs up and down the aisles kissing old ladies and handing out orchids to grandmothers is one that has been removed to the attic, along with the kinescopes of those programs.

Kovacs Unlimited graced the airwaves from April 1952 to January 1954. Before its run ended, however, the CBS brass, hoping Kovacs would succeed where all others had failed, gave their local knight the most awesome assignment of his career: to dethrone NBC’s Milton Berle.

Ever since 1948, the first year of his Tuesday-night reign on television, Berle had handily dispatched all competitors in the same time slot. Now Kovacs, the trendy, young surrealist comedian, was assigned to take on Mr. Television himself. The Ernie Kovacs Show barged down the Hudson on December 30, 1952, and, a few months later, sank.

After both his prime-time and daytime shows at CBS ended, Kovacs’s career seemed to go through a period of repeated motion. He did another stint of daytime TV on another show that bore his name, this time on New York’s WABD, the DuMont affiliate. Then he took that same show to its evening DuMont slot opposite Steve Allen’s Tonight on NBC.

In 1955, NBC, using a $1-million contract as a carrot, enticed him to return to the network, this time to star in another daytime incarnation of The Ernie Kovacs Show, and, in 1956-57, to serve as temporary host of Tonight. Then, in January 1957, Eugene splashed across the home screens of America and pushed Kovacs’s career in another direction.

Signing with Columbia Pictures, he journeyed to the West Coast, settled himself and his family in Beverly Hills, and proceeded to make nine films, all of them (with the exception of Bell, Book and Candle) less than memorable.

Meanwhile, his television career continued unabated. Between October 1959 and late 1961, he hosted an ABC quiz show titled Take a Good Look and an ABC series of classic silent films called Silents Please. At the time of his death, he was working on a series of one-hour monthly specials.

Ernie Kovacs, who succeeded in giving the medium its own particular comedic shape, its own creative definition, was truly a television original.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Ernie Kovacs's induction in 1987.

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