Can an artist be ahead of his time but behind the curve? A bold original but a throwback to an earlier era? This violent contradiction may explain why comedian Ernie Kovacs—who died in an auto accident nearly 50 years ago, at the full flower of his creativity—still seems like such a singular talent. His 1950s broadcasts became the blueprint for satirical TV comedy, with their recurring oddball characters, their parodies of other programs, their fake commercials. Without Kovacs there would have been no Saturday Night Live, no SCTV, no David Letterman or Conan O’Brien. Yet his brilliant and surreal sight gags, the like of which have disappeared from the tube entirely, were inspired by the great movie comedians of the silent era, especially Buster Keaton. The end of one tradition and the beginning of another, the link between the big screen and the small one, Kovacs might have been the most important transitional figure in American comedy.

Like the broadcast medium itself, however, Kovacs seems to be constantly evaporating into the ether. My parents watched him on TV back in the late 50s, but because he did variety shows instead of sitcoms his work wasn’t syndicated, and after his death he was largely forgotten. His widow, the singer Edie Adams, made a personal crusade of salvaging as many kinescopes and tapes of his broadcasts as she could lay her hands on, and in 1977 Chicago’s own WTTW produced a killer series called The Best of Ernie Kovacs that compiled his choicest sketches and blackouts. That’s when I was exposed to him, and he fit right into the video landscape alongside SNL, SCTV, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. WTTW reran the series forever, but there were only five episodes, and after that I never heard much about Ernie Kovacs. In the past couple weeks, when I’ve mentioned him to younger colleagues at the Reader, his name has drawn a blank.

Running over 13 hours, the six-disc DVD box The Ernie Kovacs Collection is the most comprehensive survey of the comedian’s work ever, beginning with his earliest live broadcasts on NBC in May 1951 and concluding with the stunning half-hour specials he taped for ABC in late 1961. To be honest, I’d rather have the old WTTW series, which was released on DVD in 2000 but is now out of print. Thirteen hours is a long haul, and some of the sketches included in the box are tedious, especially those culled from the two-hour NBC morning show Kovacs hosted from December 1955 to July 1956 (desperate to fill time, he’ll take a good two-minute idea and stretch it out to a deadly ten minutes). But the set also includes complete versions of important projects, like the half-hour Saturday Color Carnival episode from January 1957, whose sketches are exclusively pantomime, and the equally conceptual May 1959 special Kovacs on Music.

Even the early programs can be fascinating in their way: broadcast live and shown here in their entirety, they reveal how intuitively Kovacs grasped the comic potential of the medium. “Ernie Kovacs knew exactly what to do with television before television knew what to do with itself,” David Letterman observes in the box set’s liner notes. To a great extent that meant exploiting TV’s sense of intimacy with the viewer. Back in the 80s I found it hilariously innovative when Letterman, on his old NBC show, would burst through the studio doors into the hallways of Rockefeller Center for some escapade. Yet the very first segment on the Kovacs box, a 1951 episode of his 15-minute afternoon show It’s Time for Ernie, shows the host breaking the illusion of the set by going out into the hall for a drink from the water fountain. We often speak of viewers welcoming an entertainer into their homes, but Kovacs immediately recognized the power of welcoming them into his.

A born improviser, he also understood the value of impulse. One of his best-remembered characters, the lisping poet laureate Percy Dovetonsils, was created instantaneously when someone handed Kovacs a pair of gag glasses with coke-bottle eyes pasted behind the lenses. Thrust into the pressure cooker of a live broadcast, he could be funnier when things went wrong, and his mischievous stagehands were happy to oblige. In one segment (excerpted in a montage on disc one), Percy picks up his ever-present martini glass to find a goldfish swimming in it; in another, from July 1956, a lame gag in which Percy drapes a napkin over his face to make his martini magically “disappear” falls apart when Kovacs empties the glass and then realizes it’s two and a half ounces of straight gin. Without breaking character, he swallows the booze but then clues the audience in on this practical joke and milks it for the rest of the segment. (Addressing the director offscreen, Percy asks, “Did I read the poem or didn’t I?”)

Nowadays, parodying TV shows and commercials may seem painfully trite—Saturday Night Live hardly does anything else—but we should remember that when Kovacs did this, TV as a nationwide phenomenon was only a few years old. Years before FCC chairman Newton Minow branded television a “vast wasteland,” Kovacs was taking dead aim at cooking shows, game shows (Beat the Clock, What’s My Line), kids’ shows (The Howdy Doody Show), late-night horror movie hosts (his Uncle Gruesome was the direct ancestor of SCTV‘s howling Count Floyd), and the medium’s all-around scurrilousness (with a weather forecast delivered by a purring, scantily clad babe on a divan). The idea of lampooning commercials was even more subversive because, at that point, real commercials were still routinely integrated into programming, and in fact were often performed live by the hosts—including Kovacs. His actual commercials could be as zany as his fake ones, which only blurred the line further.

One might expect an artist to begin by emulating the old masters and then progress into more innovative work, yet Kovacs followed the opposite trajectory: his influential spoofing of TV (which seems so old hat now) gradually gave way to a dazzling talent for classically constructed sight gags (which, parodoxically, seem totally fresh). This was primarily because of money and technology: only later in his career, when he could command bigger budgets and the advent of videotape allowed him to record shows in advance, did Kovacs really begin to indulge his visual sense of humor. But his surreal sight gags, like his satire, were inseparable from his chosen medium. Just as Keaton used his early two-reelers and features to explore the illusions of the cinema (his first impulse on getting into movies was to tear a camera apart and figure out exactly how it worked), Kovacs seized on the optical tricks of the new video technology and mined them for every conceivable laugh.

His first big opportunity came in January 1957, when Jerry Lewis signed to produce a special for the NBC Color Carnival series but refused to fill more than the first 60 minutes of the 90-minute slot. Finding someone to follow Lewis—a gigantic star at that point—proved so difficult that NBC agreed to give Kovacs a handsome budget for a 30-minute program. The resulting show, completely free of dialogue, featured some of his most inspired sight gags. The opening shows a tympanist hitting a kettledrum; when he hits the drum next to it, his mallet vanishes into what turns out to be a tub of white goo. In another brilliant illusion, achieved by tilting both the set and the camera about 45 degrees, Kovacs tries to pour milk into a glass but the liquid leaps out diagonally. The program climaxes with a slapstick musical performance by the bizarre Nairobi Trio, stiffly mechanical figures wearing bowlers, overcoats, flowing wigs, and cheap rubber gorilla masks—Rene Magritte meets the Three Stooges.

Of the six discs in the set, the real gem is the fifth, which collects five of the eight half-hour specials Kovacs taped for ABC shortly before his death. The network had hired him to host its weekly program Silents Please, which presented abridged versions of classic silent movies, and to produce and direct one special per month. Rather than shoot the specials one day a week, as the network desired, Kovacs insisted on marathon, round-the-clock tapings that guaranteed his crew a windfall of overtime pay, and augmented them with catered meals from fancy restaurants. Chronicled in Diana Rico’s 1991 biography Kovacsland, these happily creative sessions sound very much like the easygoing production of Keaton’s classic two-reelers, when cast and crew might address some story problem by knocking off for a game of baseball until someone had a lightbulb moment and they all raced back to the set.

Most of these specials included a montage of blackout gags, accompanied on the soundtrack by a clip-clop rendition of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife” and linked onscreen by the image of an audio waveform moving with the music. Only a few seconds long, these wordless blackouts are flawlessly executed and show Kovacs’s wild sense of humor in its purest form: A businessman touches a pointer to a painting of a dam and the dam bursts, releasing a torrent of water onto the conference table. A weight lifter trying to pick up a barbell stands up straight and his arms stretch like rubber bands. A woman enjoying a bubble bath is startled when a periscope rises from the water. In a shooting gallery the wooden profile of a duck pivots to reveal a tiny cannon that fires back at the contestant. A man at a masquerade party pulls off his rubber caveman mask to reveal an identical mask underneath. Submerged in a tank of water, Kovacs takes a drag from his cigar and expels a mouthful of white smoke (actually milk). No idea was too elaborate: he once blew $12,000 on a six-second gag that showed a used-car salesman slapping the hood of an automobile and the auto crashing through the pavement.

The ABC specials also guaranteed Kovacs’s reputation as not just a comedy craftsman but a genuine video artist. His professional partnership with Edie Adams, who sang pop and classical numbers on his NBC shows, had reinforced a lifelong love of music, and in 1959 he’d created a special called Kovacs on Music that combined musical performances with music-themed sketches. The ABC specials took this a step further with a series of fanciful montages that visualized instrumental pieces. These “sound to sight” segments could be whimsically funny—like “Kitchen Symphony,” which showed sardines, a cooked turkey, and various kitchen appliances dancing in time to Juan Esquivel’s “Cherokee.” They could also be darkly serious—like “Street Scene,” a noirish urban nightmare set to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Incredibly, these elaborate segments were taped live, which required meticulous planning and flawless execution. Though Kovacs will forever be identified with television, his real dream was to make his own movies, and the montages make you wonder what he might have done with the resources of a movie shoot.

Ironically, the last project Kovacs completed was a half-hour pilot episode for a TV series pairing him with Buster Keaton, whose work he’d always admired. Medicine Man would star Kovacs as the Old West huckster of the title and Keaton, then 66, as his Indian sidekick. But it was never to be: in January 1962, driving home from a party at Billy Wilder’s house, Kovacs apparently took his hands off the wheel to light a cigar and the car spun out of control on the rain-slicked street, going over an embankment and hitting a telephone pole. He died almost instantly, ten days shy of his 43rd birthday. Keaton attended his funeral; it should have been the other way around, but for Ernie Kovacs, past, present, and future had a strange way of trading places.

The Nairobi Trio
The Ernie Kovacs Show, July 16, 1956

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“The Silent Show”
Saturday Color Carnival: The Ernie Kovacs Show, January 19, 1957

YouTube video

“Mack the Knife” teaser
The Ernie Kovacs Show, December 12, 1961

YouTube video

“Street Scene”
The Ernie Kovacs Show, January 23, 1962

YouTube video