"Every idea I ever had is based on the fact that it's 2:30 and there's a production meeting at 3:00."
July 15, 2008 8:32 PM   Subscribe

In the introduction to his close friend's "Best of" DVD, Jack Lemmon says, "Ernie Kovacs was the funniest, wildest, zaniest man I ever knew. Ernie thought so, too, and so did millions of happy people. Ernie was all over television on one network or another from 1950 until he died in 1962. He had an unpredictable and illogical view of the world. He played with the medium of television in a way no one ever had before. And he created a batch of cockeyed characters that have become classics. So, slow down your internal clock; it was a more leisurely time, you know. Here's Ernie Kovacs."

Kovacsland Online and ErnieKovacs.net are great fansites.
• So's The Ernie Kovacs Blog, which features scans of Ernie's contributions to MAD Magazine.
• Here's another good web article.
A loving tribute page on OnlineNJ. (He was raised in Trenton.)

Ernie would most likely have loved the advent of YouTube, so here are more clips from one of TIME magazine's "100 Best TV Shows of All Time":

• The famous Nairobi Trio sketch.
Milkos Molnar hosts The Howdee Deedee Show
Wolfgang Von Sauerbraten, DJ
• News report from the Aesop Broadcasting Company
• He did a series of groundbreaking commercials for Dutch Masters Cigars - 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
Jolene's Weather Report (Hot and steamy, in case you were wondering.)
• Here's our man singing a song with a few other stars on Dinah Shore's show
• Ernie's epic fails as a What's My Line panelist: [Julie London; all panelists stumped] [Danny Thomas; Bennet Cerf FTW!]
Closing Credits
• Youtuber terminusj likes to mash-up Kovacs' longer wordless or pantomime montages with whatever he can find, with awesome results. Here are a few examples:
- Go Down Gambling (Blood Sweat & Tears)
- I Believe in You (Talk Talk)
- Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads)

Bonus: more of Percy Dovetonsils' poetry!

Frank Sinatra served as pallbearer Ernie Kovacs' funeral, the same day he recorded this Irving Berlin song, "When I Lost You".
posted by not_on_display (16 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I never understood why Kovacs was cast in the role he played in "Bell, Book, and Candle". It was a complete waste of his abilities. (Maybe Lemmon got him the job.)
posted by Class Goat at 8:45 PM on July 15, 2008

Nice post! Nice exploding salad in the kitchen symphony video!
posted by sleevener at 9:02 PM on July 15, 2008

Kovacs was a hell of of a workhorse - for a while he was doing the radio show and the TV show while also trying to get several other projects off the ground. He had a seemingly endless supply of funny ideas and, according to the Kovacsland book, he seemingly tried to incorporate them into every aspect of his life. Just ask the IRS about the Bazooka Dooka Hicka Hocka Hookah Company.

As much as I enjoy Side Caesar in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, I would have loved to have seen Ernie in that role.

Any excuse to talk Kovacs is a good one, thanks not_on_display.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:18 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ooops, I borked these links:
-- "classics" should point to another Percy Dovetonsils Youtube link.
-- Dinah Shore et al. features Louis Prima!
-- Closing Credits, which remind me of Monty Pythons' and others' to follow.
posted by not_on_display at 9:29 PM on July 15, 2008

Ernie Kovacs was my uncle's name, but this Ernie Kovacs was not my uncle. Too bad, that.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:50 PM on July 15, 2008

Of the Kovacs anecdotes that I've heard so far, and been too happy with to authenticate:

1. The show was on a live broadcast, but a brief delay. Ernie used to have his guy in the sound booth turn down the sound - incrementally - over the course of the broadcast. Then, at the end of the show, the cast would race up to the roof, binoculars in hand, to identify viewers in the surrounding buildings: the logic was that everyone who'd been watching the show would have turned up the volume to compensate for the incremental reduction; everyone seen jumping up suddenly after the broadcast timed out had been watching the show.

2. Ernie and his wife were so gravely against their children being orphaned that they took separate cars everywhere; the night Ernie died coming home from a party at Milton Berles' place, he and his wife narrowly missed riding in the same car.

Ernie Kovacs did more for TV comedy in the 1950s than has ever been done since. His playfulness with the medium, on-the-fly reaction to situations (he once bought time for a set change by taping a kaleidoscope to the camera lens using an orange juice can and distracting the home audience with an on-the-fly intermission), and willingness to deconstruct popular themes has yet to be matched. Even his treatment of advertisers (Dutch Masters Cigars) was cavalier, but effective.

True, some of his characters might not be repeatable today, but in a way, it's a good thing that Kovacs has been largely left alone and uncopied. Imagine if "I Love Lucy" had never been bastardized (would Bronson Pinchot have had a career?). What if the Honeymooners had remained unsullied? One of the reasons I'm grateful for the Internet is that it provides a forum where artists like this get their due: their material gets re-posted and rediscovered without being copied, commoditized, or dumbed-down.

Here's to Ernie (sniff!).
posted by Graygorey at 11:17 PM on July 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

Oh - and lest I forget the absolute best of Kovacs' "Percy Dovetonsils, Poet Lauriate" character:


I was a strong child and considered quite manly;
I lived in the suburbs, next door to Stanley.
I planned to be a fireman and he planned to be a doctor;
His mother taught psychiatry - honest, I could've socked her...

She taught her son to exert his mind on animal and friend,
And what he did to his pussycat was just about the end!
Stanley's pussycat at first was just as nice as silk;
He purred like other pussycats and always drank his milk.

And then that awful Stanley put the pussy on the couch,
And psychoanalyzed that poor pussycat and made him such a grouch!
That pussycat's personality slowly began to change;
His friendly purr became a snarl, with an emo sumac range.

He'd sneak into the living room with steps as soft as satin,
Climb up on the cocktail bar and mix a strong Manhattan.
He'd gulp it down and drop all shame and lose all sense of fear,
And then he'd drink a second one, and spit the cherry at the mirror!

He'd drink 'til dawn, then down the street he'd stagger, round and fat;
Soon everyone was gossiping about Stanley's pussycat.
His drinking went from bad to worse, 'twas really most disturbin';
He'd catch the mice in any bar in trade for a shot of bourbon!

Stanley's pussycat became a drunk;
He stole to purchase liquor.
While other pussycats drank milk and cream,
Stanley's would hiccup and snicker!

His drinking went from bad to worse;
He'd chase the mice, and fall;
His bloodshot eyes grew wide with surprise,
As he'd lurch into the wall!

Then one day, the mice struck back!
Such sorrow, you've never seen, sir:
When laughing with zest, from the medicine chest,
They stole his Alka Seltzer!

- from Ode to Stanley's Pussycat, by Ernie Kovacs
Mad Magazine #31, 1957
posted by Graygorey at 11:44 PM on July 15, 2008

The greatest loss of the old Comedy Central, of the shows from the channel's earliest days, isn't Clash, it isn't 1st season MST3K, it's not even random plays of The Spike Jones Show (although those are missed), it's late-night broadcasts of Ernie Kovacs. So awesome.
posted by JHarris at 12:33 AM on July 16, 2008

I haven't clicked all the links so don't know if one mentioned Kovacs' role in Our Man In Havana which he performed quite well. The first link never mentions it.
Sometimes, I was able to play sick and stay home from school and watch TV. Usually this would be when a sci-fi movie (like Donovan's Brain) was on. Kovacs had a fifteen-minute program that usually came on right before the movie. I remember him getting a framed picture (I think supposed to have been sent in by a fan). He drew a nail on the wall, then hung the picture from it. There was no applause or canned laughter; Kovacs acted as though this were the most natural thing in the world. That totally relaxed, totally accepting attitude that he projected was his "natural" persona. Sometimes he used it while talking with made-up characters (like Howard, The World's Strongest Ant) that we never saw but only visualized through Kovacs expressions. He was really good.
(And, say, I always liked Edie Adams, too. It got me to read in one of the above links that they never took a plane or car together for fear of leaving their children without parents. On Ernie's last drive, Edie almost climbed into his Corvair -- Unsafe At Any Speed, kids.)
posted by CCBC at 1:46 AM on July 16, 2008

Wow, I'd read so much about this guy as being a comedy genius, and the skits are just.. not funny. Gimme the Goon Show or Round the Horne or even ITMA... maybe this explains why American comedy is just so fucking lame, if this is what you consider zany.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 2:36 AM on July 16, 2008

The Brits have a certain Grotesque quality derived from live music hall shows. Americans are more (this is not meant satirically, it is exactly my term) subtle. The deadpan ironic humor established in the 50s and 60s defined a part of American culture.
posted by CCBC at 3:28 AM on July 16, 2008

Comparing the Goon Show with Ernie Kovacs is definately to Kovacs disadvantage. Kovacs needs to be seen in the context of 1950s American TV, in fact, all of American culture at that time. He was a funny guest in your home, a visitor to a more passive and homogeneous (in spirit) audience. He was slo...o...o...o...w. But no one was in a hurry to go anywhere.
posted by Faze at 3:34 AM on July 16, 2008

Oh Xist. All this time I've been thinking that Kovacs played Coach on Cheers. In fact, the character's name is just "Ernie". WTF.
posted by DU at 4:28 AM on July 16, 2008

Greetings over your orthicon tube high-definition LCD monitor!

I still have the entire "Best of Ernie Kovacs" series on its original VHS format from around 1990. I guess I need to update my collection, since I no longer have a VHS player.

That intro by Jack Lemmon was on every episode, and there were 3-4 per VHS Cassette. Talk about redundancy.

(And the best bit ever was the re-imagined westerns from the first episode in the collection. Especially the Bavarian-themed western. "Guten tag, kemosabe!")
posted by mystyk at 4:54 AM on July 16, 2008

It's pretty hard today to put how groundbreaking and influential Kovacs was into context in today's terms. Many of the bits would seem just a little odd at best now if you don't put them into context. Saying that his effects weren't that great or the bits aren't that original would be like saying that the Wright brothers weren't that great since their plane pales in comparison to a business flight today. So much of what he did didn't exist before he did it. For me watching Kovacs now is fun, often still laugh out loud funny, and worth seeing, but it's not side splitting hysterical. I wish I could see those shows without the knowledge of everything that came after.

As for the Goons vs Kovacs, they're totally different comedy styles. I like the Goons as well and, like Kovacs, so many of their bits today seem incredibly tame and obvious. From an American perspective, I appreciate the Goon Show more for what they influenced than for their own bits. Again, though, I wish I could experience the Goon Show without the knowledge of what they influenced.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 5:51 AM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You have to wonder how much (if any) influence Ernie Kovacs had on Alan Moore's Watchmen. Visually, he bears a resemblance to the Comedian; in name, to Walter Kovacs (aka Rorschach); and in persona he was a "nite owl."*

*According to Wikipedia, "Ernie was a night-owl and insomniac, surviving on no more than 3 or 4 hours sleep at night, and often much less than that (sometimes no sleep at all if a good card game was in progress)."
posted by jabberjaw at 10:37 AM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

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