Ernie Kovacs: Television’s Pioneer Of Visual Innovation And Comic Surrealism

Ernie Kovacs was tv’s most unique visible innovator and surreal comedian genius, who made us see the world another way. He was a real inventive pioneer, who created his distinctive magic when the medium was simply in its infancy.

The photographs that Kovacs conjured alongside the way in which, have had an infinite affect on a wide range of tv exhibits, in addition to particular person performers and writers who adopted. These included: “Rowan and Martin’s Snicker-In,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and “Saturday Evening Reside,” to call just some. As well as, performers and writers, resembling Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Chevy Chase, and Mel Brooks, all owe a fantastic deal to this inspiring and artistic free spirit.

In 1986, the Museum of Tv and Radio (now the Paley Heart for Media) introduced an exhibit of Kovacs’s work, known as “The Imaginative and prescient of Ernie Kovacs.” Within the Museum’s booklet for the present, the Pulitzer Prize successful tv critic, William Henry III wrote:

“Kovacs was greater than one other wide-eyed, self-ingratiating clown. He was tv’s first important video artist. He was its first surrealist…its most daring and imaginative author. He was tv’s first and probably solely auteur, and he was a genius… Kovacs’s genius lay within the realm of artwork. There, a genius is somebody who causes an viewers to have a look at the world in a brand new means.”


In 1953, I first encountered Ernie Kovacs once I was 12 years previous. Ernie’s early morning tv present, “Kovacs Limitless,” was being aired on community tv in New York Metropolis on WCBS (channel 2). It was on this present that I first noticed most of the visible sight gags, surreal illusions and characters that turned a necessary a part of his astonishing and unique imaginative and prescient. However as a 12-year-old child, I simply thought the present was very thrilling, numerous enjoyable and actually cool!

As an avid fan of the present, I, instantly, joined Ernie’s Early Eyeball Fraternity and Marching Society (EEFMS) and, formally, turned an EEFMS member. For years, I proudly carried my EEFMS membership card round in my pockets, and when known as upon, would sing the EEFMS music, whereas saluting (left index finger prolonged, and held over left closed eye):

“Hail to thee, oh EEFMS members, thee so courageous and robust,
By scorching Julys and chilly Decembers, sing our EEFMS music.
We are saying this now with no misgiving,
Should you’re not EEFMS, you are not residing!”

Then on one spring day in 1953, my good buddy Arnie Eastman and I made a decision to “crash” Ernie Kovacs’s studio at WCBS. Armed with our EEFMS membership playing cards, and the password: “It has been actual!,” we labored our well beyond the downstairs entrance guard and arrived, by elevator, at his studio ground. After we knocked on Kovacs’s studio door, we have been greeted by a member of his workers, who instructed us to go away. However my buddy, Arnie, who was very persistent continued to beg this workers member to allow us to in. All of the sudden, we heard a voice from throughout the studio: “what’s the issue, Andy?” Then Ernie Kovacs got here to the door, and after we defined that we have been big followers, and EEFMS members, he invited us into the studio, and seated us in two director’s chairs, proper in entrance of the set! (wow!)

The set was comprised of a protracted desk pitched on an angle, with the tv digital camera bolted to the ground on the identical angle. So after we considered the tv monitor, the desk seemed to be in its regular horizontal place, not on an angle.

Then, one in all Kovacs’s characters got here out on the set carrying his lunchbox, and sat down on the tilted desk. On the different finish of the desk sat one other man studying his newspaper. Then every time the person with the lunchbox took an merchandise out of his lunchbox and tried to put it on the desk, it might both slide or roll down the desk into the lap of the person studying his newspaper. The finale of this sight gag got here when the person with the lunchbox took out his thermos bottle, and tried to pour some milk into his glass (which had been beforehand secured to the tabletop earlier than the sketch started). The stream of milk moved at a weird angle, practically parallel to the tabletop, utterly lacking the glass!

It was this traditional sight gag stunt, and quite a few different surreal results, that shocked and delighted tv audiences, and, finally, turned part of his famend visible results vocabulary.

After we stayed by your entire rehearsal of the present, Ernie Kovacs invited Arnie and me to affix him for lunch! Throughout lunch he regaled us with pleasant anecdotes, as Arnie and I sat there hanging on his each phrase. Then after lunch, he requested us if we want to see his workplace! – Arnie and I might hardly consider our success, right here we have been, two unknown 12-year-old children who Mr. Kovacs had by no means met earlier than, and but we have been spending the day with Ernie Kovacs! (WOW!)

So after lunch, he took Arnie and me over to his workplace on West 57th Avenue, and he spent the afternoon with us, telling us fascinating tales, and displaying us round his suite of places of work. – Our favourite reminiscence of the day was seeing the wild and great assortment of tribal artifacts, which Ernie had hanging and standing throughout his non-public workplace – and the best factor of all was the border-cornice of shrunken heads surrounding your entire room!


Ernest Edward Kovacs was born on January 23rd, 1919 in Trenton, New Jersey. He died in a automobile accident, simply earlier than his 43rd birthday, on January 13th, 1962.

Ernie Kovacs’ father, Andrew, emigrated to the US from Hungary on the age of 13. After working at a number of jobs, unsuccessfully, throughout Prohibition Andrew turned a really profitable bootlegger, which enabled him to maneuver his spouse, Mary and their sons, Tom and Ernie, right into a 20 room mansion, in a trendy part of Trenton. However except for this era throughout Prohibition, the household continued to stay in humble environment.

Ernie’s curiosity in theater started in highschool. At Trenton Central Excessive College, Ernie got here underneath the affect of his nice mentor, drama instructor, Harold Van Kirk. Ernie acquired a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1937, with the help of Mr. Van Kirk. Whereas working in Vermont in summer time inventory in 1939, Ernie turned severely sick with pneumonia and pleurisy, and spent the following 12 months and a half in very severe situation in a number of hospitals.

It was throughout this time that his comedic expertise started to point out, as he enthralled the nurses, docs and sufferers along with his antics. (The docs didn’t assume that he would stay). As well as, whereas within the hospital, Ernie developed a lifelong love and appreciation of classical music, and he stored his radio always tuned to WQXR, the classical music station, in New York Metropolis. In years to return, Kovacs would often use classical music in lots of his sketches.

In 1941, Ernie discovered his first paid job in leisure work as a disc jockey, at Trenton’s WTTM radio. He spent the following 9 years with WTTM, changing into the station’s Director of Particular Occasions. Throughout this era, Kovacs experimented with a wide range of “stay” zany occasions, resembling seeing what it might be prefer to be run over by a practice (leaving the tracks on the final second), to broadcasting from the cockpit of an airplane (for which he took flying classes).

Throughout this era, Ernie was additionally concerned in an area theater group, the Trenton Gamers Guild, in early 1941, doing a little directing for the group. In June, 1945, the Trentonian, an area weekly newspaper, supplied Kovacs a column, which he known as “Kovacs Limitless,” by which he discovered his voice because the native wag.

Ernie married his first spouse, Betty Wilcox, on August 13, 1945. That they had two daughters collectively, Elisabeth (Bette) and Kip Raleigh (Kippie). The wedding was an sad one, they usually lastly divorced on February 11, 1954. When the wedding ended, Ernie was awarded full custody of their two daughters, primarily based on the courtroom’s choice that his former spouse was mentally unstable. In that very same 12 months Ernie married Edith (Edie) Adams on September 12, 1954.

In 1950, Kovacs had his first alternative to interrupt into tv. He confirmed up at his audition at NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate, WPTZ (now KYW-TV) sporting a barrel and shorts, and obtained the job! Ernie’s first project was a present known as “Decide Your Splendid,” a trend and promotional present for the Splendid Manufacturing Firm. Earlier than lengthy, he was additionally the host of “Deadline For Dinner,” which was a present the place native cooks shared cooking suggestions and methods. One evening the visitor chef didn’t present up, so Ernie was known as into motion to ad-lib on the 11th hour, and improvised his personal recipe for Eggs Scavok (Kovacs spelled backwards).

Quickly after, Ernie hosted and, finally, created a novel format for the groundbreaking present, “Three To Get Prepared”(TTGR). This was the primary repeatedly scheduled early morning present (7 to 9 AM) in a significant TV market. Previous to this, it had been assumed that nobody would watch TV at such an early hour. Though the present was billed as early morning information and climate, Ernie supplied this, alongside along with his personal zany and unique strategy. When rain was within the climate forecast, Kovacs would stand on a excessive platform, and sprinkle water over the particular person reporting the climate forecast. On one event goats have been auditioned for an area theater efficiency.

It was on the TTGR present that Ernie started to develop his ad-libbed, experimental model that will turn out to be his fame. Amongst his many inventions early on, Kovacs allowed the so-called fourth wall to be breached, going past the boundaries of the present set to reveal the behind-the-scenes motion, directly stunning and engaging the viewing viewers, who had by no means seen something like this earlier than, as he went from interacting with the TV digital camera crew, to taking a tour of the management room, and chatting with the technicians. After which typically he went exterior of the studio. He as soon as, spontaneously, determined to put on a gorilla costume, and ran by a downtown Philadelphia restaurant.

When Ernie might not put up along with his scant prop funds of $15 per week for the present, he solved the issue by asking his TV viewers to ship something that they not needed, to channel 3, WPTZ. On that very same day, your entire studio foyer was stuffed with all of the discarded stuff that his viewers had despatched!

It was on this present that Kovacs discovered his milieu. Mockingly, the failure of the extremely rated present, “Kovacs on the Nook,” contributed to discovering his place. He was regularly discovering that his true milieu was the tv studio area, unencumbered by cutesy road units, with crooked barber store polls (the setting for “Kovacs on the Nook,” the place there have been too many artistic collaborators). Within the undecorated studio, he might give free rein to the movement of concepts, contrasting surreal mixtures of the commonplace and the bizarre, which solely he might visualize – he needed to be in management.

As a lot as Ernie needed to be accountable for “the imaginative and prescient,” he relied closely on his savvy crew, comprised of his particular results technicians, set designers, musical workers, cameramen, soundmen and others, lots of whom had labored with him for the reason that starting, and knew his moods, idiosyncrasies and rhythms so effectively, that they have been capable of anticipate and improvise at a second’s discover – typically inspiring, and even saving a sketch that was in hassle.

The method of making new exhibits with a novel strategy and unique materials, working with minimal scripts and little or no rehearsal time, in a “stay” tv format of that interval (there was no videotape, so that you have been performing with out a web), was all the time a frightening prospect. By their very nature, the exhibits have been experimental. Ernie set no limits for himself, always improvising and taking probabilities. Typically the outcomes have been sensible and really humorous, and at different instances they have been simply inane and boring. From Ernie’s perspective every thing was enjoyable – success or failure – he was only a large child, and the crew have been his playmates.

However within the typical world of tv producers, and unsophisticated audiences, the place excessive rankings have been the badge of success, Ernie Kovacs was swimming in opposition to the tide, which was inevitable for such an revolutionary visionary.

All through his tv profession Ernie Kovacs all the time had a big cult following of avid viewers, and acquired fixed reward from the critics. However, mockingly, and maybe, due to his ingenious and experimental model, he was by no means capable of constantly maintain the curiosity of the bigger tv viewers, who had been conditioned by typical sitcoms and vaudeville model selection exhibits.


Because the incorrigible prankster, Kovacs additionally inspired his crew to observe swimsuit and improvise, and take probabilities. So on not less than one event, the crew turned the tables on Ernie. On that day, Kovacs appeared because the inept magician, Matzoh Hepplewhite. The sketch known as for Hepplewhite to hit a gong often. This was the sign for an attractive feminine assistant to seem with a tray with a bottle of liquor and a shot glass. Ernie (Hepplewhite) was presupposed to take a snort, which was presupposed to be tea. However the stagehands substituted actual liquor as a substitute of the tea. When Ernie took the snort of liquor, the expression on his face was priceless: realizing, after all, that each time he rang the gong he must drink one other shot of actual liquor! Because it was”stay”tv he needed to proceed on with the sketch. So on the finish of the present, Ernie staggered off the set utterly drunk.

Because the madcap performer that he was, Ernie performed a wide range of roles, lots of whom turned recurring characters. These included the silent Chaplinesque, Eugene, who was the character who poured milk from his thermos bottle that by no means reached the glass on that tilted desk. Ernie was additionally one of many three derby-hatted apes, generally known as the Nairobi Trio, who carried out their mechanical antics to the tune of Robert Maxwell’s “Solfeggio.” They have been regulars on the early morning present, “Kovacs Limitless.”

One in all my favourite characters was the effete poet laureate, Percy Dovetonsils, additionally portrayed by Kovacs, who spoke with a lisp, and infrequently recited poetry, in between sips of his dry martini (as soon as a stagehand slipped a goldfish into his glass, simply as he was happening “stay,” on the air).

Along with the numerous characters that Ernie portrayed, there have been many elaborate sight gags that he would carry out that, usually, solely lasted just a few seconds. One in all my favorites is an underwater stunt, with Ernie enjoying himself, because the inveterate cigar smoker. Within the sketch, Ernie is definitely underwater, sitting in his simple chair with a cigar in his mouth, studying his newspaper. He then removes the cigar from his mouth and exhales a puff of white smoke! (The trick is that the “smoke” was truly a small quantity of milk, which he stuffed his mouth with earlier than going underwater).


Within the pioneer days when tv was in its infancy – early 1940s into the 1950s – radio was nonetheless the reigning medium. Because of this, the desirous about tv as a medium, was very typical. Administrators of tv productions would solely use particular results, resembling cuts or fades or dissolves, much like the strategies generally used within the motion pictures at the moment. The extra subtle visible strategies that have been out there, resembling tremendous imposition (one picture from one TV digital camera positioned over a second picture from one other TV digital camera) was not often used besides in probably the most typical means. Equally, reverse polarity (throw a swap and switch positives into negatives), and reverse scanning (the place photos might be flipped the wrong way up) weren’t used as a result of early tv typically caught to realism. Most tv productions at the moment resembled filmed theater or vaudeville. Administrators would simply arrange a stationary TV digital camera and let it run.

Within the ongoing dialogue of Ernie Kovacs’s distinctive type of visible comedy, a lot has been made from the technical wizardry concerned, and the truth that he was forward of his time. It’s true that Kovacs was enthralled with these new digital toys that had by no means been used earlier than. He and his crew freely experimented with the know-how, and realized that these strategies supplied nice potentialities. However, what was most vital was figuring out what they’d be used for. So the know-how performed a component, however the course of all the time started, first, with Ernie visualizing a specific scene in his thoughts. Based on the author, Mike Marmer, who ultimately labored for Kovacs:

“Ernie actually noticed footage greater than anything. I do not know the place they got here from, or why – they have been simply weird – however the level is, that that is what he noticed. He noticed the shock of one thing.”

So for instance: for instance that Ernie had an thought for a sketch. He first noticed an image of a person (character) who sees an indication that claims: “fly man needed.” Then, Ernie noticed an image of the person strolling the wrong way up into the studio. Lastly, the know-how adopted: through the use of the reverse scan operate, the picture of the person is flipped the wrong way up, and “the imaginative and prescient” was full.


Recognition of Ernie Kovacs’s inventive achievements has been woefully sluggish in coming. It was not till practically 25 years after his demise, that he started to obtain the popularity that he deserved.

As I discussed in better element firstly of this text, in 1986, the Museum of Tv and Radio (now the Paley Heart for Media) mounted a four-months lengthy sequence “The Imaginative and prescient of Ernie Kovacs,” which showcased the variety of his work. In 1987, Ernie Kovacs was inducted into the Academy of Tv Arts and Sciences’s Corridor of Fame. In 1989, on the event of tv’s 50th anniversary, in a particular subject of New York Journal, Ernie Kovacs was named one of many medium’s prime 25 stars of all time.

Within the closing remarks in her great e-book, “Kovacsland: a Biography of Ernie Kovacs,” Diana Rico wrote:

“The popularity is well-earned and lengthy overdue. In his lifetime, regardless of a loyal contingency of followers and a supportive important institution, Ernie’s insistence on swimming in opposition to the mainstream tide prevented him from attaining the excessive prime time rankings which might be thought to be the badge of success in community TV. However the identical qualities that stored him from reaching the excessive numbers have been what made him a particular expertise -the endlessly curious mind, the love of experimentation, the boundless creativeness, the subversive and surreal wit. Ernie Kovacs beloved nothing greater than to create his weird visions for the world to take pleasure in. We’re lucky that for a dozen years firstly of a very powerful medium of our time, he was capable of do exactly that.”

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