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PRINT May 2011

MEDIA

Avant la Letterman

The Ernie Kovacs Show, 1955–56, still from a TV show on NBC. Ernie Kovacs.

THE FIRST DOZEN YEARS of American network television hardly lacked for lowbrow brilliance—Lucille Ball, Burns and Allen, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, the cast of Car 54, Where Are You?, to name only those performers whose product has enjoyed the hardiest shelf life. Their comedy had its roots in radio, vaudeville and burlesque, Hollywood and the Catskills—and then there was Ernie Kovacs (1919–1962), a comic for whom TV created its own reality.

Kovacs was purely televisual. Though he served his apprenticeship in radio and stock theater, his work was essentially connected to the nature of broadcast TV and what would later be called video. Just thinking about the medium made him avant-garde. The day (in June 1951) he shot an arrow into the air that wound up piercing an apple placed on his own head, he recapitulated the discontinuous “continuous” pan Maya Deren had employed in her 1945 A Study in Choreography for Camera. But Kovacs, who felt empowered to experiment on wake-up TV (a format he invented for a local Philadelphia station in 1950) because it was unclear whether anybody was actually watching, was not merely interested in bending the space-time continuum.

When, on It’s Time for Ernie and another 1951 program, Ernie in Kovacsland (a summer replacement for NBC’s popular hand-puppet show Kukla, Fran and Ollie), Kovacs chucked pies at a transparent barrier protecting the camera or walked off set (with the camera awkwardly following) or explicated a breakaway vase or provided a live turtle with voice-over hiccups or, in one of his signature gags, hung a board of control knobs around his neck and used them to tune his expressions, he was shamelessly drawing attention to TV as construct—and in the most primitive way imaginable.

Unlike fellow clowns Ball and Gleason, Kovacs did not suddenly erupt from the small screen into America’s living room. For much of his eleven-year TV career, he was a journeyman, albeit one with a remarkably consistent series of riffs and interests—as demonstrated by the new, lovingly assembled six-DVD Ernie Kovacs Collection, as complete a retrospective as this American artist has had. The tilted-camera trick and the sound-based sight gag were there from the start. No matter whether Kovacs was hosting a cooking, quiz, or variety show, he managed to use the Gershwinesque ragtime composition “Oriental Blues” as his theme, while the fake gorillas of the Nairobi Trio invariably performed some version of Robert Maxwell’s “Solfeggio.”

It was Kovacs who pioneered the hipster protocol of playing to (or confounding) the crew and identifying the boss. The set for his 1955–56 NBC morning show was a mock medieval dungeon, from which he would riff on and rail against network president Pat Weaver. Some years ago in these pages [Artforum, February 1982], I placed Kovacs among a kindred group of self-reflexive “vulgar modernists,” including animator Tex Avery, movie director Frank Tashlin, and Mad magazine founding editor Harvey Kurtzman, as practitioners of a “popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with the specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making.” The Ernie Kovacs Show, the comedian’s first prime-time spot, a summer replacement for Caesar’s Hour, adapted Kurtzman’s strategy to television. Just as Mad began as a comic book that parodied other comic books, so The Ernie Kovacs Show was largely devoted to satirizing TV content; actual commercials were interspersed with Kovacs’s own spots, spieling for ordinary mops and selling broken crockery.

Critic Donald Phelps, whose appreciation of Kovacs appeared in the first issue of the early-’60s little magazine Kulchur, considered Kovacs’s singular gift to be that of “demonstrating to his public the immeasurable crumminess of so-called professional television.” This was initially apparent in the morning shows, where a dangling overhead mic seemed like one more ridiculous prop alongside the host’s giant toy telephone or the outsize flapjack of a sombrero he wrapped around his head, and the clutter approached the detritus that surrounded Jack Smith in his early ’70s Plaster Foundation performances.

The desultory Punch and Judy shows Kovacs began staging on Ernie in Kovacsland are one step from Smith’s stuffed-animal production of Ibsen’s Ghosts. In one travesty of a travesty, a pair of inanely grinning hand puppets cavort to Spike Jones’s version of “Hungarian Rhapsody” for the length of the record. Kovacs, who essentially functioned as his own straight man, thought like an animator. He was a master of sound-image juxtaposition and arte povera Mickey-Mousing. The 1959 NBC special Kovacs on Music features a four-minute scene from Swan Lake done straight, if a bit awkwardly, by dancers in tutus and full-body gorilla suits. The punch line—the prima ballerina being presented with a bouquet of bananas—only accentuates the pathos of the performance.

Kovacs did his share of genre parodies—somnolent private eyes, corny cowboys, the heroic Superclod, and, especially, advertisements—but he mainly travestied the idea of performance. (He is an obvious precursor to, if not an influence on, the comic video-based concept art of the ’70s and ’80s exemplified by William Wegman, Michael Smith, and Stuart Sherman.) Defamiliarizing noncomic material was another specialty, as when a guest cimbalom player abruptly turned glow-in-the-dark. John Minkowsky’s essay in a catalogue published twenty-five years ago to coincide with a Kovacs retrospective at the Museum of Broadcasting in New York put Kovacs in the context of video art—the original “videospace illusionist,” who remarkably used low-tech versions of Nam June Paik’s video synthesizer as early as his first morning shows.

The Ernie Kovacs Show, 1955–56, still from a TV show on NBC. Ernie Kovacs (center).

But even at the time, Kovacs was not unappreciated. As early as 1953, TV Guide dubbed him the “Electronics Comedian” for his early-morning stunts, matting the illusion of a hole in his head or building an upside-down set (and inverting the camera) to make water pour toward the ceiling. Variety’s review of the following year’s short-lived late-night Ernie Kovacs Show began by comparing it to Olsen and Johnson’s cult landmark Hellzapoppin’, with the approving observation that “there’s no pretense at making sense, and it’s the only known display where the backstage clamor is more appropriately attuned to and rightfully belongs with the on-camera behavior.” (As an example of Kovacs’s milder pandemonium, the writer noted twenty-seven repetitions of a single film clip showing a brawl between a police officer and two gunmen.)

In 1956, Kovacs was characterized as the “entrepreneur of off-beat wackiness” by New York Times TV critic Jack Gould, who observed that while Kovacs might be “an acquired taste . . . [h]is comedy is frequently thoroughly inventive, particularly in its use of television’s technical tricks.” Gould wound up by calling Kovacs “a man of ideas.” Six months later, in January 1957, he praised Kovacs’s first wordless special as a “truly inventive use of television. . . . Behind all his foolishness lie both taste and a mind”: Handed the last half hour of NBC’s Saturday Color Carnival after Jerry Lewis (in his solo TV debut) decided he wanted only sixty minutes, and enjoying complete creative control, Kovacs fashioned a wordless but hardly noise-free show. Most of it was given over to the peregrinations of his character Eugene in a snooty private club, a live-action cartoon analogous to Jacques Tati in its orchestrated sight-and-sound gags.

The so-called silent show, which began by illustrating Bishop Berkeley’s apocryphal question regarding a tree falling unheard in a forest by stuffing cotton into a toy squirrel’s ear, brought Kovacs a measure of fame—he was the subject of a ten-page Life cover story (“An Electronic Comic and His TV Tricks”) and, wooed by Hollywood, took off for two years of secondary roles. His return to TV with the hour-long NBC special Kovacs on Music, aired in May 1959, was his first videotaped telecast. The format enabled an elaborate TV-specific dance number (“Chopsticks” played by miniaturized chorus boys jumping on piano keys and dancing, Bob Fosse style, with disembodied legs and outsize, Oldenburgian paper clips, everything winding up inside a giant sandwich—eaten by Ernie), as well as the spectacularly inept (which is to say, brilliantly choreographed) staging of a televised operetta.

Kovacs on Music would be the prototype for the more modest and precious half-hour ABC specials, shown more or less monthly from April 1961 until the comedian’s death in early 1962, that form the basis of his posthumous reputation. These specials, repackaged by PBS in the late ’70s, anthologize Kovacs’s greatest riffs—his perceptual gags, living cartoons (including a reprise of Eugene’s trip to the library), and TV-specific production numbers such as a poker game set to Beethoven’s Fifth or Esquivel’s extravagantly easy-listening version of “Sentimental Journey” performed by mysteriously moving office furniture. Still, early daytime shows aside, the purest sample of Kovacs’s throwaway art may be found in his half-hour celebrity quiz show Take a Good Look (1959–61, ABC), which, although nominally premised on programs like What’s My Line? and I’ve Got a Secret, is far closer in spirit to René Clair’s 1924 dada short Entr’acte.

Take a Good Look’s distinction lies in the totality of its worldview. Prompted by Kovacs, a celebrity panel attempts to ascertain a mystery guest’s occupation. The guest is basically a prop, and the panel serves as Kovacs’s stooge. The show is all Ernie. (His sponsor, Dutch Masters cigars, even let him make his own commercials for them—a practice that would extend to his ABC specials.) The clues, embedded in the free-associational logic of typically outlandish skits, often featuring Kovacs’s stock characters, seem designed to render the panel clueless. Their leisurely unfolding is complemented by the ridiculously short amount of time allowed for questions; not infrequently, Kovacs blandly sounds the buzzer before a sputtering panel member can articulate a single query.

Take a Good Look is superbly pointless. The panel almost never guesses the guest’s raison d’être; its comic attempts to solve Kovacs’s riddles only heighten the sense of giddy irrationality. Astonishingly, this anti–quiz show ran for two seasons, though The Ernie Kovacs Collection includes only one episode. Did any others survive? What’s needed next is a Kovacs catalogue raisonné.

J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice.