PRINT May 2011


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

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