Ernie Kovacs, the funniest guy you’ve never heard of, was just shy of his 43rd birthday when he died in a 1962 car accident in Los Angeles. Over the course of his tragically short career, he logged hundreds of hours of live TV on things like “Take a Good Look” (1959-61) and the various incarnations of “The Ernie Kovacs Show” (1953, 1954-55, 1955-56, 1956, 1957), displaying an undeniable fourth wall-breaking genius and pioneering a unique comedic voice that would go on to influence everyone from David Letterman to Captain Kangaroo — everyone who was lucky enough to have seen him, that is, as a lot of his work was erased, discarded or never recorded in the first place, surviving only in videotape and kinescopes snippets.
A talent ahead of his time, Kovacs, who often worked with his collaborator and wife Edie Adams, has gotten more recognition posthumously, his growing repution meriting a new box set of his work released last year by Shout Factory and a series running at the Museum of the Moving Image until May 27th.
To kick off the event, the museum hosted a panel of people who knew or simply loved Kovacs work on April 27th, moderated by comedian Robert Klein and including series and box set curator Ben Model, legendary Broadway producer Harold Prince, original “Saturday Night Live” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” writer Alan Zweibel, journalist Jeff Greenfield and TV critic David Bianculli. Between clips of Kovacs’ available work, the six men shared anecdotes and thoughts on the underappreciated Kovacs and his legacy.
“You think of the ’50s stereotype — it’s plaid and it’s bland and it’s Ozzie and Harriet, it’s people’s sleeping in twin beds and eight layers of clothing. And in fact there’s a lot of subversion that goes on the in the ’50s,” said Bianculli. “You have Mad Magazine, which in the first days was very edgy — Superman is a coward, Archie is a drug dealer. You have Lenny Bruce, you have Tom Lehrer, whose records couldn’t be bought in a store because they were so naughty. Ernie Kovacs was the kind of guy who came on TV and just wiped out the conventions. Everybody on TV in that era would say ‘Thank you for letting us into your home.’ Kovac’s line was ‘Thank you for letting us into your home, but couldn’t you have cleaned up a little bit?’
“To me that’s the essence of him — the glint in the eye,” Bianculli continued. “He’s just playing, he doesn’t have a fourth wall, he’ll schmooze with the cameraman in the middle of the bit, he’ll bring the audience in. In a time when there were no computer graphics and you had to do this all in very primitive ways with a budget of a dollar. He exemplified a time in the ’50s that’s been forgotten that to me is a really important part.”
In Kovacs’ time, Zweibel marveled, “there weren’t that many conventions. When we started ‘Saturday Night Live’ 20-some odd years later, there was the sitcom form, we knew what the straight line was, so we knew what we were parodying. He was there at such an infancy, whatever conventions there were, he played with them, but he also created just being funny in and of itself without doing satire.””He was certainly the start of guys like [Dave] Garroway who dissected what television was,” said Prince. “And I think right now Letterman does that — ‘What is television?’ Ernie was one of the first to do that.”
Greenfield recalled that the TV critic father of “Blazing Saddles” screenwriter Andrew Bergman was once invited on the show after writing favorable things about Kovacs. “He introduced him: ‘Bergman has graciously consented to give us some pointers and he’ll be giving your his objective opinion.’ All throughout the show they cut to Bergman. He’s tied up, they’re lighting fires under his feet, he’s at a typewriter being forced at gunpoint to write good things.”
“I think it was a terrible mistake to move to Hollywood,” said Prince. “He was a very good actor, but they didn’t need that, plenty of other actors could have done that sort of thing. I thought when they moved to Hollywood, it was a big loss in creativity. [Ernie and Edie] liked the Hollywood life a lot, the company of the Billy Wilders and all those people. But it was much more important, what he was doing to the medium of television.”
Noted Model, “There were people who likes what he did. He would be let go from one show and picked up somewhere else. There was clearly an interest. But no one ever knew what to do with him. When he finished the DuMont contract, he was signed to a huge deal with NBC, but it took them several months to come up with a show for him to do. They knew people were watching, they never knew why.”
“He was essentially a one-man show,” said Klein. “There weren’t big staffs of writers. I think that basically people just liked him. There was no malice in his humor. A lot of times there was no audience. You’re the audience — that camera. It was a very television sensibility.”
“The only time I can think of gorilla masks being used subtly,” concluded Zweibel, “the Nairobi Trio is my single favorite. They are in gorilla masks, it’s true, but when he’s hit on the head, it takes him a while to turn, the thing has its own sensibility. It has its own time and rhythm. A guy like me who’s been hustling for laughs for 47 years, I can’t go as long as that.”