Fifty years after his death, Ernie Kovacs is de rigueur. Mainstream, even. His angular, imaginative approach to humor was impossible to imitate, but his influence on television-specifically television comedy-is intractable. He's the Thelonious Monk of the small screen. And just trying to play in a Monkish style always points out that Monk is Monk and nobody else is, so it is with TV and Kovacs.
The jazz world often assumes that the avant-garde thinks and operates independent from the mainstream. We'd be shocked to find saxophonist Ellery Eskelin on singer Jane Monheit's new disc.
But there are other avant-gardes, no less wild, and in the mainstream. Carl Stalling's Warner Brothers cartoon music leaps to mind, as do the work Terry Gilliam, Captain Beefheart, and a few others.
Ernie Kovacs (January 23, 1919-January 13, 1962) came out of Trenton and started his career in radio. From 1941 through 1950, he was a fixture on WTTM, and was noted for outrageous live remotes that included everything from broadcasting from a plane while taking flying lessons to standing on the tracks of an oncoming train and leaping off just in time not to get hit. If brevity is the soul of wit, Kovacs was Otis Redding. He also did a fair amount of local theater, which came in handy when he made the jump to television in 1950, in nearby Philadelphia.
And it was in there where he made his mark, with innovative camera tricks, non sequitur blackout sketches, and video absurdism. Think of the Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations happening as live action in black and white, and you have Ernie Kovacs. Gilliam wrote:
"One of my strongest memories as a kid growing or not-growing up in the countryside of Minnesota was having to go to our neighbor's house to watch television. I had no idea that the Nameless God of Surreal Humor was hunting me down. I felt happy with the ......world as it was. But, one night that dark god coaxed the neighbors into switching the TV to The Ernie Kovacs Show. I was ambushed. Knocked sideways into a world where the bizarre and the daft and the preposterous all lived happily alongside wisdom, wit and perception. I had never experienced anything so visually absurd and inventive. It was sublime. It hurt. I was 11 years old. Was this some new form of child abuse? If it was, it was one of the most momentous things that ever happened to me. Ernie Kovacs scarred me for life. Thankfully, I've never recovered."
Look again at David Letterman's first few years as a late night host on NBC. The look of the show, the freewheeling delivery and camera tricks are Kovacs as well. Upon discovering him, you immediately notice evidence of him everywhere. The first few seasons of Saturday Night Live, as well, would be inexplicable without his (oft-acknowledged) influence.
Kovacs was a visual innovator, but his use of sound and music was an integral part of his experimental comedy. He disdained comedy records per se, but his soundtrack took in everything was made of everything from composer Kurt Weill (sung by German comedian Wolfgang Neuss) to Max Esquivel.
"Kovacs was not always as funny without the visuals," according to Dr Demento, "but the music associated with him still certainly brings a smile! I treasure The Ernie Kovacs Record Collection (1997), the CD that Varese Sarabande put out awhile back...and there was The Ernie Kovacs Album (1976), a Columbia LP that's also quite entertaining."
Collection, assembled painstakingly by Irwin Chusid, who also brought us landmark reissues of music by Raymond Scott and Max Esquivel, is an end-to-end festival of sonic oddity, featuring (among others) Esquivel, Weill, Ferrante and Teicher, Yma Sumac, and, of course, Robert Maxwell, whose "Solfeggio" became the theme song of Kovacs' famous real life simian music box, The Nairobi Trio. This sketch remains one of Kovacs' most beloved, and is certainly one of the most original inventions in the canon of television comedy. It is a true masterpiece of small-screen timing.
To look at Kovacs, he does not appear unsuited to the mainstream of his time. Very handsome, with dark bushy eyebrows, and an omnipresent big cigar, he looks like a funny fifties TV guy. His wife and great comic foil, Edie Adams, was a gorgeous blond singer/actress, who looked every bit the Doris Day / Dinah Shore type. But Edie Adams also had a degree from Julliard (as an opera singer) and a brain like a pissed off Maserati. She could turn corners in as fast and vicious manner as any comedic sidekick had. She was a terrific actress (with or without Kovacs), and a singer who would have done well to record more. Her output on record is scant, and-after viewing dozens of Kovacs daily shows, on each of which she always sang one song-she was as deceptively versatile as Doris Day.