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.
The late, great record producer Joel Dorn (Roberta Flack, Rahsaan Roland Kirk) grew up in Philadelphia and was a Kovacs fanatic.
"Man, I used to watch him and wonder what the fuck he would do next," Joel recalled, "because he had this thing of doing anything he had to, to keep the show moving. He'd lip synch to weird records. Throw things at the camera. He always pulled things out of thin air. It was the hippest shit on TV up to then. Miles ahead of anything else, as great as other stuff was."
Other non-sitcom programming during that period was very formidable. Sid Caesar's Your Show Of Shows boasted a writing staff that included Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen. There was Ed Sullivan, whose guests included everyone from Elvis Presley to Lord Buckley. Dramatic shows presented new teleplays by no less than Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling. News was Edward R. Murrow. The early TV talent pool was glorious, fully an embarrassment of talent. And even among that crowd, Kovacs stood singular.
"Kovacs was a pioneer in hip comedy in general," says George Wendt (Norm from Cheers). "He really introduced hip humor-what is sometimes called sick humor-to TV. He's on a par with Lenny Bruce and the early days of Mad [Magazine]."
Kovacs was certainly funny on camera, but he was beyond comedy as a visual conceptualist. Aside from on his live morning shows, eschewed live audiences, feeling their reaction interrupted the organic timing of his style of comedy.
"Television was very often just ... filmed vaudeville," Edie Adams told me once, "and then Ernie came to it with things you could never do on stage. They were too slow or too small and intimate for a big live audience. Or they didn't have the usual comedic structure of a set-up and a punch line. Sometimes it was some little one-second blackout sketch. Sometimes it was an extended visual. He could stretch an idea like taffy. He could take the simplest object and do five minutes with it."
The Ernie Kovacs Collection Volume 2 (Shout! Factory, 2012) goes wider than did the first volume, which collected together his groundbreaking 1961 network TV specials. To television comedy aficionados, that was the DVD equivalent of a definitive Hot Five's and Seven's box. With that collection out of the way, the broader survey of his career can begin, and it's startling to see how much ground is covered in this three-DVD set. Kovacs was one of the most mercurial comic talents TV has produced to date. Two of the three DVD's are of the live NBC morning shows that influenced Letterman so, still fresh and unpredictable. Each of those two discs has bonus sketches of Kovacs' most enduring onscreen characters, including politically incorrect effeminate poet Percy Dovetonsils.
(The third disc-my favorite of the box-features three episodes of his surreal, cerebral, and short-lived panel game show, Take A Good Look, which is sort of like What's My Line? meets video Pictionary à la Kovacs. The rest is a miscellaneous collection, including Kovacs' only filmed solo interview, for CBC's show The Seven Lively Arts, which is to me as fascinating as his comedy.)
Dovetonsils was his most famous creation, save possibly for the Nairobi Trio. Kovacs created him in 1951 while still on local TV in Philadelphia, and the character endured. Dovestonsils lisped and wore glasses with heavy-lidded eyeballs painted on, sported a zebra-striped smoking jacket, and drank a martini with a daisy in it. He read original poems and minced and flirted with his crew. He even recorded a full LP of poems (in character), which was assumed lost.
No longer. Percy Dovetonsils... Thpeaks (Omnivore, 2012) is the album that was rumored to exist but nobody exactly knew where the tapes were (because they were mislabeled, as it turns out). While its release is not exactly as momentous as, say, the recent The Beach Boys' The Smile Sesssions (Capitol, 2011) box set, it's still hilarious. Although Kovacs himself disdained comedy albums, he cut a very good one here, and it's a shame he didn't get to finish the production of it himself. Pianist Ben Model-a serious Kovacs historian-put musical backgrounds to Kovacs' tapes, and it's really hard to think of anything he didn't do right. As is usual with Omnivore, there's some pertinent bonus material as well.
Edie Adams warrants more representation in the record racks. The Charming Miss Edie Adams (Varese Sarabande, 2012) is a reissue of her 1958 RKO Records LP of the same name, but it only scratches the surface of the singer she was. Omnivore has collected a bunch of Christmas songs from the daily Kovacs Unlimited shows (all from December 1952), The Edie Adams Christmas Album (Omnivore, 2012). While a holiday album may seem likely an unlikely reentry into the music marketplace, it is in this case fitting, because Adams was a huge fan of Christmas, and, frankly none of her records has ever given this much indication as to her stylistic range. But Christmas music can alternately be holy, swinging, comedic, and sentimental. And this disc-which includes Kovacs on a few duets-really points up to that.
Her "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is a sweet little jewel. For those who like pop standards in the Jo Stafford vein, Christmas Album is very happy news. On the Collection Vol 2 DVD, her musical numbers from the daily shows were left off (as the cost of licensing the songs for video was prohibitive), and hopefully a disc will be assembled from the cutting room floor, because she turned in quite a few fantastic performances (as did daily show regular Matt Dennis, known mostly as a songwriter-"Angel Eyes" is his-but who was also a terrific singer and George Shearing-esque pianist).
After Kovacs' untimely death in 1962 (car accident), she did a series of TV specials that are among the hidden gems of music on TV. She had saxophonist Stan Getz on one, playing music from Focus (Verve, 1962), his bold collaboration withcomposer/arranger Eddie Sauter, which is largely glossed over now, mostly because it is overshadowed by his bossa nova hits of the same period. Adams had very good taste in musical guests, and it would not be a disservice to see those shows resurrected.
Adams also wrote an autobiography, Sing A Pretty Song: the Offbeat Life of Edie Adams (William Morrow & Co, 1990) in which she spoke candidly-though not scandalously-of her life with and after Kovacs. Although out of print, it is well worth finding, and pops up on the usual used book websites often enough. She passed in October of 2008, 81 years old, a true grand dame of television's golden era.
Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams were TV's first truly hip married couple, their story worthy of a big book with lots of pictures and anecdotes. I am available to write it if anyone is interested. Their story gets more and more interesting the more you know of it and them. Going through my own notes for this-which date back to 1995, when I worked briefly for Adams and interviewed her extensively-I'm shocked that I've reduced things down this much. I've haven't touched hundreds of hours of TV, film roles, music, and even Kovacs' 1957 novel, Zoomar (Doubleday, out of print).
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