a creative and iconoclastic comedian, pioneered the use of special
effects photography in television comedy. On the 50th anniversary
of the beginning of television in 1989, People Weekly recognized
him as one of television's top 25 stars of all time. During the
1950s, Kovacs' brilliant use of video comedy demonstrated the unique
possibilities of television decades before similar techniques became
popular on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In and the various David
Letterman shows. His live shows were characterized by ad-libbed
routines, enormous flexibility with the TV camera, experimentation
with video effects, complete informality while on camera, and a
permissiveness that expanded studio boundaries by allowing viewers
to see activity beyond the set.1
frequently parodied other programs and introduced imaginative Kovacsian
characters such as the magician Natzoh Hepplewhite, Professor Bernie
Cosnowski, and Mr. Question Man, who resembled Johnny Carson's Carnac
the Magnificent. The best known of his creations was the Nairobi
Trio, three ape instrumentalists playing "Solfeggio" in a deadpan
manner like mechanical monkeys. The high point come when the percussionist
turned jerkily to the conductor and bopped him on the head with
a xylophone hammer.
career in radio, Kovacs' transition to television came in 1950 when
he simultaneously hosted several programs on NBC's WPTZ in Philadelphia.
His first show, Deadline for Dinner, consisted of cooking
tips from guest chefs. When a guest did not show, he did his own
recipe for "Eggs Scavok," his name spelled backwards. In August
1950, he hosted a quiz and fashion program titled Pick Your Ideal,
basically a 15-minute promotional for the Ideal Manufacturing Company.
In November of that year he pioneered one of TV's first morning
wake-up programs. The unstructured format required improvisational
abilities Kovacs had mastered on radio. The daily 90-minute slot
was titled 3 To Get Ready. (The number three referred to
channel 3 or WPTZ.)
style was extremely unorthodox in early television. He approached
the medium as something totally new. While his contemporaries were
treating TV as an extension of vaudeville stages, Kovacs was expanding
the visible confines of the studio. His skits incorporated areas
previously considered taboo, including dialogue with the camera
crew, the audience, and forays into the studio corridor.
his abilities, NBC network executives scheduled his first network
show, It's Time for Ernie, in May 1951. The daily 15-minute
broadcast aired from WPTZ featuring Kovacs and music from a local
combo known as the Tony deSimone Trio. In July he received his first
prime time slot as a summer replacement for Kukla, Fran, and
Ollie. Ernie In Kovacsland opened with the music "Oriental Blues"
and title cards with cartoon drawings of Ernie. A voice-over announced:
"Ernie in Kovacsland! A short program--it just seems long."
Early in 1952,
Kovacs reappeared on daytime TV as host for Kovacs on the Corner,
the final show to originate from Philadelphia. Similar to radio's
Allen's Alley, Kovacs strolled along a cartoon-like set and
talked to such neighborhood characters as Luigi the Barber, Pete
the Cop, Al the Dog, and Little Johnny Merkin, a midget. One program
segment allowed a selected audience member to say hello to folks
back home. A closed window filled the screen. On the window shade
was printed the phrase "Yoo-Hoo Time." When the shade was raised,
the excited audience member waved, saying "Yoo-hoo!"
In April 1952,
Kovacs moved to WCBS in New York as host of a local daytime comedy
variety show named Kovacs Unlimited. Known for its parodies of other
programs, Kovacs Unlimited resembled the contemporary Saturday
Night Live. It was Kovacs' longest-running series out of New
York, lasting 21 months.
CBS aired a new, national Ernie Kovacs Show opposite NBC's Texaco
Star Theater with Milton Berle. Kovacs produced and wrote the
show himself and, as with his earlier broadcasts, much of the program
was improvised. Unlike other TV comedies, there was no studio audience,
nor was canned laughter used. In Kovacs' view, the usefulness of
an audience was diminished because they could not see the special
effects. Described as his "hallucinatory world," the program featured
many ingenious video effects as though illusion and reality were
confused. In his skits, paintings came to life, flames from candles
remained suspended in midair, and library books spoke.
periodically in shows over various networks. In April 1954, the
network's flagship station, WABD in New York, scheduled him as a
late-night rival to Steve Allen. NBC aired his show as a daytime
comedy premiering in December 1955 and in prime-time a year later.
Kovacs' final appearances were in a monthly series over ABC during
1961 and 1962. He received an Emmy for the 1961 series sponsored
by Dutch-Masters Cigars. Regulars on many of Kovacs' early shows
were Edie Adams, who became his second wife, straight-men Trigger
Lund and Andy McKay, and the Eddie Hatrak Orchestra.
The most extraordinary
episode in Kovacs' career was the half-hour NBC broadcast, without
dialogue, known as the "Silent Show." Seen on 19 January 1957, it
was the first prime-time program done entirely in pantomime. Accompanied
only with sound effects and music, Kovacs starred as the mute, Chaplinesque
"Eugene," a character he earlier developed during the fall of 1956
when hosting The Tonight Show. In 1961, Kovacs and co-director
Joe Behar received the Directors Guild Of America Award for a second
version of the program over ABC.
Kovacs was an
avant-garde experimenter in a television era governed by norms inherited
from earlier entertainment media. In his routines, he pioneered
the use of blackouts, teaser openings, improvisations with everyday
objects, matting techniques, synchronization of music and sound
with images, and various camera effects including superimpositions,
reverse polarity (a switch making positive seem negative), and reverse
scanning (flipping images upside down). Recent TV documentaries
have celebrated his work. These include WNJT's Cards And Cigars:
The Trenton In Ernie Kovacs (1980), Showtime Cable's Ernie
Kovacs: Television's Original Genius (1982), and ABC's Ernie
Kovacs: Between The Laughter (1984). In 1987, he was inducted
into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame.
Photo courtesy of Edie Adams
KOVACS. Born in Trenton, New Jersey,U.S.A., 23 January 1919.
Attended New York School of Theatre and American Academy of Dramatic
Art in Manhattan. Children from first marriage: Betty and Kippie;
2) Edie Adams, 1954, one daughter. As teenager, performed in stock
companies, 1936-39; hospitalized, for 19 months, 1939; formed own
stock company, 1941-43; columnist for hometown newspaper, The
Trentonian, 1945-50; announcer, director of special events,
and assistant programming for radio station WTTM, 1942-50; first
worked in television, 1950, on cooking show for WPTZ-TV; morning
show, WPTZ-TV, 1950; It's Time for Ernie, NBC-TV, 1951; host,
various shows, 1950s; first film, Operation Mad Ball, 1957;
Bell, Book and Candle, 1958; first starring vehicle in British
film Five Golden Hours, 1961. Recipient: Emmy Awards, 1957
and 1961; named to Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall
of Fame, 1987. Died in Los Angeles, 13 January 1962.
Time for Ernie
1952-53, 1956 The Ernie Kovacs Show (first titled Kovacs
of Magic (host)
Eye, Private Eye (host)
1961-1962 The Ernie Kovacs Special
Mad Ball, 1957; Bell, Book and Candle, 1958; It Happened
to Jane, 1958; Our Man In Havana, 1959; Wake Me When
It's Over, 1960; Strangers When We Meet, 1960; Pepe,
1960; North to Alaska, 1960; Five Golden Hours, 1961;
Sail a Crooked Ship, 1961; Cry for Happy, 1961.
"Ernie Kovacs, 1919-1962, Television Performer." People Weekly
(New York), Summer 1989.
Dick. "The Best of Ernie Kovacs." Los Angeles Magazine, October
Diana. Kovacsland: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs. New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
David. The Ernie Kovacs Phile. New York: Simon & Schuster,
Richard. "Celebrating A Comedy Composer." Time (New York),
14 July 1986.