In a few brief years in the 1950s there were actually a number of different Ernie Kovacs shows. The first, Ernie in Kovaksland, originated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and appeared on NBC from July until August 195 1. The Ernie Kovacs Show (first known as Kovacs Unlimited) was programmed on CBS from December 1952 to April 1953 opposite Milton Berle on NBC. Yet another Ernie Kovacs Show aired on NBC from December 195 5 to September 1956. The existence of these separate shows is testament to both the success and failure of Ernie Kovacs. A brilliant and innovative entertainer, he was a failure as a popular program host; praised by critics, he was avoided by viewers.
Kovacs was one of the first entertainers to understand and utilize the television as a true "medium," capable of being conceived and applied in a variety of ways. He recognized the potential of live electronic visual technology and manipulated its peculiar qualities to become a master of the sight gag. Characters in pictures on the walls moved; sculptures undulated; pilots flew away without their planes. For one gag that lasted only a few seconds he spent $12,000: when a salesman (played by Kovacs) slapped the fender of a used car, the car fell though a platform. According to Kovacs, 'Eighty percent of what I do is in the category of sight gags, no pantomime. I work on the incongruity of sight against sound."
Television was a new toy to Ernie Kovacs, a fascinating array of potential special effects. He created an invisible girlfriend who gradually disappeared as she undressed. He cut a girl in half with a hoola-hoop. As another young lady relaxed in a bath tub, a succession of characters climbed out through the soap bubbles. Ernie taped an orange juice can to a kaleidoscope, placed the can in front of a camera lens, turned a flashlight into the lens and created what might be the first psychedelic effect on TV. Kovacs loved the unusual, the unexpected. He tilted both the television camera and a table so that as a character seated at the table attempted to pour milk, the milk appeared to defy gravity and flow to the side.
Many of Kovacs' effects were remarkably simple. He used his face to illustrate the effects of the horizontal and vertical controls of a television set. As he adjusted the vertical, his face grew longer; as he adjusted the horizontal, it stretched side to side. To aid viewers who had black-and white television sets, Kovacs labeled each piece of furniture on the set so viewers would know its color. As he opened a book, sound effects illustrated the plot. As he prepared to saw in half a woman inside a cabinet, two voices were heard from within. Many of his characters were also simplistic. Percy Dovetonsils drank martinis and read poetry. The three apes of the Nairobi Trio never spoke: one played the keyboard, one directed the music, and the third hit the director with a set of drumsticks. Eugene, perhaps Kovacs' most memorable character, never spoke, but managed to sustain a thirty-minute program and win Kovacs an Emmy.
He did not neglect sound, but used it in its proper place, as a compliment to the visuals. He captured the sound of a bullet rolling inside a tuba. He used music to accompany the movements of office furniture: filing cabinets opened and closed, typewriter keys typed, telephone dials rotated, water bottles gurgled, all to the rhythm of music
The influence of the Ernie Kovacs shows-has been extensive. Dan Rowan, one of the hosts of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In said many of that show's ideas came from Ernie Kovacs. On Saturday Night Live, another show directly influenced by the earlier comic, sight gags were so much a staple that when Chevy Chase received an Emmy for his performance on SNL, he thanked Kovacs. And Kovacs' character "The Question Man," who supplied questions to answers submitted by the audience, reappeared as "Carnac" on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The Ernie Kovacs shows were products of the time when television was in its infancy and experimentation was acceptable. It is doubtful that Ernie Kovacs would find a place on television today. He was too zany, too unrestrained, too undisciplined. Perhaps Jack Gould of The New York Times said it best for Ernie Kovacs, "the fun was in trying."
--Lindsy E. Pack