Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams
Panel discussion Friday, April 27 and rotating clips on display through May 27
at the Museum of the Moving Image
Let's get something straight. Even if you've never heard the name "Ernie Kovacs" (much less "Edie Adams"), you life's media diet has felt the sweaty, mustachioed comedian's touch. Kovacs was a pioneer in broadcast TV, but without a conventional career history in standup, vaudeville or movies. Maybe more than anybody else in the game, both he and Adams loved lifting the curtain, showing a little leg—winking at the audience when it was actually improper. Their philosophy of comedy was a potent brew of lo-fi, hyperactively postmodern existential despair: kookily malfunctioning machines, imperious windbags passing themselves off as experts, our collectively ever-flowing spigot of pathetically crappy entertainment.
In their TV comedy, they portrayed dozens of recurring vitriolic spoof characters like Superclod, the knockoff superhero with Quasimodo-like foam muscles, the doddering silent immigrant Eugene, and the weather girl Cloudy Faire—introduced by Kovacs "to take away the dullness of weather reports." Immediately the brass band is playing saucy, roadside jazz and the camera pulls out of a painfully reductive map of the earth, clearly labeled "THIS SIDE UP" on top. Adams snakes her way onstage holding her weather wand aloft and grinning faux-orgasmically; after she announces herself to the audience, shaking her butt at every inflection, the camera aggressively glides into her face. Unruffled, eyes sparkling drunkily, she murmurs to the cameraman: "Not now, Georgie." Wordlessly, we pull back. It was 1956, and she and Kovacs had been married just under two years.
The insistence on keeping current with pop culture, flipping daytime tropes inside-out in close to real time, dominated their shows of the 1950s. Almost everything was done live; sometimes there are long stretches of deliberate mundanity, ruptured by surreal micro-miracles like the above. Sight gags doodled on the margins, too: the same episode opens with Kovacs' face, a godlike blot on the screen's left. He's staring down two tiny classical musicians, simultaneously projected onto the wall playing endless cello loops, directly blocking the letters Kovacs is hanging in order to spell out THE ERNIE KOVACS SHOW. The disconnect between the huge Kovacs and the hologram couple is profound, as he never directly makes eye contact with them, bellowing "c'mon, let's get this junk outta here!": the screen as a plot of contested territory between the comedian's "name" and two unknown members of the orchestra.
At times it seems Kovacs preferred a long flow to the classical setup/punchline model, taking nigh-sadistic pleasure in making a vortex of awkwardness that refuses closure. Parlor tricks were the bread and butter of daytime variety shows, but Kovacs and Adams out-weirded their competition in terms of sheer quantity of jokes; to 21st century eyes, many skits and ideas run too long or suffer under the expectation of their original premises. (Sound familiar?) But onscreen, Kovacs was evolving into something (slightly) less the swarthy, overworked Hungarian and more into a deadpan icon in his own right: a kind of soothing, bizarro-world Walt Disney whom Carl Reiner called "the velvet man." Although he was a pathological gambler, frequently boozing his way through work with a lit Cuban cigar, bookending shows as "Ernie Kovacs" he's unflappably stone-faced, often dressed in solid ties and checkered evening blazers.
The visible pleasure Kovacs gets from publicly betraying the face of authority—the host—is visible across his remaining works, in his depressive winces whenever the act unravels. Some of Kovacs's most sparse, self-effacing work is his series of Dutch Masters commercials, sporting similar maddeningly repetitive baroque music as the aforementioned intro, and often one shot long. They are spots for creativity itself: one shows Kovacs desperately mute from his podium, unable to stir his crew to action—the script girl, the cameraman, the teleprompter and the director are all too busy hazily enjoying their Dutch Masters, and Kovacs plays each and every one.
It's the same wise-ass attitude as Jay Ward's cartoons or Bob & Ray's horrifyingly off-key avant-radio, an era without SNL's hyperactivity —a generation of comedians who grew up wanting to be as maniacal as Kovacs, and helped transform subversiveness into a mainstream cliché. His stuff could be ingeniously disguised as the real thing: a masterful takedown of western gun duel clichés culminates in a shot of a cowboy firing into the screen, followed by a wincing camera technician picking shards of glass out of his eye. Famously, Kovacs spent $12,000 of NBC's dollars on a six-second gag featuring a jalopy that crashes through the floor the instant he—as a bedeviling car salesman—slaps a hand on its fender.
But what distinguishes Kovacs from Steve Allen or Jack Paar is his generous knack for the phantasmagoric. It's never not there, but later shows—especially the non-syndicated one-offs of the early 1960s—demonstrate an accelerated campaign to find new ways of dazzling viewers. Onscreen he was a straightman, with Adams perfecting her brand of deliberate, cluelessly bad acting; but with bigger crews and budgets, Kovacs's visual sense of humor was growing almost transcendent. His most famous standalone piece is the "silent show”: first a live broadcast in 1957 featuring 100% dialogue-free gags, his only appearance in color. The show is regularly hailed for its long-simmering belly laughs and, also, as a signpost of Kovacs' directorial control—a perfectly choreographed rejoinder to the rest of television's virulent babbling, that saw him emulating Buster Keaton on-camera and Dali off.
The 1961 rendition was taped in advance on video, and sees Kovacs, as his Eugene character, outfitted in massive cloglike sneakers that squish disgustingly at every step, and a decidedly unAmerican suit-and-porkpie combination. He wanders around an endless menagerie of studio sets, drawing doors and lamps on walls only to have them magically come to life, watches an invisible dog drink water, hears a Roman sculpture sneeze, yanks a copy of War & Peace off a shelf, only to find a dove flying out of the book's ending. Either version makes for breathtaking cinema—the second is tighter, and drier—but what high-concept auteur would ever agree to rework their masterpiece again within a couple years? In terms of upending drab programming, Kovacs's closest colleague might have been Rod Serling.
Kovacs died at the tippity-top, in a gruesome car accident on Santa Monica Boulevard; he crashed into a power pole, and the rumor was that he was lighting a cigar when it happened. Adams spent four decades salvaging and archiving the kinescopes of her late husband's work, while raising the kids, finding new gigs and paying off Ernie's colossal debts to the IRS. Television cleaned up, snuffed out live disdain for committee-think and the "grisly" side of life. Dead, Kovacs became an unknown, notorious only among comedy historians and obsessed savants of TV history. In a world that stops agog at a new music video by Michel Gondry or OK Go, some of the most whimsical stuff looks like old hat. But it wasn't then, and isn't now. Kovacs and Adams did all their own stunts.