You Can't Do That on Television: The Legacy of Ernie Kovacs 

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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.


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