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

04/26/2012 4:00 AM |

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.