Ernie Kovacs (January 23, 1919 January 19, 1962) was a tremendously influential comedian, writer, and director for television, as well as an actor and novelist. He's most well-known for his work during the Golden Age of Television, which was applauded for its use of surreal, absurd comedy and one of the first people to actively experiment with the television medium. While a large portion of his work has disappeared over the years, his work was beloved in his day, having fans including Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, James Stewart and the Rat Pack and has influenced countless comedians.
After doing a variety of local work, Kovacs gained his first big break in Three To Get Ready, a local news show that demonstrated his gift for off-beat visual comedy and impressed so many people that he gained more and more bigger shows until he started working for WCBS-TV, and from there, he created a variety of different and unique programs and specials for various networks. On many of these shows, he not only made various brief sketches, but also developed many characters, such as Percy Dovetonsils, a lisping, Ambiguously Gay poetry buff, the Chaplinesque bumbler, Eugene, and German disk jockey, Wolfgang von Sauerbraten, among many others. His comedy relied heavily on unexpected adlibbing, Surreal Humor, visual jokes, satirizing various tropes and shows of the day, along with lots of Getting Crap Past the Radar and Breaking the Fourth Wall. As much as he was known for his comedy, Kovacs has also been Vindicated by History as one of the first people to take television as a valid artform and for experimenting with the visual tricks of the medium long before others had been doing so.
He was Happily Married to his beloved wife and muse, Edie Adams, an accomplished actress and singer in her own right who often accompanied Kovacs in his shows and sketches. His career was sadly cut short by a fatal car crash on January 19, 1962, depriving the world of much more fantastic work to come from this genius comic. To make matters worse, Kovacs had been notorious for being in debt, owing thousands to the IRS, doing any work to pay the bills and owing ABC so much that they started erasing his surviving tapes for blank space.
Despite this, Kovacs' surviving work has gained a resurgence in recent years. His highly experimental, very funny TV programs have been regarded as some of the best work in the history of the medium and his anarchic, surreal, censor-be-damned style of comedy helped inspire many future comedians, with Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, Chevy Chase and Jim Henson openly acknowledged him as an inspiration and as master of the form. His work can easily be found on YouTube and Shout! Factory has restored and released as much of his surviving material on some very impressive collections, found here, as well as recently-surfaced Percy Dovetails album found here,ensuring that his work will live on for future generations to come.
Ernie Kovacs' shows provide examples of:
- Ambiguously Gay: Percy Dovetonsils was a true example of this, with him commenting on the cameraman's "motht muthcular legth" or reading a cowboy story and riffing, "Are you really a gay ranchero?" In the 1950s!
- Biopic: Ernie Kovacs: Between The Laughter, a 1984 TV movie with Jeff Goldblum as Kovacs. While it had some re-creations of his famous bits, it was mostly focused on his lengthy child custody dispute with his first wife.explanation
- Black Comedy: He delved into this on occasion.
- Cigar Chomper: He was rarely seen with out one.
- Credits Gag: Kovacs loved to play with the credits on the shows that he produced. He frequently took the opportunity to assign silly names to characters or actors ("Listerine Goldfarb") and insert snarky comments.
- Cutaway Gag: An early practitioner of this trope, most notably on Take A Good Look.
- Deadpan Snarker: His stints on game shows and interviews show him as a master at this.
- Happily Married/The Muse: To Edie Adams, his creative collaborator and frequent co-star.
- The Gambling Addict: To the point where he'd play with known cheats rather than not play at all.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: When looking back at some of his material, one may find it genuinely shocking what he got away with on 1950s television.
- Parody: His game show, Take a Good Look, mocked the conventions of game shows of the day and many sketches lampoon many of the stars and shows common in 1950s culture and media.
- Pie in the Face: Kovacs was not above pieing an attractive woman to get a laugh. Once such target was actress/singer Edie Adams, who would become the second Mrs. Kovacs.
- Played for Laughs: His was a comedian, after all.
- Renaissance Man: Actor, comedian, director, writer (for both screen and print), television personality, advertisement creator, and Emmy-winning visual-effects artist were just a few of his occupations.
- Rule of Funny
- Surreal Humor: And one of the best at the craft.
- Silence Is Golden: His half-hour special, Eugene, was the first silent program on prime-time and has Kovacs as a character akin to The Little Tramp or Monsiuer Hulot, bumbling through surreal, visual gags.
- Stage Magician: One of his acts was Matzoh Hepplewhite, the world's most hilariously inept magician.
- Visual Pun: The man could've been a live-action Tex Avery for the amount of stuff he'd do.