Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio

March 21, 2011

It's Finally Time for Ernie

by Ron Simon

Ernie Kovacs is one of those thoroughly original and daring comic masters whose name should be firmly secure in our cultural memory. For too long the spirit of Kovacs has been maintained by a small, yet influential cult, never breaking into general public discussion. But now seems that time that Kovacs will have his major breakthrough, almost fifty years after he died in a tragic car accident in 1962.

Throughout the fifties Kovacs created his own off-kilter and often perverse universe on network television. He used the small screen as his personal comic canvas, employing every electronic trick to sustain a parallel video universe. Kovacs was a unique combination of cerebral, surreal and silly; he was high art, lowbrow, and everything in between, constantly challenging the medium's early assumptions and conventions. He implicitly understood that he lived in a black and white box, forever calling attention to the fact that he was just a series of pixels on your screen.

Few popular entertainers have exhibited such artistic growth over a short time. His increasing self-consciousness about his  art anticipated the creative journeys of the Beatles and George Carlin. He began in 1950 as an improbable Philadelphia variety host, creating a zany atmosphere of ad-libbing with colleagues and directly addressing his viewers. He embraced the DIY cheapness of local TV, improvising with lamest of props. A pair of plastic glasses thrown to him inspired the creation of his beloved character, the lisping poet Percy Dovetonsils (pictured right).

By the end of the decade Kovacs became a comic minimalist, generating laughter in the most economical fashion with quick blackouts confounding expectation set to a German soundtrack (see video below). He became a special effects wizard, expressing his dark humor with superimposition, matting, reverse polarity and asynchronous sound. Desiring to take "sound to sight," Kovacs pioneered the music video, as he conjured up moody, dreamlike imagery to accompany Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. No one lived in videospace like Ernie; his show was all TV.

After his death, his legacy was kept alive with a series of retrospectives, tying his vision to the most adventurous developments in contemporary television. A 1968 special showed Kovacs as the inspiration for the number one show in the country, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in.  A PBS series in 1977 generated articles about how Kovacs anticipated Sesame Street, Monty Python, and Saturday Night Live. A 1986 retrospective at our previous incarnation, The Museum of Broadcasting, cited Kovacs as a force behind such diverse enterprises as MTV and video art.  As Comedy Central ran his programs in the nineties, Kovacs's aesthetic was seen in such cheapo experiments as Pee-wee's Playhouse and Mystery Science Theater 3000. Insiders recognized his art, but Kovacs remained outside the pantheon of our cultural heroes.

Hopefully that will change soon. Next month Shout! Factory is releasing the most comprehensive record of Kovacs's improbable odyssey. This illuminating multi-DVD set, The Ernie Kovacs Collection, documents how this singular comedian changed the language of TV communication by creating his illusory, illogical world. At the same time I have been hearing how small performance collectives around the city, like Kevin Geeks Out and Cinebeasts, have been studying and referencing Kovacs. On April 12 the Paley Center will examine why Kovacs is still very much with us in the 21st century (Read more about this panel w/ Robert Smigel, Joel Hodgson, more). My deepest hope is that "Kovacsian" will become part of our vernacular. How could anyone resist the Nairobi Trio?

 

 

  • I received this note in my email from George Stewart, who is keeping alive the spirit of Kovscs on his Shokus Internet radio show. We can talk about Laugh-in and Tune-In with the creator of both series, George Schlatter, at our April 12 event.

    Lots of insights in your missive on Ernie. I look forward to the new Shout Factory box set mostly for the reconstructed of the Eugene Show back into its lenticular color, thanks to the magicians at Film & TV archives at UCLA.  Everyone points to Laugh In as Kovac’s heir apparent, but I would give that honor to its spin-off, the underrated Tune-In. Kovacs hated the trance-breaking intrusion of a laugh track; his shows were as more like Kubla Khan’s pleasure-dome than a video version of Hellzapoppin, and all the better for it! I remember looking at the original 2- inch tapes when they arrived at your museum, so uneven on the spool from the hundreds of handmade splices, neatly glued, like raisins in a pudding. -­ And I remember the trouble you had finding 2” machine that would still play it.   

     

    GEO Stewart

    Producer / Host

    “Crazy College”

    Shokus Internet Radio

     

     


    Ron, March 25, 2011 at 4:27 pm

About

Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio

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Ron Simon has been a curator at The Paley Center for Media since the early 1980s. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, New York University, and Hunter College, where he teaches courses on the history of media. Simon has written for many publications, including The Encyclopedia of Television and Thinking Outside of the Box, as well as serving as host and creative consultant of the CD-ROM Total Television. A member of the editorial board of Television Quarterly, and a judge on the George Foster Peabody committee, Simon has lectured at museums and educational institutions throughout the world. Among the numerous exhibitions he has curated are The Television of Dennis Potter; Witness to History; Jack Benny: The Television and Radio Work; and Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. He also discovered such lost programs as the live Honeymooners and the only video performance of the Rat Pack.

Interests:

Anybody and everything that can be transformed into a pixel.

Contact

Ron Simon
rsimon@paleycenter.org

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