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August 06, 2019

Celebrating Kovacs Coast to Coast

Television is still catching up with Ernie Kovacs in his centennial year

Greg Ehrbar
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate
  • Courtesy Ernie Kovacs Estate

The early days of radio, television and records were not as "normal" as they say.

Strange things bubbled under the "golly-gee-whizzies" of the Eisenhower era. For every record where Patti Page was pricing doggies in windows, there were others with Yma Sumac screaming in five octaves. Radio drama and comedy were giving way to music and talk. Hours of early live television needed filling with anything, except anything that required money.

Ernie Kovacs knew how to fill it with something funny — both in the "ha-ha" sense and in the "whaa!?" sense.

Here in Hollywood, Josh Mills - son of Kovacs' late widow, Broadway star Edie Adams, and director of both stars' massive archives - said, "The thing I always say to people about Ernie is that, pre-Beatles and British invasion, most everything is in black-and-white. It was before psychedelics, even some of it pre-baby boomer, so for Eisenhower's America, Ernie and Mad magazine may have been the only things that kept weird people sane."

Even his peers and successors readily agreed that Ernie Kovacs most consistently contorted, deconstructed and reconstructed television (Rowan and Martin — and by extension producer George Schlatter — made sure to mention Kovacs in an early Laugh-In episode, for example).

And as Kovacs must have added in a commercial parody, "For just pennies a day." Television was young in Kovacs' time, yet plenty of goofy tropes and stodgy conventions had already taken hold. He was only too happy to poke fun at them.

Many individuals are called "genius," but Ernie Kovacs was considered as such by other geniuses. His toys were the emerging electronic gadgetry of the medium. He invented special effects for technology that barely existed. Whatever resources of time, money and crew he had were reinvested back into more wild things for the tube.

He created "blackouts" in which cars fell through the floor and people came up from bathtubs. He devoted a video adventure to the life of a single raindrop. There are far too many examples to list here and most defy explanation.

Kovacs' centennial celebration digs deeper than ever before into his prolific career (at one point he was on radio and TV over 15 hours per week). Like Mozart, Kovacs spent his brief life creating mountains of audio, books, essays and artwork, in addition to appearances on TV and motion pictures.

The common thread usually was a skewed look at the world and a desire to puncture the pompous and ridiculous, mostly with far more intelligent silliness.

Kovacs's influence on television is legendary. What might be less appreciated, however, is how Kovacs worked his magic through audio. The special edition anniversary reissue of The Ernie Kovacs Album demonstrates his deft use of music and sound, without the TV visuals to divert attention.

The 1976 Columbia LP - Grammy-nominated for Best Comedy Album - was filled with monologues, sketches and music from original TV soundtracks. For the new CD (also available for download), bonus tracks have been added that include radio broadcast excerpts that have not been heard in over 60 years.

One of the sketches is called "Droongo." Also published and illustrated in Mad magazine (for which Kovacs was a writer), this little gem might strike a chord with Star Trek fans who love the absurd "Fizzbin" card game in the episode "A Piece of the Action."

Droongo is a make-believe board game with increasingly crazy parts and convoluted rules. Even though this was originally a video piece, Kovacs' mounting vocal frenzy is better appreciated in this audio-only version. Another classic sketch, "Uncle Buddy," is a Wonderama-like children's show spoof in which Kovacs plays a genial host stretched to his limits by precocious moppet co-hosts.

The bonus tracks offer additional revelations. The bogus "Choco-Spin" commercial takes listeners to "Chocoville, Minnesota" for a factory tour where this "family favorite" is made -chocolate-covered spinach!

In "Hot Nudniks," Kovacs' simple act of opening a box of cereal requires unzipping a lengthy zipper, unwrapping the "airproof, waterproof, radioactive proof, Irish linen inner wrapper," dialing a secret combination and disabling a burglar alarm—all through the power of listening and imagination.

Kovacs even sings—no fooling—two songs. The album closes with a cover version of Danny Kaye's haunting "Inch Worm" and the bittersweet "It's Been Real." "He loved it," said Mills. "He wasn't a terrible singer. My Mom said he was pretty good, but he was just never trained to do it. We have a bunch of records with Ernie singing.

"That's a whole other side to Ernie. For so long, most people only knew the 10 ABC specials that everyone talked about, or they only knew this album from its first release on Columbia back in 1976. But there are about 10 other sides to Ernie. I hope that all we're doing now helps show that to people."

Beginning this Wednesday, August 7, the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York will present an Ernie Kovacs exhibit celebrating his centennial when it hosts its annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. Mills and the team at the Center saw the immediate potential and synergy of the two television legends.

"It made perfect sense, in honor of the centennial, to do a much closer look at the career of Ernie Kovacs and how he influenced so many things that came afterward," said Journey Gunderson, Executive Director of the National Comedy Center.

Like Kovacs, Lucille Ball also shares a unique influence that continues to inspire creativity, innovation and laughter. The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival is a natural extension of Ball's ongoing efforts to develop and showcase new generations of talent — just as she had done with the Desilu Players.

(That was an entertainment workshop that Ball created at Desilu, the Hollywood studios that she and Desi Arnaz co-owned. Its graduates included film historian Robert Osborne and Star Trek's Majel Barrett.)

Lucille Ball grew up in Jamestown (and neighboring Celeron), so it's fitting that her philosophy has hit home, perhaps beyond her famously high expectations. During the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, Jamestown blossoms into a comedy destination attracting 13-15,000 attendees each year.

Dozens of venues present a wide range of comedic arts and the country's newest talent. This year, John Mulaney and Sebastian Maniscalco are the headliners. They join a lineup of rising stars and entertainment legends who have already performed for the Festival, including Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Lily Tomlin, Lewis Black, Amy Schumer, Bob Newhart, the Smothers Brothers and more than 100 other comic artists

The events and performances at The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival are as varied as comedy itself. To countless people, its "monochrome satin heart" is I Love Lucy, which inspires experiences like live "Lucy and Ethel Shows," chances to try grape stomping and do some chocolate wrapping.

At the nearby Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum, happy, peppy festival people hawk bottles of Vitameatavegamin ("There was a nine-year-old girl who nailed it. She had the whole thing memorized," said Gunderson.)

This year adds even more classic connections and beloved icons. George Carlin's daughter Kelly will moderate Josh Mills' appearance at an event celebrating the television program in which the Kovacs and the Arnazes shared the same sound stage.

"Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams guest-starred on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour's final episode, 'Lucy Meets the Mustache,'" said Gunderson. "It was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's last television appearance together. So Josh Mills will be in the Tropicana Room for a program talking about this merging of the Lucy fan community in celebrating an innovator like Ernie Kovacs."

The Tropicana Room at the National Comedy Center is themed to the fabled I Love Lucy nightclub setting where Ricky Ricardo worked (and Lucy told him she was "enceinte"). Another Tropicana Lunch salutes the late Rose Marie with a never-before-seen screening of the 1955 Desilu Studios pilot film, Just Off Broadway (Rose Marie later co-starred on The Dick Van Dyke Show, also filmed at Desilu).

At night, the Tropicana Room presents the latest stand-up comedians, performing cutting edge (and uncensored) material.

Josh Mills was both touched and impressed when he visited the National Comedy Center after it opened last year and explored some of its 37,000 square feet of exhibit space. Edie Adams never lived to see anything like it materialize.

"Over the years, my mom and I had heard about so many proposed comedy museums and halls of fame that never came to pass," said Mills. "So I was totally blown away by this. Not only did they get it right in so many ways, but it was a real building! Real exhibits! Great comedians! They actually did this! My mom never threw anything away so we've got about a 400 square foot exhibit for Ernie's centennial."

Journey Gunderson is delighted with the way the Kovacs exhibit has come together and what it will mean for Center guests. "It is a mix of media - much like Ernie Kovacs' career," she said. "You see artifacts like his eyeglasses for his Percy Dovetonsils character. We have a makeup case used to transform him into various characters.

"We have scripts and creative papers and the Emmy he won posthumously for his ABC program, The Ernie Kovacs Show, for Outstanding Achievement in Electronic Camera Work. So there are physical artifacts and items to take in at the exhibit, but also then there are media pieces — clips from his radio and television career. We do our best to give you a taste of the pretty varied styles of Ernie Kovacs.

"Just showing that variation gives you a taste of how he could influence things as different as Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, but also Letterman, Johnny Carson and everyone who came afterward.

"It's been incredible to put this together and see the connection between what Ernie did pre-1962 and what someone like Letterman did later that was considered pretty innovative at the time.

"I don't think most people, when they think of 'Carnac'—most people I say, thinking of a new generation of people coming through this museum every day—might know" that 'The Question Man,' reappeared as 'Carnac' on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.

"There could be young people who saw Steve Carell reenact that character on The Office. Now they're finally getting all these references and able to trace it back to pre-1962 Kovacs."

Kovacs may never stop inspiring and, in a sense, innovating. As the crowds pass through the National Comedy Museum to see the exhibit beginning August 7, there is no predicting what will someday spring forth from its evergreen comic madness. It will most certainly address some historical iniquities and offer fresh perspectives on a somewhat "squaresville" image of black-and-white TV comedy.

"I think it's a shame in some ways that, when some think of early television, there's a tendency to characterize it more by the much more rigid, formulaic sitcoms that emerged, and much of the style that Ernie Kovacs displayed is kind of forgotten about in my opinion," said Gunderson.

"I don't think that people would characterize early television as so experimental. The fact that he was given, say, two hours to do whatever he wanted on a budget of about 15 dollars, I guess that would make anyone innovate! But that's kind of unheard of, and something that we need to bring forward with this exhibit and showcase."

The Ernie Kovacs centennial celebration is also a personal opportunity for Josh Mills (on behalf of Edie Adams as well as Ernie Kovacs), to set the historical record straight. One issue is his proof that Ernie Kovacs was - along with Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon - host of The Tonight Show.

"There was a file he kept about his Tonight Show hosting duties. One of the things that I had to stomach when Conan became the host after Jay Leno was that nobody mentioned Ernie being a Tonight Show host. We've proven that there were budgets and costumes and he had his own set.

"Then there was the CNN History of Comedy series that failed to include Ernie, even though I talked to them months ahead of time. They never followed through.

"However, there are people like those at TCM, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and National Comedy Center who are doing it right. I really do want to thank them."

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