Ernie Kovacs was a cigar-loving comedian who had the unfortunate luck of being a genius and a visionary at a time when people wanted their television shows and personalities to be safe and predictable.
An American performer of Hungarian descent, Kovacs primarily worked in Television during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Because of his unique look he also appeared from time to time in feature films as a character actor. But, the bulk of his best material came from his pioneering use of television in the early days of the medium.
A unique man, with an unrestrained sense of humor, he loved playing cards for hours on end, spending money faster than he could earn it, and smoking cigars, sometimes, according to some reports, up to 20 a day. The epitaph on his grave, which reads in part, “Nothing in moderation”, summed up his motto for life; one that was tragically cut short at the age of 42 because of an automobile accident.
Kovacs as a talent is difficult to slot. Watching his old shows, now available as a boxed collection from Amazon and other sites, one gets the impression of a man with an imagination that was too creative for Television.
At any given time he was part talk-show host, part stand-up comedian, and part video artist. Kovacs always seemed more interested in pushing the boundaries of what Television could do.
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His visual gags alone were incredibly expensive, and often only lasted for a few seconds.
One of his recurring skits was called Kovacs Corner. In it the German version of the song “Mack the Knife” plays while an oscilloscope (an instrument that displays an electrical wave) moves to the sound of the song playing.
Kovacs and his troupe then perform a series of inventive sight gags that run the gambit from the inane to the incredible.
Paintings sometimes spring to life, performers are occasionally cut in two or even erased, and sometimes even the laws of gravity are suspended.
Many of his showbiz colleagues, Jack Lemmon, for one, complained that people didn’t get his friend because “he was 15 years ahead of everyone else.”
Perhaps because of this he never found a permanent home for his brand of humor. During his career he had brief shows on all of the major Networks – NBC, CBS and ABC.
Unfortunately a great deal of Ernie Kovacs’ early work has been destroyed, but what remains is a powerful testament to his brand of humor, creativity and ground-breaking use of what Television could be.
The comedy shows that we now take for granted as being cutting edge for their time, like Monty Python or Saturday Night Live, all owe a tip of the Cuban cigar to one of Television’s true originals – Ernie Kovacs.