PEOPLE TOO young to remember or too distracted to have paid attention at the time always ask what was so great about early television. One good answer is: Ernie Kovacs. He was an artist of the new school, and a very accessible one, and some of his work looks merrily daring even today.
Kovacs probably was a genius, as is often said of him, but he was also a little boy who failed to grow up, and in 1951, he was given a new toy that he never got tired of playing with. It was a bouncing ball, an erector set, a Slinky, a hula hoop and a magic kit all rolled into one.
It was television.
When Orson Welles made "Citizen Kane," he said a movie studio was the greatest set of electric trains a kid ever got. But Kovacs had the same kind of inspired and innovational holiday in a TV studio. His very thoughtful stunts and brainstorms are currently being celebrated in a 90-minute special, "Ernie Kovacs, Television's Original Genius," on Showtime, the popular pay-cable network. Unfortunately, in this slapdash, inadequate production, Kovacs' originality and genius are made subservient to feeble-minded peeks at his personal life. His work is what speaks best for him, but time and again on the program, clips are interrupted for unnecessary reminiscences about his cigar-smoking or his compulsive gambling or his family woes.
Ah, but when Kovacs himself materializes again in living black and white, performing some of the magnificent visual gags and imaginative brainstorms he engineered during roughly a decade on TV, the program comes to life, and one is flashed back to priceless moments preserved on tape or kinescope. There is Kovacs in his very early days, at KYW-TV in Philadelphia, on "It's Time for Ernie," spoofing the very concept of a cooking show and slapping around a sphere of lettuce that he claims has gotten big-headed. The excerpts move on through Kovacs' other TV manifestations, including his outstanding series of taped specials for ABC, generously sponsored by Dutch Masters cigars.
Kovacs' humor is sometimes mistakenly labeled cerebral (that'll kill it, for sure); it was intelligent, but often full of slapstick. Kovacs was a true marksman with a whipped cream pie. If it's possible to lob a pie wittily, that's what Kovacs did. He spent hundreds of dollars on a gag lasting a few seconds in which, as a TV used car pitchman, he slapped the hood of a roadster only to have it crash through the ground from the force of the blow (this one is in the Showtime special, but badly edited).
Another unforgettable Kovacs prank had the star appearing suddenly to have gone legit, standing before the camera in Roman togs and, straight-faced as could be, reciting a long speech from an ancient play. You kept waiting for a pie, or an explosion, or some other joke. But Kovacs finished the entire speech -- and then did a soft-shoe dance into the wings. All that time for one impudent jape.
Kovacs was a champion deflater of pomposities, yet he treated television seriously, and some of his noncomic musical-visual essays, despite their technical crudity, were gems. He is more warmly remembered, though, for such off-the-wall creations as The Nairobi Trio, three people in monkey masks and derbies who pantomimed to an obscure record and hit each other over the head. Frank Sinatra once played one of the monkeys. Kovacs was also deliriously silly as Percy Dovetonsils, "Poet Laureate of the United States," a tipsy lisper in a tiger-skin jacket and thick, thick glasses who read dreadful poems from a book and made pathetic stabs at hiding the martinis he regularly sipped behind it.
Ernie Kovacs deserves a place not only in the annals of Higher Television, but also in the Debunkers' Hall of Fame.
The special asks if an Ernie Kovacs came along today, would he able to get on TV? The answer is no, but then it's not very likely that another Kovacs will be visiting this planet any time soon. He died in 1962 at the age of 42, having lived a life according to the credo -- later the title of a Kovacs biography -- "Nothing in Moderation." He plunged into television, kicked it around and explored innumerable whimsical and mystical possibilities. He wasn't always funny, and he didn't always try to be, but what you saw on your screen was clearly the work of a fascinating and restless mind.
If Kovacs had modern video technology at his command, would he have been even more brilliant? Probably not. What's impressive about his work is not its technical sheen but the Peck's-bad-boy energy behind it. Kovacs' most timeless work is his visual stuff, but he could be verbally funny too. With his big black eyebrows, emphatic mustache and constant-companion cigar, he was a raffish cartoon; he was television's Hemingway and its Lewis Carroll. From the control room, where he hosted the ABC specials he did in 1961, Kovacs tells viewers, "There is a standard formula for success in the entertainment medium, and that is, 'Beat it to death if it succeeds.' "
The best way to appreciate Kovacs is to watch him. Unfortunately, that's not the operating philosophy of John Barbour, who hosted, wrote and produced this program, and unwisely chose to over-emphasize the life Kovacs lived away from the tube. Obviously, Kovacs was quite a guy. His widow, Edie Adams (coexecutive producer of the special), and one of his daughters still fight back tears, in interviews recorded for the program, when they recall the night he died. Adams spent years and vast sums of money to collect and preserve the work of her late husband. What a crying shame she delivered it into the hands of a Hollywood sleaze.
Instead of a Kovacs cornucopia, we get self-serving comments from the ego-maniacal Chevy Chase (Kovacs "influenced me tremendously," he says -- not much of a compliment) and even an irrelevant word or two from lousy actor Robert Wagner. Barbour himself manages to take some of the joy out of Kovacs' work, and has his vindictive side as well. Last season he left George Schlatter's "Real People" show claiming it would die without him. Schlatter also produced the TV classic "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," and Barbour claims on the special that "scores" of Ernie's bits were used on "Laugh-In" -- implying plagiarism. In fact, on at least one occasion, Rowan and Martin acknowledged the debt they owed Kovacs on the air. According to Los Angeles magazine, Barbour included other encoded slurs on Schlatter, and even Schlatter's wife, within the program. This an awfully peculiar way to honor Ernie Kovacs -- or anybody else.
There is one obscure Kovacs appearance on TV that is never recalled in any of these tributes, but which I have never forgotten. Kovacs was a guest on a ghastly daytime show called "Bride and Groom," which featured actual weddings on the air. The host was trying to coax Kovacs into plugging his novel "Zoomar," which had just been published. Kovacs told the host he didn't think a wedding was the proper place to plug a book.
He was a genius, yes, but he had class, too. Television has seen little of either since he left it.