Ernie Kovacs  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ernie Kovacs (January 23, 1919January 13, 1962) was an American comedian whose uninhibited, often ad-libbed, and visually experimental comic style came to influence numerous television comedy programs for years after his early death in an automobile accident. Such iconoclastic shows as Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Uncle Floyd Show, Saturday Night Live and even Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street, and TV hosts such as David Letterman are seen as utilizing Kovacs' influence.


Early life and career

Born to Hungarian immigrant parents, Kovacs was influenced deeply by his Trenton Central High School drama teacher, Harold Van Kirk, and thus went to acting school after his 1937 graduation. His first paid entertainment work was as a disc jockey on Trenton's WTTM radio, which led eventually to his first television job in 1949, a show called Three to Get Ready, at NBC's Philadelphia affiliate, WPTZ. Three to Get Ready was groundbreaking, as the first regularly scheduled early morning (7–9 a.m.) show in a major TV market. Prior to this, it had been assumed that no one would watch TV at such an early hour. The success of Three to Get Ready proved the theory wrong and was one of the factors that led NBC to create The Today Show, which led to WPTZ's cancellation of Ernie's local show in favor of the network offering.

Visual humor and characters

At WPTZ, Kovacs first began to use the ad-libbed and experimental style that would come to make his reputation, including video effects, superimpositions, reverse polarities and scanning, and quick blackouts. He was also noted for abstraction and carefully timed non sequitur gags and for carefully allowing the so-called fourth wall to be breached. Kovacs' cameras commonly showed his viewers activity beyond the boundaries of the show set—including crew members and, on occasion, outside the studio itself. Kovacs also liked talking to the off-camera crew and even introduced segments from the studio control room. Ernie frequently made use of accidents and happenstance, incorporating the unexpected into his shows. One of Kovacs' Philadelphia broadcasts was "enlivened" by a homeless man who sought shelter inside the TV studio; Kovacs invited him onto the set, where he slept for the duration of the telecast, but nonetheless was introduced on camera to the audience as "Sleeping Schwartz."

Kovacs' love of spontaneity extended to his crew, who would occasionally play live, on-air pranks on him just to see how he would react. During one of his NBC shows, Kovacs was appearing as his inept magician character Matzoh Heppelwhite. The sketch called for the magician to frequently hit a gong, which was the signal for a sexy female assistant to bring out a bottle and shot glass for a quick snort of alcohol. Stagehands substituted real liquor for the iced tea normally used for the gag. The look on Ernie's face upon taking the first shot was priceless, as he realized (correctly) that he would likely be called upon to drink a shot of liquor for each successive gong. But Kovacs pressed on with the sketch, and was quite inebriated by the end of the show. On another occasion, while doing his "Percy Dovetonsils" character, he found that his drink contained a live fish.

Kovacs helped develop camera tricks still common almost fifty years after his death, one of which became one of his signature gags. His character Eugene sat at a table to eat his lunch, but as he removed items one at a time from a lunch box, he watched them inexplicably roll down the table into the lap of a man reading a newspaper at the other end. When Kovacs poured milk from a thermos bottle, the stream flowed in a seemingly unusual direction. Never seen on television before Kovacs tried it, the gag's secret was using a tilted set in front of a camera tilted at the same angle.

Kovacs constantly sought new techniques and used both primitive and improvised ways of creating visual effects that would be done electronically after his time. One innovative construction involved attaching a kaleidoscope to a camera lens with cardboard and tape and setting the resulting abstract images to music. An underwater stunt involved Kovacs—an inveterate cigar smoker—sitting in an easy chair, reading his newspaper and somehow smoking his cigar. Removing it from his mouth, Kovacs was able to exhale a puff of white smoke, all while floating underwater. The trick: the "smoke" was a small amount of milk with which he filled his mouth before submerging.

He also developed such routines as an all-gorilla version of Swan Lake; a poker game set to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; the Silent Show, in which Eugene interacts with the world accompanied solely by music and sound effects; parodies of typical television commercials and movie genres; and various musical segments with everyday items (such as kitchen appliances or office equipment) moving in sync to music. A popular recurring sketch was The Nairobi Trio, three derby-hatted apes miming mechanically and rhythmically to the tune "Solfeggio."

Kovacs could use extended sketches and mood pieces or quick blackout gags lasting only seconds. Some of these could be expensive, such as his famous used car salesman routine with a jalopy and a breakaway floor: it cost a reported $50,000 to produce the six-second gag. He was also one of the first television comedians to use odd fake credits and comments between the legitimate credits and, at times, during his routines.

Kovacs reportedly disliked working in front of a live audience, as was the case with the shows he did for NBC in the 1950s. He found the presence of an audience distracting, and those in the seats frequently did not understand some of the more elaborate visual gags and special effects, which could only be appreciated by watching studio monitors instead of the stage.

Like many comedians of the era, Kovacs created a rotation of recurring roles. In addition to the silent "Eugene," his most familiar characters were the fey, lisping poet Percy Dovetonsils; the heavily accented German disc jockey, Wolfgang von Sauerbraten; and Mr. Question Man, who would answer queries supposedly sent in by viewers. Others included horror show host Auntie Gruesome; bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite; Miklos Molnar, the sardonic Hungarian host of a cooking show; and Frenchman Pierre Ragout.

Kovacs' television programs included Three to Get Ready; Time for Ernie (1951); Ernie in Kovacsland (also 1951); The Ernie Kovacs Show (1952–53 and 1955–56); a twice-a-week job filling in for Steve Allen as host of The Tonight Show on Mondays and Tuesdays (1956–57); and a game show, Take a Good Look (1959–61). Kovacs later publicly accused Allen of stealing material and characters from him and then performing them in only slightly obfuscated form. (For example, Kovacs' "Mr. Question Man" bore a resemblance to Allen's "Answer Man," and later, Johnny Carson's long-running Carnac character.) Kovacs also had a short stint as a celebrity panelist on What's My Line?, but took his responsibilities less than seriously, often eschewing a legitimate question for the sake of a laugh. An example would be when industrialist Henry J. Kaiser was the program's "mystery guest." Kaiser founded the Kaiser automobile company in 1945. Previous questioning had established that the mystery guest's last name was synonymous with an automobile brand, prompting Kovacs to ask, "This may seem like a long shot, sir, but by any chance are you Abraham Lincoln?"—a reference to the Ford Motor Company's Lincoln brand of luxury automobile.

TV specials

He also did several television specials, including the famous Silent Show (1957)—featuring his character, Eugene, the first all-pantomime prime-time network program. After Jerry Lewis broke up his partnership with Dean Martin, NBC television network offered Lewis the opportunity to host his own 90-minute color TV special. Lewis decided to take only 60 minutes, leaving the network 30 minutes to fill. No one wanted to take over this time slot, but Kovacs was willing to use this time. The program contained no spoken dialogue and contained only sound effects and music. Starring Kovacs as the mute, Chaplinlike character "Eugene," the program contained surreal sight gags. Kovacs had developed the Eugene character during the fall of 1956 when hosting the Tonight Show. Although expectations were high for the Lewis program, it was Kovacs' special that received the most attention. So successful was the show that Kovacs received the Sylvania Award that year (a precursor of the Emmys). He also received a movie offer, for Operation Mad Ball, and he was a cover story in Life. In 1961, Kovacs and his codirector, Joe Behar, were recipients of the Directors Guild of America Award for a second version of this program over the ABC network.

A series of monthly half-hour specials for ABC in 1961–62 is often considered his best television work. Shot on videotape using new editing and special effects techniques, it won a 1961 Emmy Award. Kovacs and co-director Behar also won the Directors Guild of America award for an Ernie Kovacs Special based on the earlier silent "Eugene" program. Kovacs' last ABC special was aired posthumously.

What made Kovacs unique may also have been what made him a hard sell to television viewers used to situation comedies and variety shows. Having a cult following at best, Kovacs rarely had a highly rated show. His friend Jack Lemmon was once quoted as saying that no one ever understood Kovacs' work because "he was always 15 years ahead of everyone else."

"The existence of these separate shows is testament to both the success and failure of Ernie Kovacs," says the Museum of Broadcast Communications. "A brilliant and innovative entertainer, he was a failure as a popular program host; praised by critics, he was avoided by viewers… The Ernie Kovacs shows were products of the time when television was in its infancy and experimentation was acceptable. It is doubtful that Ernie Kovacs would find a place on television today. He was too zany, too unrestrained, too undisciplined. Perhaps Jack Gould of The New York Times said it best for Ernie Kovacs: 'The fun was in trying'."

Other shows had greater success while using elements of Kovacs' style. Laugh-In producer George Schlatter was married to actress Jolene Brand, who had appeared in Kovacs' comic troupes over the years and had been a frequent participant in (or victim of) his pioneering bits. Laugh-In made frequent use of the quick blackout gags and surreal humor that marked many Kovacs projects. In another link between TV generations, Kovacs' usual announcer (and sometimes sketch participant) was a young NBC staffer named Bill Wendell. From 1980–95, Wendell was the announcer for David Letterman, whose show and style of humor were greatly influenced by Kovacs.

The Music Man

Kovacs loved music and also its humor possibilities, and he was known for his eclectic musical taste. His main theme song was called "Oriental Blues" by Jack Newlon, which borrows heavily from "Rialto Ripples Rag," a quirky piano number by George Gershwin. The German song "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" from The Threepenny Opera (a song later anglicized to the well-known "Mack the Knife") frequently underscored his blackout routines. Robert Maxwell's "Solfeggio" became associated closely enough with the derby-hatted apes that it became better known among his admirers as "The Song of The Nairobi Trio."

An unusual treatment of "Sentimental Journey" by Mexican bandleader Juan García Esquivel accompanied video of an empty office in which various items (pencil sharpeners, water coolers, wall clocks) seem to come to life in rhythm to the music, a variation on several famous animations of a decade earlier. Kovacs also made careful use of the shrill singer Leona Anderson—who had somewhat less than a classic (or even serviceable) voice, by some estimations—in comic vignettes.

Kovacs used classical music as background for silent sketches or abstract visual routines, including "Concerto for Orchestra" by Béla Bartók; music from the opera "The Love of Three Oranges" by Sergei Prokofiev; the finale of Igor Stravinsky's suite "The Firebird"; and, Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." He may have been most familiar for using Haydn's "String Quartet, Opus 3, Number 5" (the "Serenade," actually composed by Roman Hoffstetter[1]), which was used in a series of commercials he filmed for Dutch Masters.

But he also served as host on a jazz LP to benefit the American Cancer Society in 1957, Listening to Jazz with Ernie Kovacs, a 15-minute recording featuring some of the giants of the art, including pianists Jimmy Yancey and Bunk Johnson, soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, guitarist Django Reinhardt, composer/pianist/bandleader Duke Ellington, and longtime Ellington trumpeter Cootie Williams. Both the Library of Congress and the National Library of Canada have copies of this recording in their respective collections.

First marriage

Kovacs married his first wife, Bette Wilcox, on August 13, 1945. When the marriage ended, he fought for custody of their children, Elizabeth ("Bette") and Kip Raleigh ("Kippie"). The court awarded Kovacs full custody upon determining that his former wife was mentally unstable. This decision was extremely unusual at the time, setting a legal precedent. Wilcox subsequently kidnapped the children, taking them to Florida. After a long and expensive search, Kovacs regained custody.

Second marriage

Kovacs married actress and singer Edie Adams on September 12, 1954 in Mexico City. The ceremony was presided over by former New York City mayor William O'Dwyer and was performed in Spanish, which neither Kovacs nor Adams understood; O'Dwyer had to prompt each of them to say "Sí" at the "I do" portion of the vows. Adams, who had a very middle class upbringing in suburban New Jersey, was smitten by Kovacs' quirky ways; the couple remained together until his death. (Adams later said about Kovacs, "He treated me like a little girl, and I loved it—Women's Lib be damned!")

The couple had one daughter, Mia Susan Kovacs, born June 20, 1959; Adams also supported Kovacs' struggle to reclaim his two older children after the kidnapping by their mother. But she also became a frequent partner on his television shows, including participating in Nairobi Trio routines. Kovacs usually introduced or addressed her in a businesslike way, as "Edith Adams"; Adams was usually willing to do anything he envisioned, whether singing seriously, performing impersonations (including a well-regarded impression of Marilyn Monroe), or taking a pie in the face or a pratfall if and when needed.


In 1956, Kovacs wrote a novel, Zoomar: A Sophisticated Novel about Love and TV (Doubleday, 1957), based on television pioneer Pat Weaver. The 1961 British edition was retitled T.V. Medium Rare by its London based publisher, Transworld.

While he worked on several other book projects, Kovacs' only other published title was How to Talk at Gin, published posthumously in 1962. During 1955–58, he wrote for Mad, including the feature "Strangely Believe It!" (a parody of Ripley's Believe It or Not! that was regular feature on his TV shows) and "Gringo," a board game with ridiculously complicated rules that was renamed "Droongo" for the TV show. Kovacs also wrote the introduction to the 1958 collection Mad For Keeps: A Collection of the Best from Mad Magazine.

Kovacs and Edie Adams were the guest stars on the final installment of the one-hour I Love Lucy format, known in network airings as The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show and in syndication as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Kovacs and Adams appeared in the episode, "Lucy Meets the Moustache," which filmed March 2 and aired April 1, 1960. It was the last time Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz appeared together before the breakup of their marriage. According to Adams, divorce proceedings began March 3, the day after the show's filming.


In his final years, Kovacs found Hollywood success as a character actor, often typecast as a swarthy military officer in such films as Operation Mad Ball and Our Man in Havana. He garnered critical acclaim for roles such as the perennially inebriated writer in Bell, Book and Candle and as the cartoonishly evil head of a railroad company (who resembled Orson Welles' title character in Citizen Kane) in It Happened to Jane. His own personal favorite was said to have been the offbeat Five Golden Hours (1961), in which he portrayed a larcenous professional mourner who meets his match in a professional widow played by Cyd Charisse.

Shortly before his death, Kovacs had been chosen to appear as Melville Crump in Stanley Kramer's star-packed comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, with Adams portraying his wife, Monica Crump. The role eventually went to comedian Sid Caesar.


Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident in Los Angeles in 1962. After meeting Adams at a party hosted by Milton Berle and his wife, the couple left in separate cars; Kovacs had been working for much of the evening before the party. Minutes later, during an unusual southern California rainstorm, the comedian lost control of his Chevrolet Corvair station wagon while turning fast. Crashing into a power pole at the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevards, he was thrown halfway out the passenger side, dying almost instantly from chest and head injuries.

Kovacs may have lost control of the car while trying to light a cigar. A photographer managed to arrive moments later, and morbid images of Kovacs in death appeared in newspapers across the United States. An unlit cigar lay on the pavement, inches from his outstretched arm. Years later, in a documentary about Kovacs, Edie Adams described telephoning the coroner's office impatiently when she learned of the crash. An official cupped his hand over the receiver, saying to a colleague, "It's Mrs. Kovacs, what should he tell her?" With that, Edie Adams's fears were confirmed, and became inconsolable. Jack Lemmon, who also attended the Berle party, identified Kovacs' body at the morgue when Adams was too distraught to do it.

A frequent critic of the U.S. tax system, Kovacs owed the IRS several hundred thousand dollars in back taxes, thanks to his simple refusal to pay the brunt of them. Up to 90% of his earnings would be garnisheed as a result. His long battles with the IRS inspired Kovacs to tie up his money in a convoluted series of paper corporations, both in the U.S. and Canada. He would give them bizarre names, such as "The Bazooka Dooka Hicka Hocka Hookah Company" to thumb his nose at the feds. His tax woes also affected Kovacs' career, forcing him to take any offered work, no matter how ill-suited to his style of comedy, to pay off his debt. This included the ABC game show Take a Good Look, appearances on variety shows such as The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, and some of his less memorable movie roles.

Adams (who married and divorced twice after Kovacs' death) eventually paid the tax debt off herself, refusing help from celebrity friends (who planned a benefit concert for the purpose), though she did accept film and television work from them instead.

Kovacs is buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. His epitaph reads, "Nothing in moderation—We all loved him." Only one of Kovacs' three children survives, his eldest, Elisabeth (from his first marriage); Kippie, his second, died on July 28, 2001 at the age of 52 after a long illness and a lifetime of poor health. His only child with Edie Adams, Mia Susan, was killed May 8, 1982—also in an automobile accident; Mia and Kippie are buried close to their father. Keigh Lancaster, Kovacs' only grandchild, was born to Kippie and her husband, screenwriter Bill Lancaster (son of actor Burt Lancaster).

Lost and surviving work

Most of Kovacs' early television shows were done live and have not survived except for a very few short film clips. Some of his later 1950s shows exist in the form of kinescopes. Videotapes of his ABC specials were preserved, but other videotaped shows such as his quirky game show Take a Good Look exist only in piecemeal fashion. After his death, Edie Adams discovered that the networks were systematically erasing and reusing tapes of his shows. She succeeded in buying the rights to the surviving footage and tapes, and most of Kovacs' surviving work is available to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles Library's Department of Special Collections.

In 1984, a television movie, Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter (starring Jeff Goldblum as the comedian) helped return Kovacs to the public eye, though it focused more on his personal life—especially his bid to retrieve his kidnapped children—than his professional life. Edie Adams appeared in a cameo in this film, playing Mae West, one of the impressions she performed on the Las Vegas stage with Kovacs. The film was inspired by a new interest in the comedian thanks to telecasts of edited compilations of some of his work (mostly his videotaped ABC specials) by PBS (produced by WTTW, Chicago) under the title The Best of Ernie Kovacs. (A five-volume set of these broadcasts is still available on VHS and DVD.)

In the early 1990s, cable channel The Comedy Channel (which later merged with a competing channel Ha! to become today's Comedy Central) broadcast a series of Kovacs' shows under the generic title of The Ernie Kovacs Show. This package included both the ABC specials and some of his 1950s shows from NBC. As of 2008, however, there are no broadcast, cable, or satellite channels currently scheduling any of Kovacs' television work, other than his panel appearances on What's My Line? on the Game Show Network.

In 1987, a quarter century after his death, Kovacs's talent was recognized formally at last: he was inducted posthumously into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame.


  • Kovacs is sometimes credited with saying, "Television: a medium, so-called because it is neither rare nor well done," but the actual quip originated with radio legend Fred Allen on the premiere of Tallulah Bankhead's radio variety program, The Big Show, on 5 November 1950: "You know, television is a new medium, and I have discovered why it's called a medium—because nothing is well done."
  • Kovacs frequently played gin with other entertainment friends such as Jack Lemmon, who called Kovacs and Walter Matthau two of the worst card players he had ever known.
  • Although Kovacs was a longtime spokesman for Dutch Masters cigars (resulting in some of the most creative and humorous commercials of the time), in real life, Ernie only smoked expensive Havana cigars, as many as 20 per day at a cost of $2.00 each (approximately $18 apiece in 2008 prices).
  • Ernie was a night owl and insomniac, surviving on no more than 3 or 4 hours sleep at night, and often much less than that (sometimes no sleep at all if a good card game was in progress). He credited frequent steambaths, followed by a cold swim underwater in a pool, for invigorating him and keeping him going when his energy lagged.

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