All the Television We’ll Lose: On Fantagraphics’ “Ernie in Kovacsland”
By Harry WaksbergAugust 17, 2023
Ernie in Kovacsland: Writings, Drawings, and Photographs from Television’s Original Genius by Ernie Kovacs, Josh Mills, Ben Model, and Pat Thomas
Ernie Kovacs began working in television in 1950, the dawn of its first “Golden Age.” He died in a car accident a mere 12 years later, at the age of 42, having created a strand of visually experimental television comedy seen never before and rarely since. His wife and frequent collaborator, singer and actor Edie Adams, saved his legacy from the kind of destruction that was common for 1950s TV, and Ernie in Kovacsland explores Kovacs’s legacy in television and Adams’s legacy in television preservation in near-equal measure.
Fantagraphics is the perfect distributor for a book about Ernie Kovacs. Founded in 1976, this publisher is best known for their essential compilations of comic strips, another medium difficult to archive because of decades of disposable treatment. Ernie in Kovacsland contains a smorgasbord of writing by and about Kovacs, including interviews, scripts, excerpts from his novel Zoomar, and previously unpublished drawings and comic addresses. Though it can get frustrating to constantly flip to the back of the book for context for some of the images and texts presented, Ernie in Kovacsland contains a great deal of useful supplementary information for anyone who is familiar with Kovacs and wants to learn more. It also includes some vital details on Edie Adams, Kovacs’s widow and artistic collaborator, as well as the archivist responsible for saving much of the ephemera pictured in this book.
Kovacs produced and starred in a variety of series during his career, but ultimately, all of them hinged on absurdist sketches, blackout gags, and in-camera special effects unlike any on television at the time. It cannot be overstated how original his work was. In the days of live TV, he eschewed an in-studio audience, since they wouldn’t be able to understand the joke without seeing what was being done on camera. As media historian Ben Model writes in this volume, “Like Buster Keaton in cinema before him, Ernie Kovacs innately got what you could do, or what else you could do with television. Not just for visual humor, but for visual humor that happened in that intimate vacuum—the inside joke between him and us at home.” Later on, he produced groundbreaking specials like Silent Show (1957), a half-hour program that relied entirely on visual gags; and Kovacs on Music (1959), which used various kinds of practical effects to set surprising scenes to classical music. It’s not just that no one could do what he did: no one was even trying.
Unlike many in the early days of television, Ernie Kovacs had no extensive background in theater or vaudeville. As a result, his work rarely felt like a stage show presented on camera—a descriptor that can include some of the most influential TV shows contemporary to his, like The Honeymooners (1955–56), I Love Lucy (1951–57), and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950–58). He created a handmade kaleidoscopic psychedelic music video, appeared to look through a hole in pre-Wanda Barbara Loden’s head, and—my personal favorite—crafted a surprise with a timpani. His work was critically acclaimed but rarely found a huge audience, hence the frequency with which Kovacs bounced from network to network and show to show, always bringing Kovacsland with him. He worked relentlessly, often doing several shows concurrently in order to deal with his mounting expenses (unpaid tax penalties, living outrageously large, and spending lavishly on private detectives to track down his two daughters who were kidnapped by Kovacs’s ex-wife for roughly two years) and because he was a workaholic with an endless font of ideas.
His earliest work in Philadelphia included television’s first morning show, NBC’s Three to Get Ready (1950–52). Legendary NBC executive Pat Weaver was so impressed by Kovacs’s work on the show (or, rather, by the show’s ratings) that he created a morning talk show for NBC—The Today Show (1952– )—and forced Philadelphia’s NBC affiliate to carry it instead of Kovacs. During his time in that slot, Kovacs built a loyal fandom by establishing a fan club called The Early Eyeball Fraternal and Marching Society, including membership cards: a tribute to all who would turn the television on early enough to catch his show. Working with a $15 prop budget, Kovacs asked his audience to send in whatever they had lying around. The station was inundated with random objects that the crew could throw to Ernie on camera and have him improvise with, like a one-man Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Nearly all of this work is lost forever. With few exceptions, a huge portion of the earliest days of television—from its initial invention in the 1920s to its widespread home use in the 1950s and even well into the ’60s—was broadcast live, and the idea of saving it for posterity was barely considered, let alone possible. What still remains of it, starting in the late ’40s, is in the form of kinescopes, a technological innovation that burned brightly and briefly and whose impact for historians and archivists remains enormous. In order for shows to air outside of a single market (e.g., New York City, Philadelphia, or Chicago), networks would have to record them with a film camera pointed at a TV set during the live broadcast; think of this as the original camrip. These films could then be shipped to affiliate stations around the country (sometimes internationally) or used by ad agencies to evaluate their ad buys.
Early TV often looks unpleasantly low-definition to us, but that’s not how it looked to audiences who caught it live—it’s just a function of the recording technology. This changed over time, especially with the innovations of I Love Lucy, which was recorded to film and then distributed for broadcast, rather than airing live. No disrespect to the greatness of that program, but a large part of its longevity is due to the ease of syndicating a show shot originally on film. I Love Lucy’s sharp, high-quality images were shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Freund and delivered with uniform beauty from coast to coast; no contemporary series came close. There’s more of Kovacs’s work available from later in the 1950s, when networks began using videotape to record their broadcasts.
For those who are sent searching for more Kovacs after reading Ernie in Kovacsland, a word of warning: while a great deal of his work is astonishing and clever, he also created and portrayed satirical characters that were straight-up racist (e.g., wearing yellowface), homophobic (his recurring character, Percy Dovetonsils, is, to me, unbearable), or sexist (gags about accidental violence toward beautiful women). Like a lot of sketch comedy, particularly noncontemporary sketch comedy, there’s a whiplash effect between what’s sublime and what’s repulsive. I actually strongly prefer Ernie Kovacs when he’s being enchanting and experimental to when he’s trying to be funny, and if that appeals, it is worth looking into his mute character, Eugene.
As the story goes, Jerry Lewis booked a 90-minute special on NBC right after breaking up with his longtime comedy partner, Dean Martin. Lewis decided he only needed an hour to debut his new solo act, and NBC was desperate to fill the now-vacant half hour. Kovacs agreed to take this death slot—Lewis being literally and figuratively a tough act to follow—as long as NBC gave him no notes. What Kovacs produced was a wordless half hour that employed many of his visual tricks, including a famous bit at the end that required the set and camera to both be tilted at the exact same angle. The show completely upstaged Jerry Lewis and brought Ernie Kovacs to greater national attention.
Following Kovacs’s death in 1962, Edie Adams discovered just how tremendously in debt her husband had left her by paying basically no taxes and living beyond their means. By taking any job she could get, along with accounting courses at UCLA, she managed to steadily pay down his debts. But there were further unexpected expenses: ABC, which had held on to much of Kovacs’s work at the network (by that point, on videotape), was owed money by his production company for crew overages. To offset some of this cost—and possibly also out of spite—they had begun taping over Kovacs’s master copies, from which all copies were made. Upon learning of this, Adams used a life insurance payout to buy up all of ABC’s Kovacs tapes and proceeded to track down as much of his work as she could, anywhere she could.
Much of what she found and saved during her expensive, multiyear recovery was in the form of kinescopes, of course. Testifying before the Library of Congress in 1996, Adams reported that, in the 1970s, DuMont kinescopes were unceremoniously dumped into the New York Harbor to solve the issue of their expensive storage. This would have included a great deal of Kovacs’s work from the early and mid-1950s—about half of his entire career. Kinescopes continued to turn up in the possession of private collectors, often through personal connections to advertisers or affiliate stations who had received them legitimately and kept them. As Kovacs biographer David G. Walley wrote in 1975, “It costs a fortune to track them down, much less to see them.” Despite that difficulty, by the early ’80s, according to biographer Diana Rico, Adams “had some 200 hours of tapes and kinescopes.”
And by 2015, when Adams’s son from a subsequent marriage sold the collection to the Library of Congress, it included the following:
videotape masters of all eight of Kovacs’ 1961–62 monthly ABC specials and 35 episodes of Take a Good Look, his 1959–61 ABC quiz show; 35mm kinescopes of 74 episodes of Kovacs’ 1956 NBC morning show; original 16mm elements of Kovacs’ silent-movie spoof, “The Mysterious Knockwurst,” made in 1953 for his CBS morning show; and videotape masters of all 21 episodes of Here’s Edie, Adams’ 1962–64 ABC sketch-comedy show.
For this significant cultural archive to have been held in private hands is astonishing and a great tribute to Adams’s dogged pursuit of television history. It is no wonder that she is twice described in Ernie in Kovacsland as “the patron saint of television conservation.”
For those seeking insight into Kovacs’s process, Ernie in Kovacsland is helpful, but more helpful still is an out-of-print book being offered for free with purchase (this is not sponcon): Adams’s 1990 memoir Sing a Pretty Song. Having lived and worked with Kovacs for nearly his entire career, Adams detailed in her book exactly how her husband worked and what inspired him, what led to great on-screen improvs, and how long he tinkered with five-second bits. Her book contains more of these details than any biography of Ernie Kovacs published and is an invaluable read. Excerpts from this book also appear in Ernie in Kovacsland, though not nearly enough.
In her Los Angeles testimony before the Library of Congress during their 1996 study on television and videotape preservation, Edie Adams expressed concern over the work of television pirates. “Not all collector[s] and tape savers have pure altruism as their goal,” she said. “The lack of some master plan of saving and restoring aging TV tape has created a whole underbelly of sleasy TV pirates—copyright infringers who daily and without guilt package and sell shows clearly not belonging to them.” This is certainly still true: working on a piece about soap operas in the 1990s, I purchased several episodes from somewhat shady online dealers. Before doing so, I reached out to ABC to ask if they had any available archives of specific episodes. ABC’s media contact advised me to check YouTube.
The “lack of some master plan” is partly responsible for this television black market, and Adams knew firsthand how difficult it was to save the work of just one producer who was on TV for little more than a decade. It’s not a sustainable model—a single woman working ceaselessly and expensively for decades to rescue one important but small part of television history. The advantage to the underbelly of sleazy TV pirates, particularly today, is that it’s a more decentralized archive: it doesn’t rely on any one person. With data being stored and shared by multiple parties, the result is that nothing can be permanently erased from the capital-A Archive should any single copy be dumped into the Upper New York Bay. Today, all the shows that have been disappeared from your favorite streaming platforms still exist on hard drives around the world, and thanks to peer-to-peer technology, you can watch them and contribute to the preservation of this archive. All you have to do is break the law.
There remains a great deal of nostalgia for Ernie Kovacs’s work, in part because it represents a time when television had the potential to become anything. Kovacs pioneered morning talk shows, hosted The Tonight Show (1954– ) and several game shows, and produced hours of bizarre sketch comedy; all these formats exist today, with only trace echoes of his influence. His blackout sketches were a huge influence on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968–73); the way he would fill airtime with absurdity was a clear antecedent to Late Night with David Letterman (1982–93). I have no clue if they were ever aware of his work, but so much of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007–10) feels like 20th-century Ernie Kovacs. And there must be some of the Nairobi Trio DNA in the Blue Man Group. Beyond that, late-night shows, sketch shows, and morning talk shows largely follow formats.
Far be it from me to suggest that television is more formulaic in the 2020s than it was in the 1950s, but Ernie Kovacs identified a medium that had yet to establish its formulas, and then took it in every direction he could think of, swinging in a single show between offhand improvised chatter and carefully choreographed special effects. Ernie in Kovacsland will, one hopes, serve to further bolster his legacy, emphasize the importance of saving television broadcasts, and encourage more TV artists to stretch the medium to its limits.
Harry Waksberg is a stay-at-home dad and Hebrew School teacher living in Westchester County, New York. He is between dogs.
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