A few weeks ago one of our members told how her son-in-law set up a DVD player and she got to watch Jack Benny, which she enjoyed quite a bit. This brought to mind another comedian that was more my contemporary. His name was Ernie Kovacs. Now the reason I find him so interesting is not so much his humor, but his unique, original and far reaching grasp of the medium known as television. Ernie used, manipulated and explored television like nobody before or since. I will give you a few instances that I hope illustrate this and I hope they pique your interest.
At that time most comedy/variety shows were filmed before a live audience. This format did not work for Ernie. His shows demanded the scope and perspective of the small screen. Sound effects were added after the filming to ensure not too much, not too little, and the exact timing. Perspective frequently charged as to ignore the concept of the proscenium arch. You were not watching the actors performing a scene, but were there beside, behind or opposite them.
The content also pushed the envelope too, by 1950s standards. Ernie was not only divorced, but a divorced dad who was given custody of his two children. This fact, along with the content of his skits, was enough to merit the disdain of my Irish Catholic mother. She would rather watch the clean-shaven, white, Italian choir boy, Perry Como who was on opposite him.
Ernie’s skits often contained music of a classic opera nature, which he loved. One of them involved just office furniture, no actors, just the file cabinet, pencil sharpener and water cooler, among other pieces, representing the different instruments. Once he took an orange juice can and taped it to the camera lens. To that he taped a kaleidoscope and played some more classical music while twisting it. An effect, judged by MTV in 1980 to cost $86,000. Ernie’s cost – $1.29.
Not to belabor the point, I will tell of just one more thing. In the 1950s Ernie made a television show that violated every law of broadcasting…”Eugene.” This show was special because for 30 minutes in prime time it had no dialogue – a Cardinal sin in broadcasting then and now. It had sound effects and music, but for 30 minutes not a word was spoken. “From the milkman’s good morning it’s been nothing but talk, talk, talk.” It earned him the scorn of critics and a Sylvania Award and the cover of Life Magazine. Jack Lemmon said that “Ernie had a sense of humor – not that he got a joke, but he knew what was funny.”
So therefore I submit to you the most interesting man I never met. A man whose wit, wisdom and talent I try to copy daily. “He just took life, looked at it, and gave it a slight twist about 20 degrees or so.”