Stars of Slapstick #62: Ernie Kovacs

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What a day for comedy birthdays! Today is also the birthday of Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962). Kovacs was a television mainstay from 1949 through his death in 1962, and has always had a near fanatical cult of followers. Kovacs archivist Ben Model has called him “the Buster Keaton of television.” This is because Kovacs was less a character comedian than a gag man. And like Keaton he had a surreal sensibility and mastered the technology of the medium in order to realize his playful innovations. It was Kovacs who arranged for a parade of people to climb out of a woman’s bubble bath—while she was bathing in it. Kovacs who had a used car salesman slap the hood of his auto, sending it crashing into a sink hole beneath the parking lot. And Kovacs who dreamt up the Nairobi Trio, a musical threesome of people in gorilla suits, pretending to play along with a scratchy record called “Solfeggio.” But he also contrived to peek through a hole in a woman’s head (thanks to green screen effects) and once taped a kaleidoscope to the front of the camera lens, gags that had more to do with the possibilities of the medium itself. No one before or since has dared to dream this big or weird in television comedy.

His background was as an actor and a radio broadcaster. Having trained at the New York School of the Theatre, he went on to a couple of years of summer stock in the late ‘30s. The entire decade of the forties was spent as a local radio broadcaster in Trenton, where he was already beginning to pull crazy stunts. From here he worked his way to local television in Philadelphia, then New York, and then national at all four networks (ABC, CBS, Dumont, and NBC). He worked his way through a succession of talk shows, games shows, and variety programs.

In 1956 while guest-hosting for several weeks on The Tonight Show, he developed his silent character “Eugene”, who became a vehicle for Kovacs to express chains of bizarre visual gags. In these segments, Kovacs (sporting an old-school straw boater hat) would walk around a world that proves to be as strange as Wonderland. His reactions to the spectacles he encounters are underplayed, at most mildly quizzical. The comedian completely trusted the television audience to get what he was doing. In 1957, that faith in his audience was rewarded when Kovacs was given the opportunity to do his first half-hour special starring Eugene on NBC. Aside from some opening remarks, the entire show was without dialogue, although there it features much judicious use of comical sound effects. These are most prominently showcased in a library sequence, where Eugene takes various classics off the shelves and opens them to find some palpable real world manifestation of the book’s title jumping out at him. He opens War and Peace and sounds of loud cannons come out. He opens The Old Man and the Sea and gets hit in the face with a splash of water. The show’s most famous sequence takes place in a lunch room. Kovacs had the entire set built on a fifteen-degree grade and then had the camera tilted to match it, so that onscreen the room appears normal. This simple effect allows Kovacs to defy gravity. When Eugene tries to eat his lunch, he finds the normal law of physics don’t apply. His apple rolls away from him across the perfectly flat table. When he tries to pour his coffee out of a thermos it shoots away from the cup as though he were in the interior of a space capsule.

The so-called “Silent Show” was so successful that Kovacs began to get movie roles (although, typically, none of the ten or so films he made in Hollywood remotely tapped into his gifts). But on television he would continue to do silent sight gags until his final critically acclaimed series on ABC, right before his tragic death in a car accident in 1962. The world will always be left to wonder what feats of magic he would have achieved had he lived to his natural age.

Here, now, part one of “Eugene”

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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