My Obsession: Ernie Kovacs

Breaking the fourth wall with the legendary comedian

"Television: a medium. So called because it's neither rare nor well done." – Ernie Kovacs

"Bend over, I'll drive/ Bend over, I'll drive/ Is this the way Ernie Kovacs died?/ Bend over, I'll drive" – The Cramps

If you looked closely at Conan O'Brien's 30 Rock stage set during his run as host of NBC's Late Night, you might have caught a glimpse of several portraits of Conan's television forebears decorating the wood-paneled walls. One of them was of a mustachioed, cigar-chomping wiseguy with an unruly tangle of black hair barely tamed by, I assume, Brylcreem. (The cigar was undoubtedly a Dutch Master. More on that later.)

I recognized Ernie Kovacs' unmistakable mug right off the bat, chiefly because he'd written for, and been parodied by, EC's Mad magazine in the mid-Fifties. That was during Mad's transition from a comic book to a magazine format following the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which deemed EC's shockingly literate horror and crime comics a genuine threat to the "I Like Ike" status quo. In retrospect, the Subcommittee should have paid more attention to Kovacs, who by that time had already changed the very nature of televised comedy itself, via a series of programs that ran in oddball time slots – early morning, late at night – on CBS, NBC, and the long-defunct DuMont network.

None of the networks had a clue how to market Kovacs. His surreal brand of blackout sketch comedy was tonally similar to the more anarchic Marx Brothers – in particular Harpo Marx's Dada-esque silent lunacy – but Kovacs came off as a hyper-intellectual hipster, smoothly orchestrating some of the most profoundly hilarious moments in television history. He was close kin to the Beats, with bizarro-world sketches that would intentionally go on too long, or too short, or be just flat-out weird, a televised amalgam of Burroughs' cut-up technique. It was subversively slow burn hilarity that you either got instantly or didn't get at all. Most of Middle America didn't get it, hence the multiple networks and ever-changing time slots. But those who grokked Kovacs' unique brand of humor were forever, wonderfully warped.

His most famous recurring bit was "The Nairobi Trio," a kookily sublime bit of utter madness which consisted of nothing more than three guys in cheapo gorilla masks and baggy clothes miming along to composer Robert Maxwell's equally wild song "Solfeggio." If you're not familiar, stop reading this and hit up YouTube immediately.

Kovacs' wife Edie Adams was a frequent straight woman to his demented genius, playing Margaret Dumont to his Harpo Marx. Other classic Kovacsianisms include a four-minute shot of a sine wave undulating to the quavering voice of Wolfgang Neuss singing Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife" in German, his proto-LGBTQ poet Percy Dovetonsils, and a series of droll advertisements for his beloved Dutch Masters cigars. Kovacs regularly broke the fourth wall; had there been a fifth, it would have ended up shattered beyond repair.

His occasional dives into the movies – at that time, TV's most dreaded nemesis – were equally unhinged. He can be seen at his transgressive best alongside Kim Novak and relative newcomer Jack Lemmon in 1958's witchy, bitchy rom-com Bell Book and Candle, where he plays mumbling, alcoholic writer Sidney Redlitch to Jimmy Stewart's straight-laced book publisher Shep Henderson.

Kovacs died young, at age 42 in 1962, when he drove his Chevy Corvair into a telephone pole after leaving a party at Billy Wilder's Hollywood home. The coroner (and one lucky Los Angeles Times photographer) found a smoldering Dutch Masters cigar lying in the street beside Kovacs' mangled body.

Although much of Kovacs' early kinescoped television work was taped over – as was the custom at the time – Shout! Factory released a fine, comprehensive Kovacs box set a few years back that I can't recommend highly enough. Watching those old shows now, it's easy to see the massive influence he had on everything from Monty Python to Saturday Night Live, and from stand-ups Steven Wright to Mitch Hedberg. Counterculturing the casual conformity of the Eisenhower years, Ernie Kovacs was decades ahead of his time. Now seriously, stop reading this, run to your computer, and prepare to die laughing.

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