To many, Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962) was the most brilliant comedian in history. His zany, visual humor was unlike any other performer of his day. His motion pictures were a combination of slapstick and bits of humor that took intelligence to enjoy. Kovacs' television performances were even more unusual, and demanded greater concentration from the viewer.
Ernie Kovacs was born in Trenton, New Jersey on January 23, 1919. As a youngster, he was drawn to the theater and the world of entertainment. Kovacs attended the New York School of Theatre and began acting in stock companies. He avoided military service during the Second World War because of a serious illness that hospitalized him for 18 months. Between 1945 and 1950, he earned a modest living as a columnist for the Trentonian newspaper and worked as a disc jockey for a local radio station.
During his performing life from 1951 until his death in 1962, Kovacs worked in over a dozen motion pictures and several very successful television series, including the immensely popular Ernie Kovacs Show and It's Time for Ernie. His television career began with a cooking program on station WPTZ in Philadelphia. The show was called Deadline for Dinner, but Kovacs generally referred to it as "Dead Lion for Breakfast." He also appeared as a guest performer on many other television programs.
The Nairobi Trio
Those who knew, insisted that Kovacs was always one of the three silly and senseless entertainers known as the "Nairobi Trio." These performers were disguised as monkeys and appeared as a weekly segment on the Kovacs television program for many years. The remaining two Trio members were generally other famous entertainers of the day such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, or even Frank Sinatra. Unidentified and unacknowledged, top stars fought for the honor of being a Trio member.
Each monkey would elaborately play an instrument, with the "star" being the drummer. Throughout the heavy beats of the simple and basic music, the drummer would slowly turn and beat a quick measure on the piano player's head. The piano player, equally slow and also to the beat of the music, would turn and look up at the drummer. By then the drummer had turned away. That was the entire act. It never changed, week after week. Although it was done precisely the same way each time, with the same costumes and the same slow beat music, and although every viewer knew exactly what was going to happen, it was hilarious. Viewers couldn't seem to wait for the Nairobi Trio segment of the show. They would start laughing the moment the three monkeys appeared on the set. The Nairobi Trio continued to prove Kovacs' theory that repetition was funny.
Successful Television Career
Because Kovacs' shows were full of antics such as the Nairobi Trio, they were a major success. It was not at all unusual to see a bent and broken file cabinet, or a shellacked chicken, or a variety of kitchen utensils dancing to weird and wacky music on a Kovacs show. A roasted turkey might wiggle across the set to some twisted melody.
Kovacs might come before the cameras as a cowboy readying for a "quick draw" against a "bad guy" in an old west town. Always in this type of very fast comedy sketch, and also in his famed Dutch Master's cigars commercials, the background music would be the lovely "Haydn's String Quartet, Opus 33, Number 5," the "Sarabande." But at the last instant Kovacs' gun would fall off or misfire, or his pants would fall down, or something else very visual would happen. He could draw laughter with a look, a gesture, or a flick of his huge cigar. His performances were known for satire, zany originality, and visual gags.
"Percy Dovetonsils" was one of Kovacs' regular characters. With thick glasses and a silk smoking jacket, while sipping wine in a plush study, the lispy Percy would softly read poetry. Viewers had to listen to the words to get the humor Kovacs intended, but just seeing him every week was very funny to many. Some of his audience roared with laughter at the poetry, others invariably missed the point of the whole skit.
Kovacs was married to Bette Wilcox in 1945. They had two daughters, Bette Lee (Elisabeth) Andrea, born in 1947, and Kip "Kippy" Raleigh, born in 1949. The couple divorced in 1954 after an extended separation, with Kovacs retaining custody of his children. He married prominent entertainer Edie Adams in 1955, and lived with her and their daughter until his death in 1962.
Kovacs wrote two books. The first, Zoomar, was a witty but deeply felt autobiographical novel in his own inimitable style. It was published at the height of his popularity, in 1956. The other, published in 1962, was How to Talk at Gin. Kovacs was a compulsive "doodler" and some of the doodlings most admired by his daughter are reproduced in the latter book.
A Tragic Accident
On January 12, 1962, Kovacs spent a long day working on one of his regular ABC television specials. Then he attended a party to celebrate the christening of fellow-comedian Milton Berle's son. He left around 1:30 in the morning, driving his new Corvair station wagon. While turning from Beverly Glen to Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, he lost control and spun into a utility pole. A passerby noted that the engine in the car was still running, so he reached in to shut it off. While doing that he discovered that the man slumped halfway out of the driver's seat was the famous comedian, Ernie Kovacs.
Kovacs died in the crash in Los Angeles on January 13, 1962-just ten days short of his 43rd birthday. Few of his saddened fans will forget the front-page newspaper photo of one of his cigars lying half-smoked along the curb at the scene of his death. For days following his accident, tributes appeared in newspapers around the world. New York Times columnist J. Gould wrote, "Sometimes Kovacs' point of view was wildly hilarious, sometimes thoroughly puzzling, but there was never a doubt about whose point of view it was. The loss of the man with the mustache, the cigar, and the smile not only deprives both the viewer and television of an artist who contributed the elusive and precious commodity of laughter, but also of a free and irreverent spirit who had many friends he never met."
Since the death of Kovacs, there has been one major biography, a television movie about his life, many tributes in the form of screenings and articles, and dozens of videotapes. When the videotapes are viewed, it is obvious that his comedic genius will perhaps never be matched. His use of video trickery was masterful, but it was always used as a means to the end he intended, and not merely for its own sake.
Further Reading on Ernie Kovacs
The Boston Phoenix, http://weeklywire.com/filmvault/boston/e/erniekovacstv1.html
Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, 1994