. Husband of Edie Adams
. An actor
, producer, visionary
, writer, cigar
aficionado, and comedian. From Trenton
, New Jersey
. Kovacs invented pure-television comedy
, in shows based in Philadelphia
and New York
. He wasn't the first comedian
to appear on TV (a few thousand beat him to the punch), but he was the first to use video technology as the basis for some of his humor
- visual humor ("sight gags") that wouldn't have been possible on live or filmed broadcasts, and comedy that, unique
for its day, borrowed more from silent film
and the medium of TV itself than it did from the traditions of vaudeville
or higher-brow theatre. And running sight gags might be scattered throughout the half-hour, like a saxophonist reworking and revisiting a four-note motif
in a solo, dropping in new surprises each time through.
It was quirky, anarchic stuff, with parts of it just puzzlingly semi-funny, so there was never some long-running Ernie Kovacs Show; his work never gained a massive following, so it was a series here, a special there, with characters - like demented poetaster Percy Dovetonsils, DJ Wolfgang von Sauerbraten, silent-comedy throwback Eugene, the Nairobi Trio of "musical" miming apes - and ideas becoming further developed with each iteration. His shows were the only ones where you could hear the music of Esquivel and his peers, or a demented version of "Mack the Knife" - the music that accompanied the comedy was often as odd as the humor itself.
It would be years before the rest of North America caught up: Laugh-In, with its short-attention-span jump-cut visual gags and motif-juggling; Jerry Lewis and Saturday Night Live, with anarchy that broke the "fourth wall", and the use of the conventions of the medium as grist for serious mindfuck parody; the content-free or free-associating visuals of music video (though Kovacs' soundtrack might have Bartók or Prokofiev); Kovacs and Steve Allen begat David Letterman.
There were also acting gigs: North to Alaska; Our Man in Havana; Bell, Book, and Candle.... And, when NBC gave Steve Allen a Sunday prime-time show, Kovacs was called in to host the Tonight Show twice a week, subbing for the massively-overworked Allen. Despite a busy and fairly lucrative career, much of his money was lost, over the years, due to gambling and the sheer expense of producing some of his sight gags on new technology and with elaborate set designs (e.g. an upside-down set, used for only a portion of a show).
He died at the age of 42, in an auto accident; he lost control of his brand-new Chevy Corvair and crashed into a utility pole. Unsafe at any speed?