Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Celebrating Ernie Kovacs

"There's a standard formula for success in the entertainment medium, and that is 'Beat it to death if it succeeds.'"

- Ernie Kovacs

It isn't often that I stray from the subject of the train-wreck of our political discourse and drift into the field of American popular culture. But I'm almost certain you wil
l forgive me if I make an exception for Ernie Kovacs.

We all came together at the Paley Center in New York City on April 12, 2011 - one week ago tonight - to pay tribute to a man who has been called (with no exaggeration) "Television's Original Genius". The event, which was hosted by Keith Olbermann was set to herald the release today of a six-DVD retrospective of the tragically-brief career of this extraordinary talent. The release of The Ernie Kovacs Collection is reason to celebrate - and I'm celebrating - trust me.

As anyone who reads this site with any degree of regularity must have figured out by now, I am a huge fan of Keith Olbermann. During his eight-year run as host of MSNBC's Countdown, I rarely missed a broadcast. Yet when the evening was over and the participants in the discussion were mulling about underneath the giant video screen in front of the stage, I walked right past the guy. No offense, Keith, but I just had to introduce myself to Jolene Brand (photo on the left). She was there with her husband, the producer (and creator of Laugh In) George Schlatter - or as we inhabitants of Kovacsland fondly refer to him, "Mr. Jolene Brand". It can be said that Jolene was Edna Purviance to Ernie's Charlie Chaplin, and a vital presence on the Kovacs program for the last three years of his life. Fifty years later, she is still a heart breaker - and a lovely human being. She promised me that she would read this review. HI, JOLENE!

The one palpable absence from the evening's festivities (besides Ernie of course) was Edie Adams who passed away three years ago. She was the woman who stuck by Ernie through thick and gaunt, and who saved the videotapes and kinescopes in this beautiful collection from being destroyed by foolish network executives. Had it not been for this smart and savvy woman, it is doubtful that Ernie's legacy would have survived at all. Incredibly, a few years after he died, in an effort to make space in a Manhattan film storage facility, untold hours of films from Ernie's Dumont Network period were dumped into the East River. Can you imagine?

I spoke to Edie on the telephone one night in 1986. She was playing in the King Cole Room at the Fairmont Hotel and graciously took my call. I told her that Ernie's NBC special from May 1959, "Kovacs on Music", was beyond brilliant. I remember practically begging her to release it on video.
She told me, "I will someday, Tom, I promise you". That program is contained in this DVD collection. Thanks, Edie! Give Ernie a hug for me, will you?

"He played with the medium of television in a way no one ever had before."

Jack Lemmon

In the early 1950s an article was written called, "Kovacs Hates TV". This doesn't surprise me in the least. Radicals are seldom satisfied with things as they are - and Ernie was about as radical as they come. He changed everything. At a time when no one knew what to do with the new invention of videotape, Ernie Kovacs made it sing and dance. He was no mere, run-of-the-mill, fifties television comedian. He was in fact the world's very first video artist - incredible when you consider the fact that the term "video art" did not come into existence until 1966, four years after his passing. Even now, despite a half-century of video's technological evolution, Ernie's work still astounds.

What is also astonishing is that - in his time - he was not a resounding success. Although the television and film audiences of the 1950s liked Ernie Kovacs (How could anyone not like Ernie Kovacs?) they were somewhat puzzled by him. About ten years ago his work was featured on a cable television series whose title speaks volumes: "Brilliant But Canceled". As hard as this might be to believe, it is the absolute truth: During his lifetime he was never as popular with the public as Milton Berle....Milton Berle! Can you believe that? (I am sorely tempted here to make an analogy to anyone who ever lost an election to George W. Bush, but I'll resist). It would take decades of hindsight for the public to truly appreciate how unique Ernie was. Sadly, that appreciation would be posthumous.

Late on the rainy night of Janu
ary 13, 1962, Ernie Kovacs was returning home from a party when he lost control of the Corvair station wagon he was driving and crashed it, wrapping the driver's side of the vehicle around the concrete base of a utility pole. He was killed instantly. Ten days later, on what would have been his forty-third birthday, ABC Television aired Ernie's last program which he had been working on right up until the night he died. Of the entire series of monthly half-hour specials he had been doing in the last year of his life, this final program was one of the best. At the end of the broadcast, the reverend who presided over Ernie's funeral was quoted:

"We loved this man. He brought joy, gaiety and laughter to the world. He was a rugged individualist and a creative genius. But he was always ready to listen, and slow to judge

Ernie K
ovacs was a visionary. He was the first to realize that great art could be created within the nineteen-inch confines of an ugly box with a glass tube at its center. Unfortunately for humanity, he's gone and he's not coming back. Thank God for Edie Adams. Because she had the foresight to save her husband's work, we now have these kinescopes and videotapes to gently remind us what once was. Ernie's world was a delightful, wondrous and riotous place to enter. Someone once remarked, "In an ocean of noise, this island of quiet genius was typical of Ernie Kovacs." Indeed it was.

Early in his career, he would close his programs by telling the audience at home, "It's been real!", a phrase he coined. He was a bit of a paradox in that respect. Ernie Kovacs was the real deal alright - and television's first surrealist. Go figure.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


Just in case I didn't make it abundantly clear in this piece, I highly recommend the Ernie Kovacs Collection. The set is being distributed by The Shout Factory. If you order it from their website, you will receive a seventh, bonus DVD absolutely free (How cool is that???) Here's a link to order:


A special tip of the hat to Ben Model - the noted pianist and scorer of silent cinema - for compiling this collection of Ernie's brilliant work - and also to Josh Mills. He's Edie Adams' son and the one who stands guard outside of the Kovacs vault. Well done, gents!


Ode to Stanley's Pussycat
by Percy Dovetonsils

One more thing....

Ernie Kovacs literally invented the music video. Although primarily remembered as a comedian, his work in this realm could often be serious - haunting even. A case in point: Here is a link to a piece from his last program. It is a street scene that he scored to Bela Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra". The beautiful woman in black is Jolene Brand.

The Ernie Kovacs Show, 23 January 1962


by Diana Rico

This excellent biography of Ernie Kovacs is available from Amazon.com. Here's a link to order it:


It's been real!

For more postings on this hideous, French-loving, latte swirling, Commie blog, kindly go to the following link:

"The Rant" by Tom Degan


Shh! They're working on it.


At 8:08 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

By the way, during the forum at the Paley Center, one of the moderators said, "Okay folks I have a trivia question for you: In 1956 when he was hosting the Tonight Show, Ernie played a magician in a skit. For a free copy of the new box set, what was the name of that character?"

I raised my hand, stood up and answered, "Matza Hepplewhite!"

He tossed the set to me. It was a pretty good catch on my part!

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Dearest Friend said...

Well done, let's hope all the coverage results in making Ernie immortal along with those he has influenced. Johnny, Dave, Jay - all of 'em...let's not forget comedy variety shows like Ms. Burnett's. None of them would be what they were without Ernie leading the way.

Beautiful - and very "real."

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Yellowstone said...


I am 16 years ahead of you in age. As I think back on the days of Percy and the Nairobi Trio - I laugh again!

At that time there were others - just as outrageous: Jonathon Winters, Louie Nye, Tom Poston, and Don Knotts. As a youngster I'd actually lay on the floor laughing so hard at these guys - I couldn't breathe or get up.

This morning I watched Robin Williams in a brief interview - a second generation of that crew - but nearly as hilarious.

I wish they were all here - they made life so much fun. But nevermore . . .

Thanks for the laughs.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger charles moore said...

Tom, thanks for a wonderful tribute to one of my favorite TV personalities. He was simply way ahead of his time and most of today's programming is dumbed down by comparison. Looking back at those earlier days of television, we had some great things to watch.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

I'm only sorry I wasn't old enough to experience Ernie first hand. On January 13, 1962 I was three-and-a-half years old. But, interestingly, I remember hearing his name at that early age. I liked it, too. I remember thinking that it was a happy name: Ernie Kovacs!

At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Gregory J Malis said...

The morning after Ernie died I heard the news on my father's car radio. We were headed out for my high school placement exams. The "hardest test" I ever took in life. Ten days later Ernie lived once again (even if only for just a few minutes)...fade back to black. Today on the fortieth anniversary of my father's passing I like to think that Ernie (wearing his crooked grin)had a hand in the release date. Miss 'em both ~

At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Obama Hired Wonder Boy Tim Geithner said...

Tom, Its good you changed the subject from politics to comedy. Its clear that the Democrats like to spend like drunkin sailors and believe money grows on special trees in Washington.

At 10:53 AM, Anonymous boltok said...

Totally unrelated to this blog. I was thinking about one of your prior responses. What state requires that you hook a meter up to your back end for tax purposes. I want to make sure that I don't go there.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Modusoperandi said...

I had a Kovacs. Filled a whole room. Then some bastard joined two diodes together at the base and suddenly my Kovacs was obsolete! I held out for as long as I could, up until they integrated a circuit. I've got no regrets, though. It was a great computer.

At 1:58 PM, Blogger LisAnne said...

Hello ;)* I saw that movie () last night! It was a stark reminder of America today: I see how we ARE becoming 2 nations~Before OUR Eyes!
The movie from the 90's w/Chris Reeves Anthony Hopkins....
AWESOME to see it again, for the first time ;)*

At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born at a very early age so even though I was alive in the 1950's I was busy ducking and covering.

Had PETA been around would they have groused at my adjusting the Rabbit Ears?

I was skinny because there were no remotes.

Things were much clearer because everything was in Black and White.

At 5:30 PM, Blogger Darlene said...

Others may have emulated him, but there was only one Ernie Kovaks. I remember him well and am glad that I was old enough to see him on early TV. He was a very funny man.

BTW, you are to be congratulated on your prodigious memory, Tom.

At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Al Quagliata said...


Thanks for a great post. Good job. I'm sorry I wasn't able to attend the Paley Deal.

Al Quagliata, webmaster,
The Ernie Kovacs Blog and
Ernie Kovacs Dot Net: A Tribute To Television's Original Genius

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Thanks for the note, Al. It was a nice time. Olbermann was a hoot and - as stated in the piece, Jolene Brand is still drop-dead gorgeous - and a very nice person to boot.

It was real!

All the best,

Tom Degan

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous John Galt said...

This week, the New Hampshire Senate approved a Right To Work bill by a veto-proof 18-6 vote. The House has already passed a slightly different version of the bill, but not by the 2/3 needed to override an expected veto from Governor John Lynch. Supporters say unions should have monopoly bargaining power and that workers should not be forced to join a union as a condition of employment.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger suetiggers said...

I loved Ernie. He was truly unique...outrageous and a combo of the most creative humor I've seen in my 70 years. When people say "he was wild" that's an understatement with Ernie Kovacs. He did innovate he was unique and those who love good humor tried to imitate him...but he was a true original.

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous boltok said...

Happy Easter everyone!

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

You, too. boltok. Thank you!

All the best,


Here's a link to Ernie Kovacs' "Kitchen Symphony" that you can watch while preparing your Easter feast!


It's been real!

At 12:13 PM, Anonymous James said...

As long as we are doing videos, check out this one. Non political so even Conservatives can enjoy it. If you do not have good speakers or headphones go out and buy some.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Is0hXP5Vr08 James

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Something to bring all sides of the spectrum together on Easter. That was very nice, James. Thank you.


Tom Degan

At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice, too bad JG wont see it cause he doesn't know how to cut and paste.

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

C'mon, friend. It's Easter. Let's all chill for the day.


Tom Degan

At 1:32 PM, Blogger Diana Rico said...

Tom, thank you so much for the great piece on Ernie and (more importantly) the unsolicited plug for my Kovacs book. :-) Seriously, you captured much of what made EK unique. And lucky you, you got to go to the Paley tribute! I so wish I could have been there. I did a good chunk of my research there for the bio (back when it was called the Museum of Broadcasting) and am thrilled to see them paying tribute to the Master at last.

It's been real...

Diana Rico
Author, "Kovacsland: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs"

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Thank you so much for stopping by, Diana; I'm honored! Your biography of Ernie was excellent.

I cannot recommend that book enough, folks. For the Kovacs fan it is required reading.


At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Jeff Heise said...

Beautiful piece-I envy you going to that Kovacs tribute, not just for seeing that great material with a large, appreciative audience, but also for the chance to see the Olbermann in person. If it would have been me, I would have taken all of my copies of his books to see about getting them signed-tried to send them to him at MSNBC years ago and they were sent back with "unable to forward" stamped on the package-damn!

Also, if you get the Jack Lemmon DVD box set from Sony, the OPERATION MAD BALL disc has Ernie's masterpiece of a trailer for the film-still the greatest one of its kind.

At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ryan is playing Obama like he is a little kid. Hey Obama Ryan put the ball in your court! You going to do something to help America? Or are you once again going to prove your the leader of the Flee Bagger Party of Evil? Well Obama are you going to Flee and Hide? America is watching...and laughing at you!
Goldman Sachs Obama's largest contributor orders Obama around like the corrupt puppet he is. Why would wall street waste their money bribing a Repub when bribing a Democrat is so much cheaper. This is wall street were talking about folks! They want return on their "investment" Obama has payed off very well for them. Evil people used to buy slaves and made the presentable ones their "house boys" Well Goldman Sachs bought themselves a "whitehouse boy" As always you can contact me at work http://www.bestmichiganbusinesses.com/ and yes keep those jokes coming. Obamacare is so bad that the Democrats came up with a new name for it. They call it "waiversforfavors".
This was reported from CNBC that 150 Economists Back US Republicans in Debt Fight.Signatories include Nobel laureate Robert Mundell of Columbia University and economists from schools like New York University and Georgetown University, as well as conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute. Well Obama are you going to do anything? ever? Why not just leave now and put America out of your misery? "why are the dems the party of nothing..." Nothing between the ears or legs!

At 11:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are a rare twit.....keep up your bs so america can see what left wing fruit loops are about.

At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Tom I read your posts on R/R sometimes , while I dont agree with you so much I want to give you a big attaboy for sticking to your guns. I am neather Dem Or Repub and think .....no I know they are both sh*t just two different piles...keep up the good work

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Ralph Dumain said...

This release is good news. I can't afford to buy this right now, but one of you viewers of this set could do me a favor. If any of the shows that had a studio audience are included in the set, please be on the lookout for a black girl in the audience, and let me know if you see one. I'll explain why this matters to me another time.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Will do, Ralph. I already quoted your note on the Ernie Kovacs Facebook page. Maybe someone a lot more observant that I will be able to pick her out.



At 10:21 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...


Countdown with Keith Olbermann returns tomorrow night on Current TV.


At 4:24 PM, Blogger Herb and Joan said...

BTW..At one of the 8 day New Jersey State Fairs! Ernie Kovacs did EVERY station break for all those 8 (24 hour)days! They woke him up to do the breaks...WTFM

Herb Spiegel
Lambertville, NJ
Formerly of Trenton, NJ

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6:17 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Thank you so much for that info, Herb and Joan. I just posted it on Ernie's Facebook page:



Tom Degan


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