The prescient, avant-garde comedy of Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams, recovered classics of early television

Edie Adams and Ernie Kovacs goofing around (Courtesy Ediad Productions.)
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Early television didn’t attract too many artists. Entertainers, sure—loads of those, varying in quality. But people with a distinctly honed sensibility were thin on the ground in the days of seltzer in your pants.

Ernie Kovacs was a big exception—maybe the big exception. He began as a morning host but soon his surrealist sense of humor and tricky visuals—he’d tilt sets and camera angles to make everything appear normal, only to then defy gravity—were too wiggy for the mainstream audience. That might have changed had he not died in a car accident in 1962.  

“The difficult thing with Kovacs was that he was on all four networks, including DuMont,” said Josh Mills, who controls the estates for Kovacs and Edie Adams—Kovacs’ primary creative partner and Mills’ mother.  

“He wasn't one of those people like Milton Berle, where you turn him on and you know you're going to get your show, or Jackie Gleason and ‘The Honeymooners,’” Mills continued. “But he always had a really rabid following and a really crazy fan base. He was always getting new shows, and there were always things that people wanted because he was inventive and different.... As far as mass appeal, I don't think even he was interested in that. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do.”  

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What Kovacs wanted to do continues to resonate. A year ago, Shout! Factory issued a six-DVD box set, The Ernie Kovacs Collection. A typical review came from Jonathan Lethem in Playboy, who wrote: “The Nairobi Trio [video above] is ... one of only two things in the entire universe with the power to wildly delight any human being from age two to the most sophisticated (i.e., sullen, punk, tripping on drugs) teenager to adults of any age and not only do so on first contact but repeated to infinity.”  

Now, with a single-disc excerpt from the box, Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials, featuring five half-hour shows aired monthly from September 1961 to January 1962, available for dabblers, the Museum of the Moving Image is beginning a month-long joint tribute to Kovacs and Adams. It kicks off tonight with a panel on the pair, moderated by stand-up veteran Robert Klein, and featuring Broadway producer Harold Prince, ex-CBS newsman Jeff Greenfield, TV critic David Bianculli, comedy writer Alan Zweibel, and Kovacs historian (and Moving Image series curator) Ben Model.

The box set had its own sendoff last year at the Paley Center. “The clips that they showed had almost no footage of Edie,” said Model of the Paley event. “[But] she was not just his pretty wife. She was a collaborator in many ways. In a lot of ways, they are a comedy team, when you see the two of them in sketches together. That, and her influencing Ernie’s interest in classical music [that] he ran with—all his music pieces he referred to as sound into sight pieces. Edie had gone to Juilliard for voice. She was writing 12-tone string quartets.”  

The Kovacs-Adams dynamic is not unlike that of John Cleese and Connie Booth. Booth co-created and co-wrote Fawlty Towers with then-husband Cleese but is usually given less or no credit. Though she seldom received official writing credits, Adams often referred to herself as Kovacs’ editor.  

“Goodness knows he needed it, because a lot of his sketches are extremely overwritten,” said Model. “You can see her chops in that respect when you look at her television show, ‘Here's Edie,’ from 1962-1964, which she co-produced and co-created. She's no slouch when it came to putting on a good piece of television entertainment. She even did the costumes for ‘Here's Edie.’ [In] the credits it says ‘By Enke’—her maiden name.”  

Mills says Adams’ background helped refine Kovacs’ shaggier inclinations.  

“My mom had a very formal education,” said Mills. “She was definitely the perfect little girl up until about 18. Then she went to Julliard and got, as she would say, a very artsy-fartsy education. Ernie was basically a guy who was literally going from radio show to television show to another radio show. At some point, he could have been on television ten hours a week, plus doing radio, so he had to come up with new material every single day. There was a certain point where I think my mom just said, ‘You can't just recycle bits. You can't come up with fresh things all the time. Why don't you do it this way?’ I think they really saw themselves as a partnership in that way.”  

Adams is also directly responsible for the abundance of available Kovacs footage. Of course, it’s not all there—in general, little TV footage from the pre-”I Love Lucy” era still survives, and in many cases even old videotapes of shows were recycled. That nearly happened to Kovacs as well.    

“Edie was always very friendly with the tech crew people, and vice versa,” said Model. “So somebody on the inside tipped her off. In the early-to-mid-’60s, a cameraman or a tech guy at ABC called her up and said, ‘You better get over here. They’re taping over Ernie’s shows.’”  

“They were taping over them with weather reports and game shows and P.S.A.s,” said Mills. “My mom essentially told her lawyer to go to every network and buy anything with Kovacs. That’s the only reason they survived, and that's the only reason that we own it.”  

She managed to save plenty. In addition to the 13 hours worth of Kovacs on last year’s box, the family archive contains some 150 more half-hours, with 15 half-hours of Adams’ material as well. Mills said there may be more box sets to come.  

“We're definitely talking about it,” he said. “Not everything that Ernie did was genius, but not everything anyone does is genius. I don't want to say that we have 150 half hours that are amazing, but there's a lot of material to choose from. A lot of it's from his daily show called ‘Take a Good Look,’ which no one's seen since it was originally broadcast.”  

 

One rarity whose release Mills just announced is the June 19 issue, on Omnivore, of Percy Dovetonsils ... thpeaks, which Kovacs recorded for an independent label in 1960 but never finished. Dovetonsils was one of Kovacs’ most beloved recurring characters—a lisping caricature he’d first developed for radio a decade earlier of an affected man of letters, reading verse to harp accompaniment, both equally silly. (“One poet I know signs his correspondence Percy Dovetonsils,” wrote Lethem.)  

“Ernie did the audio, [but] they never put the music on,” said Mills. “We found the tape in our archive. We didn't even know it was there. It was mislabeled as a film tape, and it was audio.”  

One striking thing about The ABC Specials—in particular, the November 24, 1961 episode, which is all silent—is that a museum exhibit seems utterly appropriate for their creator. Kovacs was as much a modern artist working in the pop sphere as, say, Kraftwerk, and the specials’ stark staging (many of his TV shows were notoriously low budget) and dry wit are strongly reminiscent the video art that would take shape in subsequent decades—a link also made by Lynn Spiegel in her 2009 book, TV By Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television, which features a chapter on Kovacs.  

“On the box set," said Model, "there is a special called 'Kovacs on Music,' from 1958. During a musical number where Edie is singing, he uses video feedback—[you get it] by pointing a television camera at a monitor that is showing a direct feed from the television camera. It has this multiplying effect, like when you have ... two mirrors facing each other. Adding that over something else—it is pretty wild stuff.”  

“There’s definitely people out there who see these specials as the beginning of postmodernism,” said Mills. “A lot of comedians definitely point to them. He died in January '62, so these were done in late '61. I think technology had moved to a point where it wasn't as cumbersome and as bulky and as difficult as it was in the ’50s. We were moving into a new era. Ernie, unfortunately, didn't live to the point where he could actually see it through.”

The Moving Image show isn’t just about Kovacs or Adams’ avant-garde sides, either. “Part of the reason I really wanted to do it is that we're also putting together a Saturday afternoon kids program with about 45 minutes of some of that more inventive stuff,” said Mills. “I've always maintained that kids enjoy him a lot more than parents, sometimes.”

The Museum of the Moving Image series ‘Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams’ begins tonight with a panel discussion featuring Robert Klein, Harold Prince, Jeff Greenfield, David Bianculli, Alan Zweibel, and Ben Model, and runs through May 27.