When Ernie Kovacs got up in the morning, he did it like nobody else. Ernie Kovacs never did anything like anyone else. His widow, the singer, actor and comedian Edie Adams, had clear memories of mornings with her husband. She told Kovacs estate archivist Ben Model that Ernie “woke up on a manic high and never came down. He had a constant flow of ideas.”
Sometimes Ernie was up before Edie on mornings after her Broadway performances. Rather than eat breakfast in wasteful uncreative silence, Ernie gave his house key to his cab driver and asked him to let himself in so they could cook and eat together.
Then it was off to host a television show. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Ernie hosted and put his own subversive stamp on an astonishing assortment. They included talk and variety shows 3 to Get Ready (1950-1952), It’s Time for Ernie (1951), Ernie in Kovacsland (replacing Kukla, Fran and Ollie in the summer of 1951), Kovacs on the Corner (1952) and The Ernie Kovacs Show (1952–56).
During the 1950s, when commercial television was brand new and convention was king, Ernie’s mottos were “it’s no fun if you play it safe all the time” and “nothing in moderation”(which, Ben told me, is on Ernie’s tombstone).
He spoofed commercials which was simply not done at a time when sponsors were in charge. If a prop malfunctioned or fell over, he made fun of the glitch on-air. He invited everyday people on stage to swap bizarre random items from their households. He created a mesmerizing trio of syncopated musicians in ape masks which, I am told, sometimes scared small children. Most of all, he was known for his visual gags which no one had ever thought of before.
Can you imagine what would happen if Ernie Kovacs took over a game show? Well, it happened. In 1959, ABC asked Ernie to host Take A Good Look. The pilot, hosted by Mike Wallace, was described as “dreary.” Ernie, of course, would change that.
Similar to What’s My Line, Take a Good Look tasked a three-celebrity panel with figuring out a guest’s secret. They not only asked questions, but were forced to puzzle over devilish clues that Ernie created. A clue might be a single shot or a video clip. All were the television equivalent of a rebus puzzle and worthy of a Mad Magazine writer (yes, Ernie wrote for Mad in the ‘50s, too).
Unlike conventional game show hosts, Ernie delighted in the anarchy of confounding his panel. The home audience was rewarded with both schadenfreude and the intellectual fun of trying to figure out the puzzles themselves.
Over the show’s two seasons, the panel included regulars Hans Conried and Cesar Romero. The third seat was filled at various times by Edie, Janet Leigh, Jim Backus, Jaqueline Susann and Carl Reiner.
Ernie died in a car crash in 1962, just ten days shy of his 43rd birthday. Thanks to Edie, who rescued all of Ernie’s tapes, to Edie’s son Josh Mills and to Ben, most of Ernie’s work is now available on DVD. Take A Good Look was released on DVD just last month. Now everyone can see how Ernie put the icon in iconoclast.
Today, Ernie’s enthusiasm for creative rebellion is appreciated more than ever. Josh instituted an Ernie Kovacs award which this year went to The Kids in the Hall. Says Kids’ Kevin McDonald, “Ernie Kovacs was ahead of his time and wrote and performed specific things in comedy that Monty Python did 15 years later. I know Ernie was ahead of his time because his shows kept getting cancelled but he always got a new one the following season because everyone knew he was brilliant.”
Ben, who has been an Ernie fan since childhood, kindly spoke with me by phone about Ernie’s greatness.
Teme: Why is now the right time for Take A Good Look?
Ben: Over the years, fans kept talking about wanting to see it. When the Library of Congress acquired and catalogued the entire Ernie Kovacs film and videotape collection in 2015, we discovered we had the complete two seasons.
There are so many classic game shows getting reboots with stand-up comics as hosts. In Take a Good Look, Ernie Kovacs completely takes over. He needed complete creative control. He makes the show his own playground. There wouldn’t be room for Wayne Brady or Snoop Dogg or Drew Carey to do more with it.
Take A Good Look gave him the opportunity to produce innovative video elements and it worked really well. As much as Kovacs grouched about having to do this show, the weekly paycheck and the opportunity to create were like catnip for him.
Teme: Initially, he wasn’t enthusiastic about hosting the show. Do you think he felt differently by the end?
Ben: Ernie was a master publicist. Who knows if he really hated doing the show or it just made for better press to complain about the daily grind? He did radio for about nine years. Then he did a daily television variety show every single day through the end of 1956. Whenever he got fired or a show was canceled, he would find another show a few months later. So he had been doing the daily grind since 1940.
Also, he had always wanted to be an actor and he had just spent two years enjoying the movie actors’ lifestyle. You make one movie, then you sit around and you play cards. So living the L.A. lifestyle and hobnobbing with celebrities and playing poker was something that Ernie wanted to do, but he had a gambling problem and didn’t care about watching his money. He needed to go back to work. When he died, he was about to do a sitcom-western with Buster Keaton. It’s hard to imagine him doing that, but he needed the money.
So it’s hard to know how much he was having a horrible time or if it was just good press for him to complain. But his sets were usually really happy and people loved working with him.
Teme: I read that his crews loved him. He looked like he’d be a lot of fun to work with.
Ben: He treated everybody well. There are stories about extravagant spending on catering from big name L.A. restaurants like Chasen’s, but it was because he respected his crew and their craftsmanship. He wanted to keep everybody happy, especially during his later shows when they were shooting eight to fourteen hours straight and going into major overtime so he could do everything he wanted to do.
Teme: I was jealous reading about it. It seemed like a unique workplace.
Ben: Yes. There’s an interview on the second DVD box set where he talks in glowing terms about all the people who work on his shows. He couldn’t believe the things that they created and the things he asked them to do that they actually made happen. As outlandish as his ideas might be, the crew would find a way to rig it and make it happen.
Teme: How did Edie Adams rescue his tapes?
Ben: Edie knew a lot about the production aspects and she could talk shop with the tech guys, so she was close with them. One of the tech guys at ABC got wind of the fact that they were going to start wiping Ernie’s TV shows, so they’d have the tape for other things. That was standard practice. He called her up and said, “Edie, you’ve got to get over here!”
George Schlatter had to run out in the parking lot to stop the trucks taking away all the Laugh-In masters. It was seen as disposable culture.
It’s amazing the amount of early television that Edie saved. She did what she had to do to acquire as much material as she possibly could.
Teme: I read that she spent $400,000 making sure that she got ahold of everything and kept it from being destroyed.
Ben: Yes. The amount of stuff in the collection is impressive. We have the original two-inch tape masters of all his television specials and all but one of the episodes of Take a Good Look. The fact that all are playable, except for three or four, is miraculous for videotape from 1959 and 1960.
Teme: You’ve written that “Ernie Kovacs didn’t break the fourth wall. He had no fourth wall.” What did you mean?
Ben: It was the way he both acknowledged the studio audience and also looked into the camera. Ernie always looked right into the camera. He employed something that he must have learned in radio, which is that you are always talking to an audience of one.
Teme: What is a favorite example?
Ben: Ernie guest-hosted an episode of the Ed Sullivan Show in the late ‘50s. An acrobatic act had just performed in front of a huge audience and there’s all this noise and fanfare. But when Ernie went over to talk to them afterwards, he spoke as conversationally as if he’s sitting across from you in your living room.
A lot of contemporary late night comics look into the camera, but they’re still projecting with volume and energy to the studio audience.
The only person who really nailed the same personal feeling as Ernie was Craig Ferguson on his late night show. During his monologue he locked onto that camera and it felt like he was talking to you at home. A lot of our late night comics now are almost yelling across the stage at us.
Teme: When I decide what to watch on late night, it depends on whether I need a quieter atmosphere or a rowdy one. But I could watch Ernie Kovacs any time.
Ben: Yes. Josh Mills said that he has never seen anyone more relaxed on television. With other shows it’s like you’re watching a party. That’s why you watch Ernie. It feels like you’re visiting with him. That’s what I meant when I said he had no fourth wall.
In Take a Good Look, he makes us feel we’re in on the game with him. It feels like he’s saying, “Look what I’m going to try to pull off. Let’s see if they get it this time.”
Teme: It feels like he invites the audience to participate in a kind of anarchy that’s fun and liberating.
Ben: Yes. You’re rooting for Cesar [Romero] and Hans [Conried] and Edie and the other panelists, but because Ernie makes us feel in on it, we also hope they’ll be tricked.
Teme: What are some of the rules that Ernie broke on Take a Good Look?
Ben: He upended the rules. A game show is supposed to be straightforward. There’s a formula to all those panel shows, like What’s My Line? and I’ve Got a Secret. But he deliberately made it almost impossible for the panelists to figure out. The clues take the form of both single camera shots and sketches. The actual clue in the sketch is so deeply buried that only probably Ernie could guess. Edie knew how his mind worked and even she was stumped most of the time.
Typically, the whole point of a game show is that you want people to win. One of the big rules that Ernie breaks is that, no, he’s going to do his darnedest for the panelists to not guess what’s going on.
Teme: That’s really fun for the audience.
Ben: There’s one where the clues are people rowing and a photograph of Doris Day saying “oh.” The answer was “rodeo.” You had to assemble the different shots in your head.
There’s an episode that opens with a shot of a styrofoam cup and an orange with a pencil stuck into it and an announcer tells us “this object will not appear in any scene in today’s show.” You would never see that on The Price is Right.
Teme: I love The Price is Right, but so true! What are some of your favorite moments from Take a Good Look?
Ben: I don’t know if I have favorite moments, but the exasperation of some of the guests is phenomenal. Hans Conried is trying to hold it together most of the time, but he gets very frustrated.
Another interesting fact is that Ernie was filming these clues with an eye towards making these sketches into another show later. His thinking was that he could save money and assemble a new show without having to spend quite so much time on set. If you view the specials he did for ABC in 1961, you’ll see all sorts of gags that that were actually clues in Take a Good Look.
It was unusual to think that way in a time when television was disposable culture. It was a very smart production technique.
Teme: Was Ernie Kovacs the same person on camera and off camera?
Ben: He wasn’t exactly the same off camera. He wasn’t someone who would go to parties and slap people on the back. He attended events, but he was also content on a movie set to stay in his dressing room with his typewriter and work.
He had his poker games, but he also had his steam room built into his house, and he would take steam baths and think and not sleep very much.
Teme: Didn’t he sleep just two to three hours a night?
Ben: Yes, he had an amazing amount of energy.
Teme: He feels very contemporary and liberating to me because he refused to play by the rules.
Ben: Ernie’s earliest television work was satirizing and breaking conventions in television even as they were being developed. Right from the beginning, he was spoofing commercials and the fact that they were interruptions.
He broke conventions by talking to the audience and by having musical numbers with people running around in the background. He was breaking rules even as people were figuring what the rules were supposed to be in the first place.
Teme: Is that part of the reason that he clashed with executives?
Ben: Oh, I’m sure. They were trying to fit him into a box and for Ernie, there was no box.
Teme: He knew that you don’t need to conform and be like everyone else. Where did he get that? Was it his unconventional parents and their encouragement?
Ben: I think it’s a mix of that and the near-death experience he had in his early twenties. [Note: Ernie nearly died of pneumonia and was confined for over a year to a charity ward … where he enjoyed pranking his doctors]. His mindset was to live every day to its fullest. As he said, “Nothing in moderation.”
Teme: As the Kovacs estate archivist, what has been your favorite day so far?
Ben: One of them was finding the original master tape for the lost Percy Dovetonsils record [one of Ernie’s characters], which I didn’t think actually existed.
Teme: How did you find it?
Ben: I was doing research for the box set and found a reel of tape that said “Percy Dovetonsils,” but it didn’t have any other markings. I opened the box and realized I’d found the unfinished album. Later, Josh found artwork that had been mocked up for it. We were able to get it released on CD and vinyl, so that’s one of my favorite things. We were able to take something Ernie started, take it to the finish line and get it out to fans.
Another of my favorite days was when I connected Josh with the Library of Congress.
Teme: How did you become the archivist for the Ernie Kovacs estate?
Ben: I put up a fan site in 1996 at the dawn of the internet hoping nobody would sue me and make me take it down. Instead three months later, I got an email from Josh and another one from Edie saying how much they liked the site. I became friends with both of them. I’ve been involved ever since. When Edie passed away, Josh asked me to come on board and help supervise the collection.
Teme: That’s such a great story! What else would you like people to know about Take A Good Look?
Ben: I’m so pleased with the response. People really like it. When I suggested releasing this collection, I was going out on a limb because fans had regarded the show as the forgotten middle child; “Oh, yes, he did this panel show he hated.” But it is like a big bowl of peanuts. You can’t stop watching it. These shows are very entertaining. It’s been fun for me to see how much everybody is enjoying getting to see them.
It was a creatively gestational period for Ernie. These shows were the training ground for the specials he did in 1961 which were masterpieces.
Teme: How do you follow something as exciting as this? What’s next?
Ben: We’re working on something for the centennial of this birth in 2019. There isn’t much more left to put out.
One of the holy grails of lost television is an episode of the David Susskind show from 1959 called Television Tempest, and it’s a panel show hosted by Susskind where Rod Serling, Sheldon Leonard, and Ernie Kovacs sit around and discuss the current state of television for an hour.
Teme: Wow! That’s an awesome group!
Ben: Most of the Susskind shows of that era survived. A couple are missing. That’s one of them.
Teme: Any clues where it could be?
Ben: Nobody knows where it is. It could have been wiped or lost. Some collector may have it under their bed. Every year stuff turns up. Maybe it will turn up in somebody’s linen closet. “Oh, were you looking for that?” “Yes! We’ve been looking for that for forty years!”
Our goal, of course, is for people to discover Ernie’s work. My fantasy and Josh’s as well, is that Take a Good Look winds up on one of the classic TV or game show channels. It would get Ernie back on television so people could see him and want more.
Ernie Kovacs collections are available at http://www.shoutfactory.com and on amazon.com:
The Ernie Kovacs Phile by David Walley
Sing a Pretty Song: the Offbeat Life of Edie Adams by Edie Adams
Kovacsland: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs by Diana Rico
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