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Made possible by the John H. Mitchell Television Programming Endowment

Ernie Kovacs: Television of the Absurd

Ernie Kovacs
July 22, 2023 - 7:30 pm
book signing with Josh Mills (Edie Adams' son) and Pat Thomas, authors of "Ernie in Kovacsland: Writings, Drawings, and Photographs from Television's Original Genius." Q&A with actor/performer Ann Magnuson, Mills and Thomas.

Admission is free. No advance reservations. Your seat will be assigned to you when you pick up your ticket at the box office. Seats are assigned on a first come, first served basis. The box office opens one hour before the event.

During a tragically brief career marked by outré achievements, of the endless credits that flashed across the cathode-ray tube bearing multi-hyphenate television impresario Ernie Kovacs' name, from writer to director, to actor, to producer, the descriptors that perhaps best encapsulates his eternal mad genius on the small screen are surrealist and absurdist. A true broadcast pioneer, Kovacs was both born into television and helped birth it. As a seasoned veteran of every network from ABC to NBC (with CBS and DuMont in between) and nearly every TV format possible (including his unorthodox game/panel show Take a Good Look), Kovacs is responsible for helping to define the medium in its formative years while simultaneously deconstructing it.

Of the surviving moving image remnants of Kovacs’ oeuvre, his conceptual kinship with the likes of Salvador Dalí are notably illustrated in the Saturday Color Carnival: "The Ernie Kovacs Show" (1957) for NBC and the Ernie Kovacs Specials videotaped for ABC in 1961. These programs illuminate Kovacs' gleeful defiance of television's rigid genres and tropes that demanded canned laughs and cue card banter, opting instead to forcefully break the fourth wall and constantly remind the viewer that they were staring at an electronic box with potential that was previously unconsidered. From the hilarious incongruity of shattering a TV taboo with misplaced sound effects in his color "silent show," to the medium-bending modernism of oscilloscope waves filling the screen, to the tune of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's “Mack the Knife” (warbled in its original German), at his most experimental Kovacs utilized TV as a primetime, electronic audiovisual canvas and antidote to the vast wasteland. Or, as expertly summed up by Edie Adams, Kovacs’ gifted life partner, fellow broadcast multi-hyphenate, and posthumous rescuer of his nearly lost works: "[Ernie] saw laughter as a means of survival and created a television of the absurd as a fallout shelter."

Join us for a screening celebration of the experimental works of Ernie Kovacs.

Program notes by Mark Quigley, John H. Mitchell Television Curator.

Saturday Color Carnival: “The Ernie Kovacs Show”

New digital scan from rare original 16mm color kinescope with commercials

U.S., 1/19/1957

In a special intended by NBC and its parent company, TV set manufacturer RCA, to entice viewers with the technological spectacle of early color television, Kovacs counter-intuitively focuses his spectacular on experiments with sound. Informally known as Kovacs’ “silent show,” the comedian eschews dialogue for most of the half-hour, which features his Buster Keaton-esque character “Eugene,” creating a startling cacophony of effects with every movement. The program also features surreal, David Lynch-worthy segments highlighting the avant-garde live animation of John Hoppe, the wordless singing of Mary Mayo, and a performance by Kovacs’ own bizarre, ape-masked combo, The Nairobi Trio.

Digital video, color, 30 min. NBC. Production: An NBC Production brought to you by RCA. Producer/Writer: Ernie Kovacs. Director: Barry Shear. With: Ernie Kovacs, Mary Mayo, The Nairobi Trio.

The Ernie Kovacs Special [No. 5]

With original commercials

U.S., 10/28/1961

Co-directing from a tech-packed control booth, Kovacs disrupts the ebb and flow of primetime television with an experimental videotaped program consisting of oscilloscope wave patterns, macabre blackout gags, and surreal skits that skewer traditional network programming. Of the artistic labor required to execute his ambitious ABC specials, Kovacs wrote in TV Guide, “the technical aspects of this show are unbelievably difficult. We have taped as long as 27 consecutive hours with some 90 people involved ...” The cathode auteur’s creative control extends to the commercial breaks, as Kovacs applies his off-beat perspective to highly entertaining spots for his ubiquitous Dutch Master cigars.

Digital video, b&w, 30 min. ABC. Production: an E & E.K. Enterprises production. Producer: Ernie Kovacs, Richard Newton. Directors: Ernie Kovacs, Maury Orr. Writer: Ernie Kovacs. With: Ernie Kovacs, Jolene Brand, Bobby Lauher, Joe Mikolas.

The Ernie Kovacs Special [No. 7]

With original commercials

U.S., 12/12/1961

Airing just a month before his untimely accidental death at age 42, Ernie Kovacs' penultimate ABC special features a surreal recurring gag concerning a microscopic motorcycle and spoofs the popular TV western genre and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Most notably, the program features one of Kovacs’ most audacious videotaped experiments — an ingenious 8-minute dialogue-less segment following the life cycle of a drop of water through specially constructed waterway sets and exposed drain pipes, set to Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite."

Digital video, b&w, 30 min. ABC. Production: an E & E.K. Enterprises production. Producer: Ernie Kovacs, Richard Newton. Directors: Ernie Kovacs, Joe Behar. Writer: Ernie Kovacs. With: Ernie Kovacs, Jolene Brand, Bobby Lauher, Joe Mikolas.

Excerpts and outtakes

Our program concludes with a rare gag reel of blue outtakes from Kovac’s pseudo-game/panel show Take a Good Look (ABC, 1959-1961) and a bonus selection of innovative commercials (including a surrealist spot with partner Edie Adams).

Digital video, b&w, 8 min. Special thanks to Retro Video, Inc.