The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Since you are the reader of a series of articles about old shows from a TV Museum’s archives, I’m going to assume you are already familiar with the work of the highly influential Ernie Kovacs. You’ve already read the articles, you’ve seen the list of comedians that cite him as an influence (Letterman, Conan, and so many more), and maybe you even own the two fantastic volumes of DVDs Shout! Factory has been putting out of his work. So why don’t we both agree to just agree to skip the part where I tell you how important and influential he is: me, as the writer of this article, and you, as the person who I sort of tricked into talking to a website article.
The insanely prolific Kovacs was bouncing from gig to gig in the 1950s, and when we last left him in 1955 he was hosting a weekly show called The Ernie Kovacs Rehearsal on the now defunct DuMont network. From there he moved to the big time, hosting a daytime version of his show from 10:30 to 11 every weekday on NBC. The episode that we’ll be examining today aired on May 29, 1956, towards the end of the show’s daytime run, and is typical of the Kovacs style: it’s live, it’s chaotic, and there’s a feeling of irreverence. Ernie doesn’t seem to care that he’s on TV. He’s going to do what he wants on the air, and who cares if it looks a little unprofessional?
The show begins with a cold open as Ernie and his announcer Bill Wendell talk about ESP. Ernie read a recent book about telepathic abilities and about how some people claim that they can even hurt others from great distances. Ernie points out the woman who wrote the book to Bill, who immediately starts to hit on her. Ernie tells him to settle down, when suddenly the lighting changes, and suddenly Bill has a black eye. It’s a cute gag, but here’s the thing: I can’t figure out how they did this live. There aren’t any cutaways, and his eye is facing the camera the entire time. Granted, I’m no visual effects expert, but it’s pretty spectacular when an almost 60-year-old TV show can surprise you like that. But such is the inventiveness of Ernie.
Next, Ernie walks over to his desk where he continues the show. Indulge me for a moment and picture a daytime talk show host’s desk. Got it? Okay. Ernie desk sits in a massive throne in front of a suit of armor and a massive brick wall upon which rests an iron coat of arms. The desk holds all sorts of knick-knacks including a framed photo of his wife, a prop severed hand, and an ashtray for his ever-present cigar. It’s at the desk where we see the true live TV nature of the show unfold.
As Ernie gives us an overview of what will happen in the day’s program, he actively speaks with the crew, asking if there are any guest singers on the show that day. The crew, in fact, are a major part of the show, as they play random sound effects at different moments without warning Kovacs, and when a joke really dies they’re often heard laughing (at Kovacs, not the joke). Kovacs shows off some very intricately built props that viewers at home built and mailed in for a recurring segment on the show in which they check in with Howard: The World’s Strongest Ant who speaks with Ernie from very tiny sets.
Ernie then speaks off-the-cuff for a bit about a recent vacation he took with his family to Rome, and tells a very brief story about his daughters managing to order room service 33 times in just two and a half hours, before his wife and professional singer Edie Adams performs a rendition of the song “Skylark.”
After a commercial, Ernie performs a fake commercial for the “Witch Doctor’s Kit.” After a scary moment in which Ernie tells us that it’s only available for purchase in Nairoobi [sic] and it seems as though this is going to be one long racist bit, it turns out the sketch entails a series of items in a trunk that monsters might enjoy. It’s basically an early version of The Munsters, or a super early version of Mockingbird Lane. The kit features such items as a calendar for vampires with all the phases of the moon labeled, a book entitled “The Dirge Song Book: Fifty Lugubrious Ditties for Mixed Voices,” two gift certificates for a funeral, and ground glass in both percolator and drip coffee maker sizes.
Back at the desk, Ernie begins to introduce a segment entitled “You Asked to See It,” then stops suddenly. “Wait. Isn’t that the name of the actual program?” he asks a stagehand, referring to the popular series You Asked For It that they’re about to parody. He’s reassured that it’s not the same title before he sheepishly throws to commercial. When we return, Ernie is in glasses and we are treated to a sketch in which Ernie reads letters from viewers, requesting to see certain things on the program, which Kovacs obliges in the form of a short, silent scene. It’s a great framework for him, and shows a huge evolution from his earlier shows in which sketches could go on for far too long and serves as a perfect bridge to his later, more experimental programs.
The first request is to see Constantine Chechornia, a master chess player who can apparently play three champion chess players simultaneously, while blindfolded. The three champions have all made their first move and are waiting to make their second move after Constantine who stands behind them, blindfolded. He’s told that it’s his turn and he steps forward, walking directly into the table, collapsing them all. The second request is to show some recognition to the ladies who are skilled in the arts, and we are shown Mrs. Mercedes Maloney who is putting the finishing touches on a ship she built in a bottle over the course of 11 months. She completes it and is asked to raise it up for the camera only to realize that her hand is stuck in the jar. She looks at the camera with exasperated disappointment. The final request is to see the famous strongman, The Great Heinrich who apparently can hold the reigns of six horses in either hand, while they were whipped repeatedly. We see Heinrich who holds the reigns. He’s wearing a leotard, so you immediately know his arms aren’t going to fall off. The camera cuts to Ernie, we hear the sounds of whips, horses whinnying, then a very long, slow sound of something tearing in half as Ernie grimaces. Finally, we hear the sound of horses galloping into the distance.
While this episode didn’t hit the experimental heights that Kovacs would later reach in his final television specials, the seeds are very clearly planted by this point, and his creativity and his ability to play around with the medium of television is evident. Despite the fact that his daytime show had only a few months left in it’s run before being moved to weeknights, it’s fascinating to imagine a nation full of housewives sitting down to watch his show at 10:30 every day as he went through some of the strangest comedy sketches ever to air. But luckily for modern comedy, they did.