Conan O’Brien and the Legacy of Ernie Kovacs

On January 19, 1957, Ernie Kovacs did something that had never been seen before on a major television network. He performed an entire thirty-minute television special, entitled Eugene, that was completely silent. The special was based around the eponymous Eugene character, played by Kovacs, who bumbled around his own self-created world. Kovacs uses a variety of sight gags and physical comedy, like you would expect from a mime or clown performer, but also uses the techniques of television to immerse the audience in the experience. By doing this Kovacs showcased his willingness to experiment with the medium of television back when it was still in its infancy. Today would have been Kovacs’ 93rd birthday and there is no doubt in my mind that he would still be experimenting with and influencing television and the Internet if he were still alive.

Flash forward thirty-six years later: on May 15, 2003 at 12:35am. Conan O’Brien is about to experiment with the medium of television on his late night talk show on the very same network as Kovacs — NBC. After a brief introduction, Late Night with Conan O’Brien is transformed and presented in claymation for the rest of the show that night. In his willingness to experiment with the medium of television, from Late Night to his current TBS show, Conan O’Brien links himself with Ernie Kovacs in that he is both influenced by Kovacs’ work and continues to evolve and experiment with Kovacs’s ideas. Conan’s experimental claymation special is similar to Kovacs’ silent special in the sense that it is willing to experiment with a technique not normally used in late night television; however, that is where the similarities stop. While Kovac’s was willing to change all of his sketches in order to heighten the Eugene character and the silent show premise, Conan’s claymation episode is just an episode of Late Night that happens to be in claymation. Aside from the obvious visual changes no other changes were made in the episode to heighten the aesthetic change.

Kovacs was not only known for his willingness to experiment with the medium of television, but also for his use of absurd humor and special effects that were considered groundbreaking when they first appeared in the late 50s and early 60s. These visual effects were usually paired with out of sync music in order to further confuse the audience and make them check their own TVs to see if something was wrong. As seen in the clip below, Kovacs only explains some of the visual tricks that are seen, while leaving others completely unexplained. The viewer can see that Kovacs is trying to make his show an experience filled with things that people have never seen or heard before on television.

This absurd humor has evolved greatly since the early 60s when Kovacs took advantage of it, and is especially apparent in Conan O’Brien’s television shows. Absurdity has always been a staple of Conan’s humor and many of his bits and sketches are also about making the audience uncomfortable or providing them with some kind of mutual experience. This comes in the form of audience plants, strange recurring characters and, especially, in his taped sketches. This absurdity has taken its most recent form with a series of sketches about the magnificent Gravy Boat Lighthouse, which bills itself as a gravy boat exclusively for crazy people. The clip below shows an evolution of not just absurdity in humor, but also a huge growth in the use of special effects. The lady who appears on Kovac’s shoulders in the 1812 clip seems primitive when compared to the invading Somali pirates who appear to be driving across the table to attack the gravy boat. It’s not Avatar, but in comparing it to the early special effects of Kovacs it might as well be.

Apart from his early use of special effects, absurd humor, and experimentation, all of which would make any one person notable in the history of early television, Ernie Kovacs was actually best known for his series of blackouts accompanied by a German singer’s version of the song, “Mack the Knife.” These blackouts didn’t actually appear until near the end of Ernie’s televised life in 1960-late 1961, but it is easy to understand why they are considered so groundbreaking, and hard to understand how they are not better known by comedy nerds. They are mostly sight gags and were never shown twice in any of the Kovacs specials, which is ridiculous when you find out that the short “car falling through the floor” blackout cost $15,000 and was done in only one take. I think it is fair to say that even the most experimental TV performers in 2012 would think twice about pulling something like this off, but for Kovacs it was just another joke in a set of jokes.

This series of blackouts eventually evolved into a recurring bit on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, “New Satellite Channels.” The set up for this bit was much better explained, maybe even over-explained, then Kovac’s “Mack The Knife” blackouts and are definitely an evolution of the Kovacs idea. Each new channel serves as a kind of blackout, with each more absurd than the last. Unlike Kovacs more sight-based gags, Conan focuses a lot more on what is said and who is saying it. Instead of a car falling through the floor or a dark room literally making a man negative, Conan’s new satellite channels feature characters with hilarious and memorable catchphrases, like “Not Cool, Zeus” and the “Hot Sauce Tasting Network.”

One final and equally important contribution that Ernie Kovacs made was to break the fourth wall and directly interact with the studio audience. Later, when Kovacs no longer used studio audiences, he interacted with the audience at home. In addition to the “Mack The Knife” blackouts this may be the other aspect of Kovacs television life that he is most well known for. Almost no other show on TV in the early 50s showed the audience, let alone interacted with them. Kovacs frequently interacted with them and even involved them in his sketches, breaking the idea that all of television was a magical pre-planned place where the audience was completely separate from the performer. In the clip below, Kovacs even makes a joke for the studio audience at some home audience viewers’ expense.

The breaking of the fourth wall and interacting with the studio audience has become a staple of not just current late night television, but almost all television shows with a studio audience. Ever since his early days at Late Night, Conan has seemed to feed off his audience and uses their reactions to adjust his show on the fly. If you watch any Conan monologue you are sure to see him interact with the audience if a joke hits or flops and even interact with his executive producer Jeff Ross. This has taken form most recently with Conan’s “Audiency Awards,” which singles out various audience members who look like celebrities or exhibit strange fashion choices. In my opinion, this is pure Conan O’Brien and is one of the things that has hooked me to his different late night shows since I started watching them.

Tragically, Ernie Kovacs televised life was cut short on January 13, 1962 when he died in a freak car accident on his way home. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his death and whether he is aware of it or not, Conan O’Brien and his writing staff have served as a fitting tribute to Kovacs since Conan’s first episode of Late Night in 1993. Kovacs helped pioneer many techniques that influenced and still are being elaborated on by Conan and his team of writers on his current late night TBS talk show. One of Kovac’s own famous lines was, “nothing in moderation,” and I think if he were alive today he would be happy to see Conan and his team following this mantra as they continue to experiment with and evolve the medium of television.

Matt Visconage currently has a moustache and is Hungarian, which basically makes him related to Ernie Kovacs. He also tweets here.

Conan O’Brien and the Legacy of Ernie Kovacs