Ernie Kovacs was a genius. There’s no way around that. Carson, Letterman, and Conan have all cited him as an influence, and there have been hundreds of tributes, articles, PBS clips shows, and even two, very well done DVD retrospectives of his work from Shout! Factory. Well, Shout! is about to add a third volume to their collection with the release of Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look, so perhaps it’s time to add another tribute article to the pile as well.
Ernie Kovacs was also a workaholic. While at his creative peak, Kovacs worked every morning as a radio DJ beginning at 7:30am, ended that show, then headed over the TV studio to do a daily show there, which would sign off a full 12 hours later after his broadcast day had begun. By 1959, Kovacs had settled down a bit. He learned that he could leave the breakneck pace of production he was used to in New York and move to Los Angeles and make a comfortable living doing far less work. This left more time for his family, his break into film, and a happier lifestyle.
Unfortunately for Ernie, who consistently spent his money whenever possible, this period of his life was marred by debt. By 1962, Ernie had accrued $600,000 in gambling debts (the equivalent of nearly $5 million in 2017) and was in debt with the IRS due to his refusal to pay taxes for much of his professional life. As a result, Kovacs was forced to take whatever jobs were offered to him, including even a dreaded panel show.
At this time, ABC was a third-place network and had just purchased a quiz show called Take a Good Look. Mike Wallace, later of 60 Minutes, hosted the pilot, which Diana Rico, author of the biography Kovacsland, called “dreary.” The show had a sponsor, Dutch Masters cigars, and what they needed was a funny host associated with cigars. George Burns turned them down, but he suggested Kovacs. Ernie was initially hesitant, and based on some of the quotes he gave to the Philadelphia Inquirer while attempting to promote the show, it’s easy to see why: “I hate panel shows. It’s no fun if you play it safe all the time.” But two factors came into play: (1) When compared to his previous undertakings, it wouldn’t take up a lot of his time, and (2) they were paying him $5,000 a week.
In spite of his hesitance, Ernie managed to make Take a Good Look into a typical Kovacs production of insanity, extravagance, and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants spectacle. The core premise of the show was not unlike other panel shows of the day: three celebrity judges are introduced to a guest and are allowed to ask questions of him or her. Their goal is to determine who it is that they are talking to or what it is that they’ve done that makes them notable. The longer it takes the judges to guess, the more money the guests earn. The key difference comes in the form of clues given by Kovacs. Each round featured three pre-recorded clues that were simultaneously awe-inspiring for their insanity and the feeling of “this was on television in the fifties?!” and frustrating for their lack of helpfulness in determining who the contestants were. In one episode, celebrity judge Hans Conried shouts at Kovacs, “Please, Ernie! Tell them it’s rigged!”
As an example, one clue involves a reporter at a tennis game interviewing a man in the stands (Kovacs) who wears incredibly long fake eyelashes, and while following the action from side to side, catches a tennis ball, signs it, and returns it to the players, who then hit it back at him, and he catches it in his mouth. I have some theories, but I have no idea how this is supposed to help the judges guess that the young man sitting in front of them is chess champion Bobby Fischer.
These clues would serve Kovacs in two ways going forward. The first was meeting ABC’s production team. These people, particularly the special effects department, would become instrumental in Kovacs’ next and final project, a series of eight specials made in 1961. The second important way these clues would aid him is that many of them would be recycled in said ABC specials. Most notably we have the infamous car drop, which you can see below. This eight seconds of film cost somewhere between $3,000 and $12,000, depending on which report you go by. So, if nothing else, at least ABC got to show it twice.
Despite the fact that after Kovacs’ death ABC began taping over their archive of his material, his widow Edie Adams negotiated for the rights, and after a few misadventures, including extortion from a collector who stole 30 episodes from her, she managed to save Take a Good Look from destruction. Shout! has lovingly packaged the 49 remaining episodes on seven DVDs.
I don’t want to sound like a commercial, but if you can swing it, the first 1,000 of these sets comes with a bonus disc featuring an incredibly rare Kovacs production called Private Eye Private Eye. Made as part of CBS’ variety show The United States Steel Hour in 1961, this hour-long sketch show satirizes film noir and the detective shows of the day, but it was most impressive to me as a tribute to stage choreography. So much of this was shot in long single takes and involves complicated movements, prop reveals, gunshots, and the like. It’s truly amazing what could happen when Kovacs had a budget behind him and could let his imagination wander.
Sketches include a hardboiled shootout in which the detective’s wife shows up after checking 14 different abandoned warehouses to grouse about her day and to get her husband home in time to play canasta against the neighbors. Another sketch involves a silent film adventure of the fictional detective, Nick Carter, complete with typical Kovacsian camera tricks and editing tricks. It’s not a perfect special, there are two musical numbers, which is probably two too many, and not every sketch is a home run, but it serves as a nice sampler of Ernie’s later work, complete with satire, music, The Narobi Trio, Percy Dovetonsils, and elaborate production value.
Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look is available October 17th.