Magazine article Artforum International

Avant la Letterman

Magazine article Artforum International

Avant la Letterman

Article excerpt

THE FIRST DOZEN YEARS of American network television hardly lacked for lowbrow brilliance--Lucille Ball, Burns and Allen, Jackie Cleason, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, the cast of Car 54, Where Are You?, to name only those performers whose product has enjoyed the hardiest shelf life. Their comedy had its roots in radio, vaudeville and burlesque, Hollywood and the Catskills--and then there was Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962), a comic for whom TV created its own reality.

Kovacs was purely televisual. Though he served his apprenticeship in radio and stock theater, his work was essentially connected to the nature of broadcast TV and what would later be called video. Just thinking about the medium made him avant-garde. The day (in June 1951) he shot an arrow into the air that wound up piercing an apple placed on his own head, he recapitulated the discontinuous "continuous" pan Maya Deren had employed in her 1945, 4 Study in Choreography for Camera. But Kovacs, who felt empowered to experiment on wake-up TV (a format he invented for a local Philadelphia station in 1950) because it was unclear whether anybody was actually watching, was not merely interested in bending the space-time continuum.

When, on it's Time for Ernie and another 1951 program, Ernie in Kovacsland (a summer replacement for NBC's popular hand-puppet show Kukla, Fran and Ollie), Kovacs chucked pies at a transparent barrier protecting the camera or walked off set (with the camera awkwardly following) or explicated a breakaway vase or provided a live turtle with voice-over hiccups or, in one of his signature gags, hung a board of control knobs around his neck and used them to tune his expressions, he was shamelessly drawing attention to TV as construct--and in the most primitive way imaginable.

Unlike fellow clowns Ball and Gleason, Kovacs did not suddenly erupt from the small screen into America's living room. For much of his eleven-year TV career, he was a journeyman, albeit one with a remarkably consistent series of riffs and interests--as demonstrated by the new, lovingly assembled six-DVD Ernie Kovacs Collection, as complete a retrospective as this American artist has had. The tilted-camera trick and the sound-based sight gag were there from the start. No matter whether Kovacs was hosting a cooking, quiz, or variety show, he managed to use the Gershwinesque ragtime composition "Oriental Blues" as his theme, while the fake gorillas of the Nairobi Trio invariably performed some version of Robert Maxwell's "Solfeggio."

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It was Kovacs who pioneered the hipster protocol of playing to (or confounding) the crew and identifying the boss. The set for his 1955-56 NBC morning show was a mock medieval dungeon, from which he would riff on and rail against network president Pat Weaver. Some years ago in these pages [Artforum, February 1982], I placed Kovacs among a kindred group of self-reflexive "vulgar modernists," including animator Tex Avery, movie director Frank Tashlin, and Mad magazine founding editor Harvey Kurtzman, as practitioners of a "popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with the specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making." The Ernie Kovacs Show, the comedian's first prime-time spot, a summer replacement for Caesar's Hour, adapted Kurtzman's strategy to television. Just as Mad began as a comic book that parodied other comic books, so The Ernie Kovacs Show was largely devoted to satirizing TV content; actual commercials were interspersed with Kovacs's own spots, spieling for ordinary mops and selling broken crockery.

Critic Donald Phelps, whose appreciation of Kovacs appeared in the first issue of the early-'60s little magazine Kulchur, considered Kovacs's singular gift to be that of "demonstrating to his public the immeasurable crumminess of so-called professional television." This was initially apparent in the morning shows, where a dangling overhead mic seemed like one more ridiculous prop alongside the host's giant toy telephone or the outsize flapjack of a sombrero he wrapped around his head, and the clutter approached the detritus that surrounded Jack Smith in his early '70s Plaster foundation performances. …

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