Comedy Veterans Remember TV Pioneer Ernie Kovacs When Ernie Kovacs was a star, he was called a clown and an oddball, but he's since been heralded as a genius. Comedy pros join NPR's Scott Simon to discuss how Kovacs helped change the face of TV comedy.

Comedy Veterans Remember TV Pioneer Ernie Kovacs

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

When Ernie Kovacs was a star in the early days of live television, he was called a clown, an oddball and an innovator. In the years since 1962, when he died in a car-crash at the age of 42, he's been hailed as a genius. That might be hard to convey. Much of the humor for which he became noted was visual: a trio of musicians wearing gorilla suits, and playing as if they were part of a children's toy; a lady in a bubble bath who gets visitors popping up in her suds. Ernie Kovacs rarely told jokes and he didn't believe in punch lines. He was funny in an unhurried, usually unscripted, almost throw-away way, as when he'd wander into the audience with a deck of cards...

ERNIE KOVACS: You two know each other?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm afraid not.

KOVACS: Have you ever seen each other before in your life?

MAN: No, sir.

KOVACS: Did I in any way talk to you before this program?

MAN: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOVACS: Did I show you the card or tell you any particular card in the deck?

MAN: No, no.

KOVACS: Did I tell you any particular card in the deck?

MAN: No.

KOVACS: Then we can't do the trick.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOVACS: I'll have to find somebody else I talked to.

SIMON: A new DVD box set of Ernie Kovacs' work is out this summer. Thirteen hours of shows, specials, and bits culled from his career in the days when the national television audience was relatively small and could be enchanted by seeing a man pour milk sideways, which, Ernie Kovacs figured out you could do if you tilted the set sideways, which he did. His humor didn't make an audience laugh so much as gasp, or shake their heads.

GEORGE SCHLATTER: See, Ernie didn't have a laugh track. Ernie did not need an audience. Ernie just needed Ernie, and he affected me because of his love of television as more than a means of transmission. It was also part of the creation.

SIMON: George Schlatter became a friend of Ernie Kovacs when his wife, Jolene, appeared regularly on the Kovacs show. Mr. Schlatter would go on to produce "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," one of the many shows, from "Sesame Street" to "Late Night With David Letterman," that have been inspired, sometimes unwittingly, by the way Ernie Kovacs delivered a gag with images.

SCHLATTER: And I went by and Ernie was standing on a raised stage next to a car. And he said look at this fine automobile, touched the fender and the car went through the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHLATTER: And Ernie said, now then, is that a punch line?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHLATTER: I said, oh yeah, Ernie. That's a big punch line.

SIMON: Robert Smigel, who has written for "Saturday Night Live" and Conan O'Brien - he is Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog - became a fan of Ernie Kovacs when he watched some of his old videos at the Museum of Radio and Television.

ROBERT SMIGEL: It's always hard to explain Ernie Kovacs without sounding extremely pretentious, because you use terms like he was ahead of his time and pioneer, all these kinds of high-minded terms, and then you watch clips and it's the silliest visual stuff. It's a guy spilling milk sideways.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMIGEL: And meanwhile, you're saying, you see he was breaking new ground with the medium and he was exploring and - oh my god, I have to take this call.

SIMON: We'll get back to Robert Smigel a little later. Bill Sheft has written comedy for David Letterman for more than 20 years. He says that while it's a stretch to see Letterman as some kind of direct comedic descendent of Ernie Kovacs...

BILL SCHEFT: Dave is a student of television history. I don't think it's an accident that Bill Wendell was the announcer on the old NBC show, especially considering that he was Ernie's announcer and one of the players. And, you know, I don't think that that's an accident. And I think that Dave loves television history and I think that he liked that connection.

SIMON: Ernie Kovacs had what we would now consider to be an astonishingly small audience.

SCHEFT: Yes. Yes. That's true. That's true. And sometimes you can hear them in the theater. Yeah. But I don't think that an audience is the best way of measuring somebody's influence.

SIMON: Mr. Sheft sees David Letterman's old Viewer Mail segments as being influenced by a Kovacs bit called Mr. Question Man. Announcer Bill Wendell reads from a letter supposedly sent by a college student about to have dinner with the girls and their house mother.

BILL WENDELL: As she is rather finicky about good manners, I would not like to do anything that would cause embarrassment. The girls all voted to have fried chicken, which brings up a point of etiquette. I would so much appreciate your answer as soon as possible. Can fried chicken eaten with the fingers?

KOVACS: No. Fried chicken should be eaten by itself. The fingers can be eaten separately.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SIMON: So what was he like to work with, Ernie Kovacs?

JOLENE BRAND: He was just a sweetheart. He was just a very sweet man with the actors and the crew.

SIMON: Jolene Brand-Schlatter has had her own rich career as an actress and model. She was the first woman to be kissed by Zorro. But she's happy to be best-remembered for being the girl in the bubble bath, sudsing herself while a periscope popped up in her tub. She says that Ernie Kovacs didn't tell her who or what would pop up; only that when it did, she should just keep sudsing. Even with...

BRAND: People coming out and then when the dog came out, that was a shocker, and of course, when the tub moved, he did warn me about that, he said, oh, by the way, you're going to go through that wall over there in the tub. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: The tub moved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Jolene Brand also played a recurring role in the Nairobi Trio - those gorillas that wore tuxes and bowler hats while they played music.

BRAND: Ernie had been doing the Nairobi Trio in Philadelphia with Edie, his wife, Edie Adams, and when he came to California, Edie's career was going in a different direction and Ernie wanted to reprise it again. And so, he had Jack Lemmon and he asked me to do the Nairobi Trio with him also. So I was the blond guerrilla at the piano. So that was me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: And Jack Lemmon was?

BRAND: Was the other one. He was the one who hit Ernie on the head with the little timbales.

SIMON: Now how do we explain the Nairobi Trio?

BRAND: How do you explain it?

SIMON: Yeah.

BRAND: Well, I don't think you can. It's just such a visual delight. You just go with it. You see it once and you say I can't believe what I just saw.

SIMON: Small audience tuned in may also not have noticed that one of the musical gorillas was sometimes played by Frank Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Robert Smigel finally got off of the phone. And the comedy writer explained that while some of Ernie Kovacs' comedic experiments worked better than others, even those bits that fell flat have impact.

SMIGEL: He did a lot of great stuff and then a lot of stuff you watch it, you know, a lot of experiments go badly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMIGEL: You know, that's the price that people pay when they're experimenting in front of everybody. Sometimes the work gets duplicated and perfected by your peers and people who follow you. There are things he did that I saw years later when this DVD collection came out, and finally realized, oh, I see. I was ripping off Ernie Kovacs. I didn't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMIGEL: Sorry. Where do I write the check?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Ernie Kovacs took conspicuous joy in his work. But his heyday lasted just a little under five years. He had a happy marriage to the actress and singer Edie Adams, but a painful custody suit for the two daughters from his first marriage. And at the time of his death, Ernie Kovacs owed half-a-million dollars in taxes, because, as Edie Adams once said, Ernie felt that he had earned all that money, not the U.S. government. We asked George Schlatter if his tax problems, custody battle or low ratings had hung heavy on Ernie Kovacs.

SCHLATTER: Nothing hung heavy on him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHLATTER: I don't think Ernie could've cared less about his tax problems. His tax - Ernie's tax problems were the government problem, not him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCHLATTER: And Ernie worried about nothing.

SIMON: When you take a bath nowadays do you ever worry about stuff coming out of the tub?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRAND: Yes, definitely. Definitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRAND: Think about it all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Jolene Brand Schlatter, the original girl in the suds on Ernie Kovacs' shows. We also heard from her husband, producer George Schlatter, and comedy writers Bill Sheft and Robert Smigel. "The Ernie Kovacs Collection" DVDs are just out. And a lot of the material survived only because Edie Adams cashed in her insurance policy to buy his tapes back from the networks just before they would be dumped into a landfill. You can see video clips of Ernie Kovacs at our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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