Jan 26, 2006

"It's Been Real": Ernie Kovacs had a birthday this week

He drew, too: the cover of Kovacs' posthumously-published book featured one of his typically odd drawings. He frequently wrote some very funny stuff for Mad Magazine as well

Another wild week pitted with illness (this latest malady being a nasty case of strep throat...how bloody tiresome), and I was trumped by Jeff Pidgeon on a post to note the natal anniversary of a great man and muse of mine, Ernie Kovacs. Better late than never.

Ernie was the greatest thing ever: big, expansive, soft-voiced, singular, Hungarian, an unbridled imagination, always cool. He gained his first fame in Philadelphia about 1952, doing radio and then television...except, his television was...different: a music lover, he'd find a stupid record and draw cards with equally silly cartoons to illustrate the lyric(and the tempo, sometimes), flipping them in front of the video camera; he found a life sized rag doll and dragged it all over the streets of downtown Philly, with a camera pointed outside the window of the studio at him to record his adventures a la "Candid Camera"(except, this was before Candid Camera, so it was that much weirder). He'd make a kaleidoscope from a can and attach it to the end of the camera lens for the hell of it. Mostly he was just himself, sitting around the cheap set, kibitzing with the crew, musicians, and the viewers at home, kidding around with the very idea of himself speaking from an ugly plastic box in someone's living room. His popularity in Philly was such that he was offered a show in the biggest market, NYC, and later went national. While not everything he did was knee-slappingly hilarious(some of his skits and attempts are unfortunately best described as lame), his best suit was always his own persona, and his wonderful imagination. He loved music, and played Esquivel decades before anyone else saw the wildness of it in quite that way: he'd take a record and write a scenario that begged for animation(which he loved, especially UPA cartoons)--but he'd do it in real time, with real props: a can of sardines might untwist itself and stand up to perform the otherwordly "zoom-zuum-zoom-da-da-da-da-daaaaaah!" background voices of an Ferrante & Teicher instrumental...or my favorite(and his as well): a completely serious sort of music video done to Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra", a surreal street scene. And then there was The Nairobi Trio. You've haven't heard of them? There is no explaining them if you haven't seen them. Three people in greatcoats, rubber ape masks, "playing" in time to "Solfeggio", a pop recording of an old timing excercise for musicians.

The Nairobi trio performing their strange, stiff-jointed actions. Kovacs is the one with the banana. In his human guise, he always had a Havana cigar

After publishing a novel about the more ludicrous commercial aspects of television, "Zoomar", Ernie went to L.A., signed a contract for films, made a few good ones("Bell, Book and Candle" has fantastic set design and art direction, Kim Novak, and Jack Lemmon playing Daffy Duck--really), some lousy ones, lived high, played poker with Billy Wilder, Sinatra, Dino and a host of others...and died early one morning in 1962 when his Corvair hit a power pole. He was 42. He had the soul of a cartoonist-- of an animator--and his 'try anything' attitude has been a great source of pleasure and inspiration for me since I saw his shows on PBS long ago.
If his name means nothing to you, look him up. Check out his "Best of" DVDs...give yourself some time and perhaps a dry martini, and let 'er rip. You may love him or hate him, but he won't be like much you've seen before. Egan!(hungarian for "yes!")

January 23rd would have been Ernie Kovacs' 87th birthday.

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John S. said...

I discovered Ernie Kovacs in a class at CalArts. Funny. A man FAR ahead of his time.
Hey, I love the drawings of your dog.

Jenny Lerew said...

Robo--which class was this?! Taught by--? Was it in character animation or--? I'm wondering if one of my old classmates might have taught it...
It's funny, how close-knit the CalArts teacher-student ring is: a good number of my classmates taught there later, and one of the teachers when I was a 1st year had just graduated the year before himself(Russ).
And many thanks for the kind words!

Anonymous said...

I'm currently finishing up editing a documentary on TV horror hosts, and as you can imagine, many of them have mentioned Kovaks as a major inspiration - as well they should... :)

John S. said...

It was Norm Klien's animation history class. Norm didn't so much teach as just stand in the front of the room and babble. He showed us some cool stuff, though, like Ernie Kovacs. He also showed us a lot of stuff that we are supposed to revere but that suck, like Norm Mclaren. I hate that crap.
Was that Russ Edmonds by any chance? I took a class from Russ, and worked with him on Home on the Range.
He quit animation to raise horses!

Jenny Lerew said...

Yes, It was Russ--you say he quit for horses? Good grief--one of the reasons I'll never be able to stop working IS my horses! I have 2 over in Burbank. Board ain't cheap! Russ made extremely good investments, I'll bet. That's odd to hear he's quit the business...I saw him at the very beginning (I loved his student film, "Pennsylvania"), and now to hear he's left it, at last. I would have guessed he'd do it until he was 90.

I remember Mr. Klein...even though I managed not to take his class. He could be heard in the halls at any time. ; )
I'm impressed that he put Kovacs out there--that was good of him.

Jeff Pidgeon said...

Cool tribute! Especially that last picture.

Jenny Lerew said...

Thanks, Jeff!
Yes, that's one of my favorite pictures of Kovacs; I've put it on the wall next to one of Preston Sturges(of all people), looking strikingly similar.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, thanks. Needs even more monkeys though.

Jenny Lerew said...

You can say that again, "man".

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to a Nairobi Trio clip from Mark Evanier's site.


Jenny Lerew said...

Gosh--many thanks, Michael!

Anonymous said...

Ernie was unique, and a man out of his time. He shouldn't be forgotten.

Jenny Lerew said...

Anonymous--I couldn't agree more. He'll never be forgotten and never stop being missed, even if he did do enough for several lifetimes.

Dave Mackey said...

Jenny, it's great that you're still keeping Ernie's flame alive. (Didn't you have an Ernie site at one time?)

I first had heard of Ernie when my parents owned a Chevrolet Corvair. Though it was a coupe, we'd always heard the stories about how someone famous had died in a Corvair station wagon, and it turned out to be Ernie Kovacs.

I had seen bunch of Ernie specials on PBS back in the 70's (mostly the 1960's ABC specials, and then also "Take A Good Look"), but was really blown away when Comedy Central (then called HA!) started airing the 1956 NBC primetime series.

I just wish someone, somewhere were showing Ernie Kovacs on TV today, just so I could watch and say I saw real genius at work.