The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Ernie Kovacs and the Paley Center are like bread and butter, Abbott and Costello or, unfortunately, The Tonight Show and Jay Leno; they're just inseparable. In fact, this is such an established concept that when Triumph made his appearance at the beginning of the Smigel panel you read about last week, he made fun of the Paley Center by saying "we fucking get it, museum, Ernie Kovacs was ahead of his time." But it's more than possible that they keep banging this drum because it's an accurate drum to bang. Today we're going to look at a super rare program from the mind of this man that originally aired on the DuMont network on March 21, 1955, entitled The Ernie Kovacs Rehearsal.
You might be asking your computer screen right now, "who is Ernie Kovacs?" which is definitely a fair question. The prolific Kovacs is the type of comedian whose legacy has probably lasted longer than his celebrity. He began as a radio host, then moved onto local morning television in Philadelphia, then national morning TV, then prime-time specials, movies, a novel, ending with a far too untimely death. Kovacsland, by Diana Rico describes his work ethic during the fifties in which he would sign on the radio at 7:30 am and then sign off on television a full twelve hours later. During his shows, Ernie was known for being anarchic, and for being one of the first people on TV to acknowledge that they were actually on TV and really play with those conventions. Today, his influence is most clearly seen in a David Letterman type, but at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, without Kovacs there would be no off-beat shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000, SNL, Laugh-In, or Monty Python.
The Ernie Kovacs Rehearsal falls right in the middle of his television career (Remember when I called him prolific? This is the eleventh of the twenty-one television series he would host.), so in this particular episode from the archives we see him hitting his stride as a host, but not truly reaching the creative heights that he would later hit. On the surface, this is a standard 1950s variety show: it opens with the Tophatters performing a song, there are live commercials for Vino Paissno ("it goes with fowl, fish or poultry"), Prell and Sentrol, there's a couple sketches and a couple guests. But it's how our host presents these things that allow the real magic to happen.
As the show moves, there are a few small cues that tell us that this is not a traditional TV show. Ernie ties his tie on the air as he interviews his guests, as he moves from his desk to the set, the camera follows him, and we see grips, monitors, back walls, etc. That would be a pretty standard move on a late night show today, but back then; those things were all hidden from the eyes of the home audience. But the best thing of the show is getting to see that Kovacs was clearly allowed to just be himself. After the first batch of commercials, he complains about having to do them. He tells the audience that the evening's episode is not just being aired live, it's bring filmed to be preserved, saying: "We're having the show kinescoped tonight. That's guts…"
Between the music and guests, there are a few sketches as well, which admittedly go on a little long. The best one they do is a parody of the then-revered Edward R. Murrow's program Person to Person, which here was called Back to Back. Ernie does a pretty good Murrow and interviews his wife Edie Adams, who plays a ditzy Shakespearean actor. He then goes to commercial, for a product that the crew has to shout the name of to him. Clearly without a script, he talks about how wonderful Arthus Meisel's refrigerated dinners are, saying you should "get one for you and one for whoever is with you so they don't have to sit there and watch you eat."
The show ends with a really strange guest in Jim Fassett who is promoting his record of sound experiments. The record seems to be just a bunch of animal noises slowed down and reversed. I imagine it was probably pretty cool back then, but it's pretty uninteresting to anyone under the age of 30 who grew up playing with Windows' Sound Recorder on their home computer.
But is it still funny? I would say yes. It's entertaining and kind of amazing to see the kind of television that doesn't get made any more: just a guy goofing around on live TV, with what would seem like no interference from anyone higher up. There's plenty of Kovacs gold in the Paley Archives, and this probably isn't the best introduction if you're new to him (in my opinion, that's Saturday Color Carnival: The Ernie Kovacs Show), but I wanted to pick something that was entertaining, but would be unfamiliar to fans who had already seen all there was to see on the great DVD set put out by Shout! Factory earlier this year, which is chock full of Ernie at his finest.
You comedy historians already know what there is to know about Kovacs, and those of you who aren't have already felt his influence through much of television today. Kovacs offers us a window into how good television could be, by making it in a way that can never be repeated.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.