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Neither Rare Nor Well Done

Perhaps the Most Inventive Funnyman in Television

Perhaps the Most Inventive Funnyman in Television

Because it was a drizzly day (courtesy of El Niño), Martine and I spent the afternoon at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine was bringing up episodes of “Superman” with George Reeves, Captain Kangaroo, and “My Little Margie,” I was watching a number of episodes of “The Ernie Kovacs Show.”

What Georges Méliès was to the cinema, Ernie Kovacs was to the medium of television: He was brilliantly inventive and something of a magician. All the other comedians on early TV came up from vaudevillian comedy skits, Kovacs started with the new medium itself. He was not only the starring actor: He was also the director and, if the show had one, the main writer.

Music was a recurring unifying theme to the strange collection of cutaways which might include:

  • A cute young woman taking a bubble bath, with strange things happening in the tub
  • The Nairobi Trio, three apes playing music and annoying one another
  • The furniture in an office acting as instruments, from the filing cabinet to the typewriter to the telephone switchboard to the water cooler
  • Artistic variations on a cowboy gun duel

One recurring piece of music used was “Mack the Knife” sung in German, but he has also used the 1812 Overture (during which we cut to Kovacs breaking a stalk of celery at key junctures), and “The Tennessee Waltz” sung in Polish—or was it Slovenian?—while he unsuccessfully lowers a chained escape artist into the river who never manages to re-emerge.

For the three hours that I watched the shows, I was in seventh heaven. Kovacs is a fellow Hungarian (though he, like me, was born in the U.S.), and he occasionally inserts some phrases in Magyar.

On the way home, I drove by the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Glen where Kovacs died in an auto accident on my seventeenth birthday in 1962.

The one quote that he is remembered for is typical Ernie: “Television: A medium. So called because it’s neither rare nor well done.” Well, when Ernie Kovacs was on the job, it was well done.

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