Friday, October 05, 2012

visual affinities (XII) and Ernie Kovacs

Top: Ernie Kovacs ABC Special (1961); The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963)

That's not an affinity, it's outright theft! (Luckily for Lewis, such gags aren't what make his best films special.)

Watching Ernie Kovacs' brilliant ABC specials recently, I couldn't help but notice the influence Kovacs must've had on Lewis. (Due to their close proximity, I must note that it's not always easy to confidently delineate between influence and synchronicity). Aside from the above, there's an underwater gag in one of Kovacs' shows that brings to mind a different (and funnier) underwater gag in Lewis' masterpiece, The Errand Boy (1961). And there's Kovacs' plotless and wordless "Eugene" show in 1957 that perhaps led Lewis to making The Bellboy (1960) with his wordless Stanley character and its free-form structure. (According to Wikipedia, Lewis was offered a ninety-minute TV special shortly after his partnership with Dean Martin had ended, but Lewis opted only to use the first sixty-minutes, leaving a thirty-minute slot vacant. "
No one could be found to take over a time slot following the solo television premiere of a comedy superstar, other than Kovacs, who was more than willing to try something new.") Then, in another one of Kovacs' ABC specials from 1961, a poker game pantomimed to Beethoven's Fifth brings to mind Lewis' "Chairman of the Board" segment from The Errand Boy (set to Count Basie's "Blues in Hoss' Flat"). Then again, Sid Caesar got there before either of them!  (Lewis' take outshines both.)

Sporadically sampling Kovacs' various television shows and appearances
(he died in a car accident in 1962, aged 42) didn't prepare me for his ABC specials. Sure, there are great moments earlier in his careersome of which show up again in the specialsbut the earlier shows don't feel quite as much like something wholly original or new as much as they feel like someone warming up, trying things out, and having a great time experimenting with a fairly new medium (television). His specials, on the other hand, feel like the culmination of that effort: they're ultra-fast paced, plotless, packed with visual gags, and contain an expansive sense of humor. There's wit, yes, but also the "lowly" (visual) pun. There's the zaniness of a live-action cartoon (Kovacs wrote for Mad magazine), but also—though never tonally (unlike Lewis)—humor that can be quite dark (the gag I'm thinking of telegraphs its punchline a mile in advance, yet it's still funny because they unexpectedly use a dash of fake blood). Overall the shows are more humorous than laugh-out-loud funnythough they do inspire laughterand everything is held together by a style that's built upon non-sequiturs. (His "blackout" segments set to Brecht / Weill's "Mac the Knife"featured in every episodeare particularly inspired. Oh, and the (end) credit sequences are the best I've ever seen.)

Today's most cutting edge humor is no more avant-garde or innovative than Ernie Kovacs was in the late 50s and early 60s, and his ABC specials represent the apex of his comedic genius.


jon jost said...

I had breakfast in the 1950's watching Kovacs. Perhaps it explains something about me. He was great, real television. The Nairobi Trio (forbidden by PC of today); the world's strongest ant; the one where he was on a tilting set the camera was attached to and spilled coffee etc as the set tilted but we couldn't see; Percy Dovetonsils, the poet... (gay )

Tyler said...

Yeah, it's great stuff. He did the tilted set bit a second time on one of his ABC specials (the first was on his "silent show" which played in the vacant slot following Lewis). I like his willingness, especially earlier in his career, to break the fourth wall and expand upon mistakes instead of trying to hide them. The world's strongest ant... Didn't see that one but it sounds funny already.