Archive for August, 2009

The Amazing Ernie Kovacs!

August 20, 2009


I’ve had this photo of Ernie Kovacs on my wall for a long time.  It’s from a bit where he describes adjusting a TV set as he adjusts his face.  It’s as if his face is under control by the TV adjustment knobs!

There was a recent history of American comedy on PBS.  Not only did they not show any Kovacs clips, but I think they didn’t even mention him.  Thus, their entire effort slipped down a few notches, in my estimation.

They had tributes to many influenced by Kovacs, who stole ideas from Kovacs etc. but nothing on the great man himself.

Herein, my cinema blog takes a rare excursion into the world of television.  Ernie Kovacs is my all time favorite figure in the entire history of that medium.  So I’ll make some exceptions for the exceptional.

In Summer of 1986, I was in New York for a festival of Ernie’s work at the Museum of Broadcasting,  I saw a lot more of his work than I ever had before.  I also went back there several times and watched rare Kovacs shows I hadn’t seen.  These included his Person to Person appearance with Edward R Murrow.  I also saw some of James Dean’s television acting.

You used to be able to sit at a console with a pair of headphones.  They’d bring a video over, lock it into the player and hit “play.”

They had a good book they’d published in connection with their festival/exhibition.  I’ve read that as well as the other two main books on Kovacs.  These would be David Walley’s The Ernie Kovacs Phile and Diana Rico’s Kovacsland.

I tracked down a copy of Kovac’s novel Zoomar, but haven’t got around to reading it yet, soon, soon.  I’m also a fan of his vinyl LP recording The Ernie Kovacs Album and of his work for the early MAD Magazine.  His sensibility had similarities with that of early MAD.

There’s also a CD out called Ernie Kovac’s Record Collection which compiles music he loved (and often used in his TV work).  I recently found out that it existed thus hope to find it or hear it in future days.

I’ve long had the Best of Ernie Kovacs collection on VHS.  I hear the DVD version has some extras.  I hope to see those eventually.  There’s also a more extensive DVD collection in the works.  Let’s hope it’s not too many years before it sees the light of day.

He was a master of the television medium.  It was in it’s early stages then, but Kovacs would experiment.  He’d push the envelope.  He wasn’t one to play it safe.  He’d do things like film through a kaleidoscope and set it to music.  He’d use special effects and build special “trick sets.”  Anything goes!

Some pieces were like “music videos” of their day.  One had drawers opening and household objects coming to life in time to the music.

His many  character creations included the Question Man, Miklos Molnar, the Nairobi Trio, Percy Dovetonsils, Eugene and Auntie Gruesome.  He had a good supporting cast including his second wife, the late Edie Adams.  And yes, it was sometimes his pal Jack Lemmon, inside one of the gorilla suits!

He was a famous cigar smoker and did some funny cigar ads.

He acted in films as well.  There are are few I really want to see especially Five Golden Hours and Our Man in Havana.  I’ve seen a few of the other ones.  It’s always good to see him.

He died, way too young, in a car accident, in 1962.  He was on his way home from a party.

Aside: (I always thought it was at a party at Billy Wilder’s house.  Some Internet sources say it was at Milton Berle’s house.  Does anyone have the lowdown on this?  I’m guessing maybe Berle organized the party but it was at Wilder’s home? Or maybe Berle was guest of honor or something?)

In any case, it was a big loss, very sad.  His widow, Edie Adams, worked hard to save his work.  A lot of the tapes were being taped over and thrown away.  Someday we’ll have a better idea of how much still exists.

Some of my favorite bits:

The “black out gags” a stream-of-consciousness string of lively and surprising jokes and sight gags to the tune of Mack the Knife sung in German.

A used car salesman puts his hand on the car and it crashes though the floor.  This was a notoriously expensive gag.

In one sequence he put his face up to the camera lens (as if he was looking out of the TV, as if he was trapped inside of it).  Then he said (something to the effect of): “Thank you so much for inviting me into your home.  But couldn’t you have cleaned it up a bit first?  It looks terrible!”  It was as if he was actually looking out of the TV set and into people’s living rooms!

In another bit he had an “attempt at color TV.”  The black and white images had hand written signs on them denoting their colors.  I think it was a household scene, like maybe a sofa with a sign that said “blue” sitting on it and a lamp with a sign reading yellow and so on and so forth.

He’d have parodies of TV cooking shows and games shows.  There are so many classic Ernie Kovacs bits.  I could do a whole post trying to describe them.  Better you track down the real deal.  Some stuff is online but better to track some down and watch it on your television.  Try your local library or else find some tapes or discs for yourself.

His work also has influenced my own zany puppet performances.  He was a true innovator and a very, very funny man.


Further information:

plus ZOOMAR etc. (by myself):


Les Blank

August 13, 2009


I got to meet Les Blank at a documentary film festival here in Detroit.  It was in  late October and early November of 2008.  They showed quite a few of his films.

He’s well known for Burden of Dreams, a film chronicling Werner Herzog’s filming of Fitzcarraldo.  He also made a short film Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe.  This act was the result of a bet Herzog lost with director Errol Morris.

Among other films, they showed “Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers.”  This was accompanied by a sort of “odorama” where you could smell the garlic roasting.  You could taste it too.  They soon served cloves of roasted garlic to the audience.  This program was at the famous Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  He was there in person for a talk, a question and answer session.

Afterward, I bought a dvd of his 1978 Mardi Gras documentary Always For Pleasure.  He signed it for me.

A few days later, there was a second program of Blank’s work at 1515 Broadway in downtown Detroit.  They showed his recent feature film All In This Tea.  It focused on the tea expert David Lee Hoffman and his searches for unique and high-quality teas.

They also ran six short films including film portraits of Dizzy Gillespie and bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins.  There was Chicken Real, an odd 1970 look at a large chicken farm.  Then there was God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance.  This captured parts of a Spring 1967 L.A. “Love-In.”  It’s a unique time capsule of the “hippie spirit” and the “flower children.”

His work often deals with music or food, yet he’s covered other subjects.  These include tourism, Creoles and “gap-toothed women.”

Besides the films he directed, he edited a film on musician Harry Partch and did camera work on Easy Rider.

I’ve always loved Blank’s work but it often seemed hard to find.  This made it more of a treat when I did find it.  I love his whole vision, very free and positive with great, oddball utopian edges.  Viva Les Blank!

Update:  It took me two months to learn that Les Blank had died.  I just saw his son Harrod’s film Wild Wheels. Ah, it’s very sad.  I’ll do another post on him eventually.  Here are some obituaries and tributes.