Peter Cavanaugh

An appreciation for the man who ‘invented’ television, Ernie Kovacs

Sierra Star columnist Peter Cavanaugh, himself a former radio personality, writes an ode to Ernie Kovacs, the “inventor” of television.
Sierra Star columnist Peter Cavanaugh, himself a former radio personality, writes an ode to Ernie Kovacs, the “inventor” of television.

This week would have marked the 100th birthday of an American legend.

As Guglielmo Marconi invented radio, Ernie Kovacs invented television.

Ernest Edward Kovacs was born in a burst of cigar smoke on Jan. 23, 1919 in Newark, New Jersey.

Later video icons such as Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, as well as original cast members of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, Saturday Night Live and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, have credited Kovacs with being a primary influence on their own efforts thanks to his wildly experimental and brilliantly spontaneous use of new technology at the very dawn of American TV.

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Ernie Kovacs holds a parasol in a scene from the “Ernie Kovacs Show,” in this undated publicity photo. The show starring the late comedian ran from December 1952 to April 1953 on CBS. Fresno Bee archive

Ernie started his broadcast career in radio, but then this late-night DJ applied for his first television job wearing only boxer shorts and a barrel. What was television but radio with pictures? Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic William Henry III writes, “Kovacs was more than another wide-eyed, self-ingratiating clown. He was television’s first significant video artist. He was its first surrealist … its most daring and imaginative writer. He was … television’s first and possibly only auteur. And he was a genius.”

Who else would have pet marmosets running around the set and wrestle a jaguar on live television? Or read poetry through a hole in his attractive assistant’s head? Or smoke cigars underwater? Or read an obituary with tiny women running up his arm?

Then there was “Howard, The World’s Strongest Ant.” Howard was too small to be seen, but could lift a 10-ton barbell several feet in the air. A lisping “Percy Dovetonsils” would read tender lines of sweet poetry while getting thoroughly trashed on cheap wine or play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on a disappearing piano. The silent “Eugene” was a poor soul who never spoke or complained as he went through life suffering common misfortunes and embarrassing indignities never any fault of his own.

There was one Ernie Kovacs creation that remains to this day the funniest thing I have ever seen.

At the start of every show for the first four weeks during a 10-week summer series in 1955, Kovacs would effusively promote the first prime-time appearance of the “World Famous Nairobi Trio.” At the end of each hour, Ernie would profoundly apologize for the absence of the group, declaring they had been “held up by customs agents” or had “fallen unexpectedly ill” or “had become lost in heavy traffic,” but he assured viewers that “The Nairobi Trio” would positively be on the next program.

Finally, after such a spectacularly prolonged buildup, there they were – three derby-hatted apes (Ernie and two others dressed in gorilla suits) miming as they played mechanically and rhythmically to the strains of Robert Maxwell’s “Solfeggio.” I would literally roll on the floor with laughter bordering hysteria. It was so outrageously silly.

When grandson Owen turned 16, his Facebook profile proudly stated he was a noted Vanderbilt scholar, had formerly lived at the North Pole and was currently taking advantage of his educational triumphs and unique life experiences as cook and cashier at a local Waffle House.

This prompted me to send Owen a book for his birthday about Ernie and some DVDs featuring Kovacs at his best and craziest. I also wrote, “Particularly aware of your abstractive comedy bent when at least a third of what one states may go over the minds of many, if not most, the work of a single individual comes to mind – a personal hero of mine through the years.”

Happy 100, Ernie Kovacs.

Remember, every first century is the hardest.