He got his first job in television by showing up for an audition wearing a barrel and shorts. From there his career took off during a ten-year period that carried him from obscurity to stardom, the ride getting steadily wilder and crazier. Although someone else held the title Mr. Television, Ernie Kovacs, born on January 23, 1919, certainly left his imprint on the medium, influencing such shows to come as Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, Laugh-In, Captain Kangaroo, and the Today Show.
Often referred to as television’s surrealist, the cigar-smoking, poker-playing Hungarian-American comedian could be counted on for the unusual if not the bizarre in any of his many television outings.
One of his first shows, Three to Get Ready, was the first regularly scheduled early morning (7 a.m.) show in a major market, proving that people would watch TV at this unlikely hour. Although the program was billed as news and weather, Kovacs presented it in his own style. If rain was in the weather forecast, Kovacs would get on a ladder and pour water down on the person reading the report. He auditioned goats for a local theater performance, visited a downtown Philadelphia restaurant in a gorilla suit, wrestled a jaguar, and discovered a man who had come through the earth from China to emerge from a construction pit. The program ran for two years before being preempted by a network early morning offering, The Today Show.
Other shows included It’s Time for Ernie, his first network series; Ernie in Kovacsland, a summer replacement for Kukla, Fran and Ollie; and The Ernie Kovacs Show, featuring characters such as poet Percy Dovetonsils, bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, Frenchman Pierre Ragout, and the Nairobi Trio. He also hosted the Tonight Show twice a week and had a short stint as a celebrity panelist on What’s My Line?, where he strove more for humor than insight. (When Henry J. Kaiser, the founder of the automobile company, was the program’s mystery guest, and the panel had established that the mystery guest’s name was synonymous with an automobile brand, Kovacs asked, “Are you – and this is just a wild guess – but are you Abraham Lincoln?”
A movie career followed his move to California in 1957 with character roles in such films as Operation Mad Ball; Bell, Book and Candle; Wake Me When It’s Over; Sail a Crooked Ship; and Our Man in Havana.
Kovacs was at the peak of his career when he was killed in a late-night automobile accident on his way home from one of the many parties that had become part of his life in California. The inscription on his tombstone reads “Ernie Kovacs 1919 – 1962 — Nothing In Moderation.”
I have a simple philosophy. Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. An scratch where it itches. ~ Alice Roosevelt Longworth