We have enough ongoing news and information about The Library of American Comics to prevent us from using this space to recommend noteworthy items from other genres…but Dean’s letting me make an exception this time (mostly because he’s in sync with every word that follows). I’ll still bring it around at the end and connect it to LOAC, because, as a friend of mine likes to say, “It all comes back to comics.”
Beginning April 19th, The Ernie Kovacs Collection goes on sale nationwide. This is glad news for humor fans in general and Kovacsphiles in particular. I am not big on the “pre-order” concept, yet I’ve had my copy of this six-disc DVD set pre-ordered since the end of March, which is an indication of how excited I am at the prospect of renewing my acquaintance with some of my favorite comedic characters and seeing some new-to-me Ernie material.
Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962) was a pioneer of television comedy, a genial Hungarian who combined a classicist’s tastes with a street-level sense of humor. Ernie saw the fledgling television medium of the 1950s as a playground of infinite possibilities. To the best of my knowledge, Kovacs invented the music video – admittedly, he did it with classical music, setting an urban street scene to Bartok, an exaggerated poker game to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and creating other quirky combinations, but there is no doubt he was incorporating music with video imagery a quarter-century before the debut of MTV.
Ernie was a master of the blackout sketch (also often set against a musical backdrop, most famously a German rendition of Mack the Knife). His lineup of recurring characters? Can’t be beat. Wolfgang von Saurbraten, German disc chockey (“Brushen de getoofens mit Schnitzeldent”) – the “old country” Hungarian, Miklos Molnar – kiddie show hosts Auntie Gruesome and Uncle Buddy – French arteest Pierre Ragout – tipsy magician Matzoh Heppelwhite – and flamboyant poet Percy Dovetonsils, whose classic Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat includes such inspired lines as:
That pussy’s personality
Slowly began to change
He hissed and arched his back so much
He looked like a camel with mange
Even Ernie’s end-credits were interspersed with terrific gags. “Bless me, Tom Swift, is this your electric fiancé?” – “Sure, it’s easy for you, Bernice, because you’re a girl … but for Doberman pinchers, it’s a sometimes thing.”
Ernie’s desire to push the envelope and explore the boundaries of TV’s capabilities meant he had a hard time finding a permanent home: his programs started locally in Philadelphia, then bounced to NBC, CBS, the DuMont Network, and ABC. He starred in daytime series, nighttime series, late-night comedy, and even hosted the Take a Good Look quiz show.
Incredibly, he did some of his best work while his personal life was haunted by emptiness and uncertainty. In 1953 his first wife kidnapped their two daughters, Elizabeth and Kippie, successfully hiding them from their father for over two years. Ernie spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on private detectives and traced seemingly as many false leads. “To tell you the truth, I sit here crying for hours sometimes,” he confessed during one print interview from this period.
Photos of young Kippie and Elizabeth Kovacs, distributed to the wire services during the two years they were the kidnap victims of their mother.
In the book Kovacsland, Kippie discussed with biographer Diana Rico the 1955 day her father and grandfather tracked the girls and their wayward mother to a dingy house in central Florida:
I wanted to go with him, because I was living a life of misery, a total nightmare … [Finally] I got in the car with him and he turned and said, “I see you still suck your thumb.” So I said, “I see you still smoke cigars.” And right away, it was right.
If the poignancy of Ernie’s personal life and the hints of Ernie’s genius aren’t enough to sway you, here are four connections between Ernie and the world of comics, with three of them tied directly to The Library of American Comics:
1. Ernie made a handful of appearances in the early Mad magazine. Wally Wood illustrated the Kovacs take-off on Ripley’s Believe It or Not titled Strangely Believe It, which featured items such as: “The strangest SCIENTIFIC PHENOMENON of all time was recorded on May 18, 1956, when Elizabeth Donohue Forsney was born in a commercial airliner while traveling over Grand Canyon, Colorado … A telegram was immediately dispatched to Elizabeth’s mother, who had missed the plane in Denver.” Will Elder provided the artwork for Ernie’s madcap board game, “Gringo!” (later brought to both the TV screen and long-playing vinyl album as “Droongo!”).
2. Ernie’s second wife was Edie Adams, the blonde bombshell famous for bringing Daisy Mae Scragg to life on stage in the 1950s Broadway production of Al Capp’s popular Li’l Abner. Edie also appeared on several of Ernie’s TV broadcasts and is sure to be well represented in the new DVD set.
3. Another member of Ernie’s band of TV players was the ravishing Jolene Brand, who later played the role of Anna Maria in several episodes of the late-’50s TV adaptation of Zorro. The firstZorro comics based on the TV series were, of course, drawn by Alex Toth …
4. …And Alex, like Ernie, was of Hungarian extraction.
In fact, with both The Ernie Kovacs Collection and our own Genius, Isolated being released so closely together, it seems fitting to declare April as Magyar Month, featuring hours of Hungarian-created comics biography/artwork and TV hijinx!
See? It really does all come back to comics…