January 29, 2013

Ernie Kovacs and the finality of death

This post is going to be a little different from some of those I’ve done previously. If it’s not your cup of tea, feel free to blow it off—you won’t hurt my feelings. In fact, I probably won’t even know you did it.

I say this because today’s topic is death. The Grim Reaper. The great equalizer. It can be difficult thinking about death, because so many times it remains an abstract proposition. Those of us who watch classic TV—well, most of the people we see in our black-and-white shows are dead, so we’re kind of used to it. But that wasn’t always the case, of course; all those people were alive and well at one time, and their focus was going forward, on what they would do next, rather than backward, on what had already been done.

Like them, we all live within the shadow of death, and inevitably we’re forced to confront it at one time or another. The culmination, of course, is in the ultimate confrontation with death—our own.

For Ernie Kovacs, that confrontation came on January 13, 1962, at the age of 42, in a car crash. It barely scratches the surface to call Kovacs a brilliant comedian; he was perhaps the most innovative performer ever seen on television, the first to really understand how to exploit this new technology. Kovacs was an acquired taste, too unorthodox for many, but for those who “got” him, it was a delight to be kept off-balance, to see how he might surprise you next. Shout! Factory’s box set of Kovacs’ shows was arguably the best TV set issued on DVD in the last few years, and it’s good that more people can see what all the shouting was about.

At the time of his death, Kovacs was doing a series of monthly specials for ABC. Seven had been telecast prior to his death; the eighth, which was taped in December of 1961, was aired on January 23, 1962—ten days following his death.

That show started on a somber note, and for one unfamiliar with the circumstances it might almost have seemed a joke. It opened not with the typical barrage of sights and sounds that usually greeted the viewer, but instead offered a simple white background, with “The Ernie Kovacs Show” in black lettering. A studio announcer gently intervened:
Good evening. The show you are about to see was videotaped by Ernie Kovacs on December 3rd for Dutch Masters Cigars at the ABC studios in Hollywood. We have received numerous requests from his many fans to televise this show. That is why we present it tonight. Ernie wanted it to be seen and enjoyed.
Whereupon the show commenced, visually chaotic and dazzling. That opening, though - it didn’t belong, wasn’t part of the “real” show, but was tacked on by the network (and he always hated interference from the suits). It was ominous and foreboding, it almost made you nervous to watch the rest of the show. With all that you might have thought that the finality of death would strike home, that it would sink in. But, ominous and foreboding though it was, I didn’t feel it then. The show itself was typical Kovacs, although it seemed as if he weren’t as physically present as he usually was, running things more from the control room than on the stage with the rest of his crew. Was it just an illusion, a trick played by a mind that already knows the rest of the story? Hard to say. It was a funny show, not more or less than usual. But still you were aware of watching a man who, ten days ago, had been so alive and was now dead and buried, yet performing right now on your television, with no presumable intention of it being his final show.

One might have thought that the finality of death would be present there, in the image of Kovacs live on the screen and dead in the world; but I didn’t feel it then, either.

The show concluded, the closing credits ran, and the studio announcer returned:
The show you have just seen was videotaped by Ernie Kovacs on December 3rd for Dutch Masters Cigars. It was made to be seen and enjoyed. Because commercials were eliminated the show has run several minutes short. In the time remaining, we'd like to show you one of Ernie's favorite sketches from a previous show.
And followed a routine that would forever be associated with Kovacs, the Nairobi Trio.

Dutch Masters, his long-time sponsor, had in his memory presented the show without commercials. It was the right thing to do, and yet the brilliance of Kovacs' commercials for Dutch Masters was such that airing them might have been an even more fitting way to remember him, for though the commercials were made to sell cigars*, they were in every way a part of the show, made to be seen and enjoyed. Here's a typical one:

*Though Kovacs was seldom seen without his trademark cigars, they were, oddly enough, not Dutch Masters. (Nor did he ever claim they were.) He smoked only the bestfrom Havana.

The absence of the commercials meant the show would run short, and ABC filled the remaining time with a brief homage to Kovacs, including a quote from the minister who presided at the funeral.
We loved this man. He gave joy, happiness and gaiety to the world. He was a rugged individualist and a creative genius, but he was always ready to listen and slow to judge.

As the words were read, there was the image of Kovacs in the control room, laughing with pure joy. Was he laughing at the show, or perhaps at something someone said? Or was it because of the absurdity of the situation, of the network actually allowing him to put these things on the air, as if he had pulled one over on everyone and it was all just a great joke. It was moving, it was close to being final, but it wasn’t quite there yet.

I thought about it, after it was all over. It was the last show on the disc, the last complete show in the set. I thought about it and then it struck me, and I started the episode again and fast-forwarded through to the original closing credits.

Kovacs had loved classical music, had done an entire special on music once, and so it was no surprise to see the names there, Strauss and Bach and Haydn. I remembered the Strauss and Bach pieces, but Haydn? When the hell did he use Haydn?

He didn’t.

And then I understood, I saw and I knew the finality of death.

I grabbed the laptop and Googled a couple of things to make sure, and I was right. Kovacs’ Dutch Masters commercials, every one of them, had used Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 3 No. 5. I hadn’t remembered hearing the music because the commercials hadn’t been shown. And yet Haydn was in the credits, because the commercials had been made and Kovacs, of course, had assumed they would be seen. And they weren’t, because when he’d made the show he was alive but now they were showing it and he was dead.

There was no reason to change those closing credits. I doubt that anyone even thought about them. They were just part of the show, after all. But in that one line, I understood. In what I had seen, I had been reminded of what I had not seen. Just as Ernie Kovacs would not be seen alive again.

I had seen the living testament that was the finality of death. TV  


  1. This is a fine essay and a great, perceptive observation about the Haydn credit. It's a reminder about the finality of death, yes, but also about the way life happens, or ceases to, while we're making other plans. As Keith Olbermann once said about an injured athlete whose status was day-to-day, "then again, we're ALL day-to-day."

    1. Very well put, jb. And thanks as well for the kind comment!

  2. Thanks for the Blog about Ernie Kovacs. I was a big fan of his and crushed when he died. I was about 10 at the time. I do remember watching his final special but don't remember the details. I had to be satisfied with MAD and Rocky & Bullwinkle for my humor after his death. If only he had taken the Rolls that day instead of the Corvair. Thanks again for your writing.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, JL. Kovacs was a remarkable talent, and having seen several of these shows in the last few years, I realize now how much of an influence he was on other shows I watched when I was young - even children's shows. I'm glad you liked the piece.

  3. I remember awakening to the news of Ernie’s death and I was devastated, inconsolable and I cried the entire day. I was 10 years old.

  4. Off beat interesting guy. Just watched his shows again recently. Last time I saw one I was 8. Remember my father talking about his death. Certainly did things his own way and looking back one can see how his ideas and presentation influenced many future comics and writing.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!