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« Politics, Philosophy and Parents | Main | Acting »

January 13, 2005

It was forty three years ago today . . .

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

It was twenty years ago today that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play, but forty-three years ago today it was something else.

Late in the afternoon of January 13, 1962, Fenster returned from skating with his friends at a pond behind his house to find his parents waiting for him, somber but composed, in the living room of his home. At his tender age--not yet a teenager--Fenster had no experience at all with the death of family or friends, but he could tell from the demeanor of his parents that something was amiss, and that it probably had something to do with that remote land.

Sit down, they said, we have something we have to tell you. Fenster sat down, sensing that the request had deeper implications but uncertain of the exact meaning.

Fenster, they said, we know this will be hard for you to understand but . . . Ernie Kovacs is dead. He was in a car accident.

Cut to present day.

Yup, that's what happened. The TV comic Kovacs indeed perished on that date, and, yes, my parents fretted about how to break the news to me, a youngster with no personal knowledge of the man--only an affection from his TV persona.

It's easy to chuckle over their behavior--and mine--so far after the fact, but, as I recall the moment, their hesitance was justified. I was upset, devastated. Kovacs . . . dead. . . ? How was this possible?

So the anniversary of his death obliges me, as a tiny form of payback after all these years, to note the date in passing, and to bring his particular genius to the attention of those not familiar with him.


It's not fair to say that without Kovacs there would have been no Saturday Night Live, stupid pet tricks or Andy Kaufman, as this article suggests. These things probably would have happened anyway. But there's no question that Kovacs was there first.

It's tempting to conclude that Kovacs integration of nonsense and irrationality with humor as far back in the 1950s was sui generis. But while it was new to TV, it was not new to culture. Heck, as far back as the mid 1940s, Hitchcock had already popularized surrealism in Spellbound. Under the middlebrow rules then prevailing in the popular culture, the gap between dada in museums and Daddy in his living room was smaller than you might think, from the point of view of today's narrower, narrowcasting, standards. Leonard Bernstein did his Young People's Concerts; Kovacs, while clearly wacky, brought a touch of highbrow, under the guise of lowbrow, to the tiny black-and-white TV screen in my middlebrow suburban neighborhood.

Even at my tender age, the frisson of highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow; and of sense, nonsense and nonsensibility, was simply irresistible.



posted by Fenster at January 13, 2005


I've never seen Ernie Kovacs. I always hear people say he was a "genius" but people say that about Milton Berle and Jack Benny, too, and I don't get it. You must have really loved him, though. The only similar memory I have is when my parents told me that they had put our springer spaniel to sleep. All I know about Kovacs was that I think he was married to Edie ("cigars, cigarettes, tipparillos") Adams. And please don't ask me how the heck I know that. I can't remember which level I parked my car on half the time,but I remember that. Oy vay.

Posted by: annette on January 13, 2005 10:51 PM

I remember my parents getting solemn and concerned about one public figure's death when I was a kid: the Scottish race-car driver Jimmy Clark, who I was a big fan of. (As in the sense of identifying with him, fantasizing about becoming a race-car driver, getting interested in Scotland, etc.) Clark crashed and died, and my parents were very sweetly concerned that I'd take it hard. Oddly, I didn't. Do kids not comprehend what death is? Or maybe I was a very callous kid ...

Oddly, I'm not sure I ever saw Ernie Kovacs. I wonder if my parents didn't like him, and so didn't tune to TV to his show. I should catch up with his work, though. He was clearly a big figure. Have you looked at his work since you've been an adult?

Hmm, I'm gonna go search at Amazon ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 14, 2005 11:12 AM

I've seen his work since I've been an adult and still like it. But that could be my memory working overtime--i.e., since I remember liking a particular "bit" (the Nairboi Trio, say) I still find it funny, while a newcomer might find it tedious.

So maybe people who don't have the memory won't like him. That's always a risk with trailblazers like Kovacs--since they are the first to do something, they are highly memorable at the time they start doing it, but since they lead the way as part of a trend, others tend to elaborate in more sophisticated fashion as time goes on. The shock of the pioneering can get lost (i.e., "Saturday Night Live did it better, and Kovacs was a lot more primitive").

If you can roll your mind back to a circa-1960 mindset, however, I think you'll be amply rewarded.

Posted by: fenster on January 14, 2005 12:43 PM

Turns out there's a best-of DVD available -- for purchase only, though. Netflix doesn't carry it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 14, 2005 7:07 PM

May I?


Mi sol la
Re fa re sol
Do mi do fa re sol sol.
[rest rest]
Mi sol la
Re fa re sol
Do mi do fa re sol sol do.

A good analysis of the Nairobi Trio is here.

The Trio network ran a half dozen of his shows about a year ago during their "Brilliant But Cancelled" marathon. The shows were live and had lots of improv, so some of the bits could indeed run a little bit long. But when he hit one, he really connected.

A best-of collection is probably what you'd want with Kovacs.

I've liked him since I was a kid, but then again I was an odd kid.

Posted by: Brian on January 14, 2005 10:21 PM

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