You could call Ernie Kovacs the godfather of special effects. Of crazy comic commercials. Of music videos. Even Monty Python.
Kovacs’ hardworking hard-living credo — “Nothing in moderation” — led him to conceive all kinds of early-TV lunacy that would influence generations of innovators including David Letterman and Python’s Terry Gilliam. Now those comedy concepts are being celebrated for Kovacs’ 100th anniversary year in events like Wednesday’s Cinema Arts Centre screening/discussion in Huntington. There’s also Tuesday night’s run of his most surreal moments at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives.
The mustachioed visionary’s many hours of 1950s TV zaniness have been culled into best-of clips for the Huntington event by official Kovacs archivist Ben Model, who already accompanies the theater’s silent film screenings. He’ll co-host with Josh Mills, son of Kovacs’ widow, Edie Adams, the sleek singer-actress who was his comic co-conspirator and who dedicated herself to saving Kovacs’ videotape legacy after his death in a 1962 Hollywood car crash. Mills, born in 1968 with Adams’ second husband, photographer Martin Mills, has continued that work after her 2008 death. Otherwise, he says by phone, “my mom would figure out a way to find me and strangle me.”
The inimitable Kovacs progressed from ‘40s hometown Trenton radio gigs toward the nascent medium of ‘50s TV, when its comedy still relied on vaudeville acts and variety sketches. Hosting daily free-form shows done live from Philadelphia or New York, Kovacs would play with camera tricks like superimposing tiny people atop enlarged objects, crafting humor in twisted realities. He’d make office file drawers and water coolers slam and gurgle to a jazz beat. As big-eyed poet Percy Dovetonsils, Kovacs drunkenly recited maniac rhymes. For sponsor Dutch Masters cigars, he staged elaborate Western scenes in which smoke would emanate from shootout victims’ gunshot holes.
“Ernie has one segment that’s the story of a raindrop, how it makes its way to Earth,” Mills says of Anthology’s Tuesday 7:30 p.m. program of “Ernie’s surreal and avant-garde work.” Among those set to join Mills and Model there are Blondie musician Chris Stein, artist-filmmaker Andrew Lampert and Rebecca Cleman of video archive Electronic Arts Intermix.
Cinema Arts Centre’s Wednesday 7:30 p.m. screening is more comedy focused, like most celebrations in this 100th year since Kovacs’ birth to Hungarian parents (Jan. 23, 1919). A Kovacs exhibit at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York (Lucille Ball’s hometown), opened during last week’s annual Comedy Festival, after Lewis Black and Alan Zweibel headlined an earlier Kovacs panel. Even the British Film Institute honors Kovacs’ influence during a monthlong London salute to 50 years of the Monty Python troupe. On Sept. 17, Python animator turned renowned filmmaker Terry Gilliam “presents a program essentially introducing Ernie to the British public, who have never really seen him,” Mills says. (Minnesota-born Gilliam has recalled discovering Kovacs on TV at age 11, and being “knocked sideways into a world where the bizarre and the daft and the preposterous all lived happily alongside wisdom, wit and perception. . . . Ernie Kovacs scarred me for life. Thankfully, I’ve never recovered.”)
This year has already featured a Kovacs night on Turner Classic Movies; the Shout Factory DVD set “Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition”; and Omnivore Recordings’ CD rerelease of “The Ernie Kovacs Album,” a 1976 compilation of Kovacs’ more audio-oriented humor. (Full disclosure: I wrote Omnivore’s new liner notes.) Los Angeles’ Grammy Museum hosts a Kovacs panel Aug. 28 with comedians Dave Foley, Mark Proksch and Ann Magnuson, plus Devo guitarist Gerald Casale. More Kovacs can be found at Mills’ online pages at erniekovacs.com and facebook.com/realerniekovacs.
There’s also anytime viewing of Kovacs’ vintage TV fun via free streaming from ShoutFactoryTV.com (available on TV with Roku, Pluto TV, other platforms).
Ernie Kovacs centennial salute
WHEN|WHERE Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington
TICKETS Members: $12, public: $17