During TV's 1950s infancy, stars who transitioned from radio, film, and theater were often stiff on-camera. Not Ernie Kovacs. Ernie was loose. He didn't worry about making mistakes—he capitalized on them. A collapsing prop, a blown punchline, a mistimed sound effect—every serendipitous slip-up caused unintentional hilarity. TV was live and there were no do-overs. To Kovacs, this was not a bug—it was a feature.
As a TV comedy pioneer and groundbreaking technical genius, Kovacs has been profiled in books, network specials, a (bad) made-for-TV movie, home video, and museum tributes. The Kovacs Mystique endures because of his undeniable charisma. His persona was complex, yet iconic: the mustache, the imperturbable shrug, the ever-present cigar, the deadpan double-takes. Proudly lowbrow, Kovacs had a penchant for silly accents and hamfisted ethnic humor. Screw political correctness.
Kovacs would saunter off-camera (and off-script), joke with stagehands, and skew the lens in unpredictable ways (forever impressing a youngster in Indianapolis named David Letterman). Ernie was casually disrespectful to sponsors; your product paid his bills, but it was a sidekick. Despite his confident manner, Kovacs was plagued by underbudgeted sets and cheap props that malfunctioned. He disdained laugh tracks; if you didn't get his humor, change the channel. With his use of early video technology, he left a primitive, yet supernatural legacy—the comedic counterpart of The Twilight Zone. Half of the on-camera cast was Kovacs himself in outlandish costumes portraying absurd recurring characters: tipsy fey poet Percy Dovetonsils; Eugene, the befuddled Everyman; Teutonic disc jockey Wolfgang Von Sauerbraten; bumbling magician Matzoh Hepplewhite; and calamitous chef Miklos Molnar. Ernie's real-life wife Edie Adams was a shapely, abundantly talented co-conspirator, who sang, acted, danced, and sparkled on-camera even when hawking cigars.
Kovacs directed his cast in absurdist terpsichore—sometimes clad in gorilla suits—against symphonies, ballets, and impressionistic recordings. Obscure Hungarian composers (or now-hip Space Age Pop avatar Esquivel) often provided the soundtrack. His choreographic entourage included file cabinets, clocks, roast turkeys, and toy monkeys. That he didn't always have perfectly synchronized control over such props made his shows all the more vérité.
Kovacs perished when his Corvair met a telephone pole on January 13, 1962, a week shy of his 43rd birthday. Although his posthumous renown has ebbed and flowed, his reputation as the Tesla of TV comedy has never been disputed. Yet his televised legacy will forever be incomplete: years after his death, Adams discovered that one of the networks was wiping archival tapes of Ernie's broadcasts to record the evening news. It seems that in the executive suites, some idiots can't differentiate between the ephemeral and the immortal.
— Irwin Chusid