Book Review: Ernie in Kovacsland: Writings, Drawings, and Photographs from Television’s Original Genius

Ernie Kovacs was a comic pioneer in television as well as a television pioneer in comedy. During the 1950s, both Kovacs and television became known commodities across the United States. In 1950, he got his start at Philadelphia’s WPTZ, and then moved onto New York where he did a local morning show and then a network morning show before moving into prime time. On his numerous TV shows, Kovacs pushed the medium’s boundaries and incorporated elements of television into his act, which is why Pulitzer Prize–winning television critic William Henry III dubbed him “television’s first significant video artist.” Unfortunately, his life was cut short at 42 when he lost control of his car and crashed into a power pole on January 13, 1962; however, his influence on television continued as seen on shows such as Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, and Late Night with David Letterman.

Edited by Josh Mills, son of Kovacs’ second wife Edie Adams and her second husband Martin Mills; Kovacs archivist Ben Model; and cultural historian Pat Thomas, Ernie in Kovacsland takes readers into the archives, which were first preserved by Adams and then Mills. The book presents magazine articles both about Kovacs (a feature in After Hours by George Glazer) and written by him (“Private Showing,” a show biz short story for High magazine), an excerpt from his novel Zoomar: A Sophisticated Novel about Love and TV (1957), and never-before-seen photos from before and after he got into television.

Edie Adams, who first met Ernie when auditioning for … Kovacsland, wrote an article about him, sometime post-1981 as she mentions MTV. There is also an excerpt from her 1990 memoir, Sing a Pretty Song: The Offbeat Life of Edie Adams, Including the Ernie Kovacs Years in which she talks about his early days in Trenton, New Jersey and theirs before heading to New York for Kovacs Unlimited in 1952. In addition, famous fans Ron Mael of Sparks and performance artist Ann Magnuson pen essays about how they came to their devotion.

While Kovac was known for his visual humor and live ad-libbing, this book makes clear he was a skilled, funny writer. Among the many humorous pieces is a very good piece entitled “First Class Malice,” which was published posthumously in Kovacs’ Please Excusa da Pencil (1962) offering “a quickie course in the art of writing complaint letters. Also entertaining is “Ode to a Bookworm,” a poem for his character Percy Dovetonsils intended for an album that was shelved over creative interference by the Warner Bros. record label.

Curious comedy fans should, and Kovacs fans must, visit Ernie in Kovacsland. This scrapbook from his archives offers a marvelous trip into his work and back to the early days of TV.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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