Broadcasting to an Audience of One

With the absence of a live studio audience currently being enforced, hosts of entertainment programs on TV are faced with a challenge. But, ultimately, doing so will enable them to better participate in what Ernie Kovacs referred to on one of his shows as “an intimate vacuum”.

It’s gotten to a point, anyway, where it seems like a lot of the late night comedy-variety shows are about the people on the other side of our screen having a great time. Like there’s some big party happening that we’re voyeurs to. There’s cheering, gifts thrown out to the crowd, high fives, applause-breaks waited through, etc.

But what about us at home? Or on our devices, wherever the heck we are, now that ISP’s are pushing us to watch everything anywhere?

It’s understandably unnerving for performers whose primary entertainment or comedy experience is with an audience. When I made my feature film comedy many years ago, I experienced this first- or rather second-hand. The project turned the stand-up material of my friend Luis Caballero, based on his own life incidents, back into played-out scenes. Some sequences were instead done as direct-address to the camera.

Ernie Kovacs ABC control room monitors
Ernie’s videotaped specials for ABC in 1961 were not only made without a studio audience (although you can occasionally hear the crew laughing), he often hosted the show from a television control room. You were, after all, visiting with someone doing a television show.

This was in the fall of 1989, so if this format sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking — with the exception of Annie Hall — of things you’ve seen in the last couple decades.

Faced with a tiny skeleton crew and the quiet purr of an Aaton super 16 camera, it completely threw Luis. Not having an audience laughter, and dead silence instead, was a very different experience.

Goodness knows how all those vaudeville performers got through making their Vitaphone shorts in the late 20s after honing their act in front of huge audiences fourteen shows a week in city after city for months.

Ernie Kovacs had come to television in 1950 out of radio, where the rule of thumb is that you are broadcasting to an audience of one. That you are talking to someone who is, virtually, across the room or table from you at that mike. And so it was for Ernie with television. His first shows in 1950-51 at WPTZ in Philadelphia were just him, Andy McKay, Edie Adams (still “Edythe” at that moment) and the Tony DeSimone Trio. 

But Ernie’s delivery is the same as if he were in the room with you, just on the other side of the orthicon tube. His shows feel like visits with him. Josh Mills, Edie Adams’ son, puts it very well — “I’ve never seen anyone so relaxed on television.”

Even on the programs he did for NBC in 1956 where the network insisted he have a studio audience, his delivery is still to the camera and to us at home. Because, I believe, he understood the real audience was not in 30 Rock’s Studio 6B or in the Century Theater but at home, about 6 feet away.

So, in the current lockdown of assemblage of large groups of people, on-camera hosts of television shows will be forced to slow down and quiet down a little. They’ll exercise a new muscle and entertain those of us at home, directly, through that intimate vacuum of television (or streaming) that Ernie Kovacs was talking about. We’ve always been there, across a very crowded room.

And if you don’t know what that looks like, as the expression goes, keep calm and watch Ernie Kovacs.


  • There are several episodes of Ernie Kovacs’ TV shows streaming on the Shout Factory website here.
  • There are a couple dozen hours of Ernie Kovacs’ TV shows available on disc from Shout Factory, and on Amazon et al.
  • Kovacs ko-llectables and other Kovacs stuff can be found at erniekovacs.com
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Paul Fitzpatrick

Many shows are much better with the live audience responses. Ernie Kovacs didn’t need an audience for his brand of humor, although the immediate laugh response is always nice.

I’m all for today’s TV slowing down, though. Nowadays, the tendency of a TV audience is to shout and shriek. Talk shows used to take the time to talk. Now the perception seems to be that viewers won’t have the patience for deep conversation.