Ernie Kovacs Meets Florence Foster Jenkins

It’s a sustained three-minute shot of three people, just sitting, listening to a singer, for a nearly three minutes before the joke has a payoff. That’s how Ernie Kovacs opened one of his prime time shows for NBC in the summer of 1956. Who else had the chutzpah to start a comedy show like that?

Ernie had been starting his shows with off-beat cold open sequences, often wordless sight gags, since 1951. This one, from August 27, 1956, is a sustained shot of three well-dressed people listening to an opera singer. She is terrible. Kovacs is one of the three concertgoers, flanked by Al “Double-Talk” Kelly, and Henry Lascoe and Ernie Kovacs.

The voice we are listening to, off camera and way off-pitch, is never identified. It’s possible many people watching the show live that evening and in the studio audience had no idea who she was. Perhaps some of them did. It’s not important for the joke to work, and when I first watched this show I had no idea who it was supposed to be.

Florence Foster Jenkins record

The NBC network information on the show, which I read doing research at the Paley Center when working on the first Kovacs DVD set, listed the cold-open as merely “Usual zany opening: Florence Foster Jenkins bit”. Edie Adams was a very gifted singer, comedian and mimic, and I thought that the off-key singing the gentlemen are listening to might have been Edie, off-camera, doing a spoof of Jenkins. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Edie had been the one who’d introduced Ernie to Ms. Jenkins’, er…singing.

However, it’s not Edie…it’s Florence Foster Jenkins. My friend Seth Winner, audio and recording historian and restorationist, recently confirmed for me that what’s heard on the Kovacs sketch is a track from the record by Ms. Jenkins. The record had been released by RCA in 1955, and developed something of a cult following. I’m quite sure Ernie and Edie had a copy, and that listening to the 10″ LP conjured up this “usual zany opening” in the Kovacs mind.

Here’s the sketch:

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