Ernie Kovacs hated working with a live audience for his TV shows. His TV shows feel like you’re having a visit with him. Having spent 8 years in radio before starting in TV, in its own nascent years, Ernie carried over the practice of performing to an audience of one to his TV work. He later described TV as being “an intimate vacuum”. All of this makes the experience of watching Kovacs in a theater surrounded by several dozen die-hard fans all the more unique and unusual.
In the summer of 1961, Ernie told Bill Bellman of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) in an interview why he disliked the live audience aspect of doing TV:
EK: “I write everything – and as I write it, I’m watching it on a television screen as I’m watching it, But I’m writing it consciously for the intimacy of a room. It’s done – you are now, to use a very trite and tired television expression, you are in someone’s home. They will not group laugh. You do not write things that would make a group first of all, I don’t have an audience for my shows, I don’t believe in that. An audience with free tickets will laugh at the pause, because they’ve been told, nudgingly, and, after long experience, you are now to laugh. ;And they’re trying to be nice, they’re fond of the people in the show and they want to show their appreciation and show they’re glad to be there, so they’ll laugh. They haven’t come there to knock it or boo. This is wrong for me. It, first of all, destroys the timing of the show. My show is timed out to, within, like, three seconds, and if I find something plays a little longer I will play it longer [rather] than re-time it. But I don’t have it for laughs, I don’t leave any space for laughs, and [laughing] sometimes we don’t get any, so I’m doing pretty good.”
So, it’s weird watching Kovacs shows or excerpts in a theater on a screen 20-80 times the size of the one they were seen on and intended for, sitting elbow to elbow with fellow Kovacsians and a few veteran EEFMS members. Because it’s screen comedy we’ve all only seen alone, by ourselves, in an intimate vacuum between 60-years-ago Ernie and us, with only the occasional laughter of cameramen indicating anything was funny.
It’s also really exciting.
Because here’s this TV comedy thing many of us thought we were the only ones who liked, one that has still yet to cross over the way Monty Python did, gradually. And just by showing up to the public screening of Kovacs shows we illicitly admit to everyone in the room that we’re a member of this club. Especially when we laugh out loud.
My first couple times watching Kovacs TV segments with an audience were a little different than most peoples’ might be. The first was at a panel event held at the Paley Center in New York to launch the release of the first Ernie Kovacs Collection DVD box set. I’d help select the clips and excerpts, and while the compilation was being shown to the audience, I was backstage with fellow panel members waiting to go onstage and so didn’t experience the show with the audience.
The next time was at the panel event promoting the second Kovacs Collection box, a few years later, at the Egyptian in Hollywood. I’d again helped compile the clips and excerpts for this one, but this time was in the packed audience and was nervous about how well the sketches were going over. I also was sitting with Emo Philips who had glommed onto me in the green room. He’d been invited to the event by pal Bob Odenkirk, who was on the panel.
A few years ago, I put together a clip reel of excerpts for a screening at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington NY on Long Island, that I hosted to a packed Theater 2 at the CAC. That’s the show when I really got the full-blown experience of watching Kovacs with an audience of fellow fans. The laughs, you could tell, were laced with happy memories of recognition. Most of the folks in attendance hadn’t seen the material since it’d aired or had been shown on PBS in the late ‘70s.
The Q&A was full of stories about watching the show, writing to Ernie and hearing back, et al. There were at least a couple of people who still had their membership card for the EEMFS (Early Eyeball Fraternal Marching Society, pronounced EE-fums). What struck me the most was the vibe in the room — the show had the unusual feel of being a reunion of people who’d never met.
This year (2019) there will be a number of screenings and events around the US commemorating Ernie Kovacs’ 100th birthday. If you hear of one, go. It’s quite something to experience Ernie’s intimate vacuum when it’s being shared with fellow Kovacs fans.