Ernie Kovacs, Fred Allen and The Medium of Television

Say what you want about Wikipedia – at least its listings either have factual attribution or will state the article needs verification. This keeps misstatements from being taken as fact or spreading. I’m still puzzled by the origin of an Ernie Kovacs quote.

I have yet to find an interview or any source for Ernie Kovacs having ever said or written “Television is a medium. So-called because it’s neither rare nor well done.” The line’s being associated with Kovacs is as ubiquitous as people’s memories of the Nairobi Trio and Percy Dovetonsils. And yet it does not turn up in Edie Adams’ book Sing a Pretty Song, Diana Rico’s Kovacsland, nor in David Walley’s Nothing in Moderation.

It’s a clever line, and it certainly matches what Ernie felt about television. There’s plenty that survives that lets us know what he thought of it. 

There’s a 1953 article in a TV Guide type magazine about his take on television, and being on it, entitled “Kovacs Hates TV”. One of the holy grails of lost TV shows is an episode of David Suskind’s show from 1959 entitled “A Television Tempest” in which Kovacs, Rod Serling and Sheldon Leonard discuss the current state of TV.

In his TV interview for the CBC that aired in October 1961 Kovacs talks about his distaste for the false reality of having a live audience. He punctuates his mini-rant on the inanity of quiz shows by saying “I don’t feel that these great minds who conceived this most fantastic form of communication, that anyone dreamed, that this is what they were sitting in a hot cellar or a hot lab for for hours”.

Kovacs Hates TV
“Kovacs Hates TV”, from the May 1953 issue of Focus Magazine. Ernie was doing Kovacs Unlimited on CBS at the time daily, and the network also put him in prime time once a week…against Uncle Miltie. You can guess how that worked out…

Ernie Kovacs was not a “joke” writer. He was not a stand-up comedian. As George Schlatter has said in interviews, Ernie’s humor didn’t have ba-DUM-bum punch lines. He was a prolific writer, and the style and structure of the medium-rare-well-done line doesn’t match anything Kovacs wrote.

The line, in a slightly different wording, is from Fred Allen. And there’s attribution. The Wikipedia entry for Fred Allen quotes the line from his first appearance on “The Big Show” in 1950 — “”You know, television is called a new medium, and I have discovered why they call it a Medium – because nothing is Well Done.”. The Fred Allen website lists the quote as “Television is a medium because anything well done is rare.”

It’s possible that over a few decades the comedians and lore have been conflated. Fred Allen is undeservedly forgotten today, given what a big comedy star he’d been. And the quote, like the proverbial shoe, fits Kovacs. But even if Ernie did say this to someone at some point, he was probably quoting Fred Allen.

Here’s hoping something turns up letting us know where this got started as being thought of as a Kovacsian quip.

Fred Allen NBC radio
Fred Allen. Image sourced from an NPR story.
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Jeff Rapsis

I’ve always thought it was Fred Allen remark that somehow got misattributed to Kovacs. Thanks for looking into this and confirming it.

James Bigwood

You can hear it being said in Fred Allen’s voice.

Richard Ward

Wasn’t it Fred Allen who also said “imitation is the sincerest form of television?”