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Ernie Kovacs speaking into a headset

Ernie Kovacs: Television of the Absurd

  • This is a past program

Presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

In person: Book signing with Josh Mills (Edie Adams' son) and Pat Thomas, authors of Ernie in Kovacsland: Writings, Drawings, and Photographs from Television's Original Genius. Q&A with actor/performer Ann Magnuson, Mills, and Thomas.

Join us for a screening celebration of the experimental works of Ernie Kovacs.

During a tragically brief career marked by outré achievements, of the endless credits that flashed across the cathode-ray tube bearing multi-hyphenate television impresario Ernie Kovacs' name, from writer to director, to actor, to producer, the descriptors that perhaps best encapsulates his eternal mad genius on the small screen are surrealist and absurdist. A true broadcast pioneer, Kovacs was both born into television and helped birth it. As a seasoned veteran of every network from ABC to NBC (with CBS and DuMont in between) and nearly every TV format possible (including his unorthodox game/panel show Take a Good Look), Kovacs is responsible for helping to define the medium in its formative years while simultaneously deconstructing it. 

Part of the UCLA Film & Television Archive screening series Archive Television Treasures. Learn more at

Saturday Color Carnival: “The Ernie Kovacs Show” (1/19/1957)

New digital scan from rare original 16mm color kinescope with commercials

In a special intended by NBC and its parent company, TV set manufacturer RCA, to entice viewers with the technological spectacle of early color television, Kovacs counter-intuitively focuses his spectacular on experiments with sound. Informally known as Kovacs’ “silent show,” the comedian eschews dialogue for most of the half-hour, which features his Buster Keaton-esque character “Eugene,” creating a startling cacophony of effects with every movement. The program also features surreal, David Lynch-worthy segments highlighting the avant-garde live animation of John Hoppe, the wordless singing of Mary Mayo, and a performance by Kovacs’ own bizarre, ape-masked combo, The Nairobi Trio.

Digital video, color, 30 min. NBC. Production: An NBC Production brought to you by RCA. Producer/Writer: Ernie Kovacs. Director: Barry Shear. With: Ernie Kovacs, Mary Mayo, The Nairobi Trio.

The Ernie Kovacs Special [No. 5] (10/28/1961)

With original commercials

Co-directing from a tech-packed control booth, Kovacs disrupts the ebb and flow of primetime television with an experimental videotaped program consisting of oscilloscope wave patterns, macabre blackout gags, and surreal skits that skewer traditional network programming. Of the artistic labor required to execute his ambitious ABC specials, Kovacs wrote in TV Guide, “the technical aspects of this show are unbelievably difficult. We have taped as long as 27 consecutive hours with some 90 people involved...” The cathode auteur’s creative control extends to the commercial breaks, as Kovacs applies his off-beat perspective to highly entertaining spots for his ubiquitous Dutch Master cigars.

Digital video, b&w, 30 min. ABC. Production: an E & E.K. Enterprises production. Producer: Ernie Kovacs, Richard Newton. Directors: Ernie Kovacs, Maury Orr. Writer: Ernie Kovacs. With: Ernie Kovacs, Jolene Brand, Bobby Lauher, Joe Mikolas.

The Ernie Kovacs Special [No. 7] (12/12/1961)

With original commercials

Airing just a month before his untimely accidental death at age 42, Ernie Kovacs' penultimate ABC special features a surreal recurring gag concerning a microscopic motorcycle and spoofs the popular TV western genre and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Most notably, the program features one of Kovacs’ most audacious videotaped experiments — an ingenious 8-minute dialogue-less segment following the life cycle of a drop of water through specially constructed waterway sets and exposed drain pipes, set to Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite."

Digital video, b&w, 30 min. ABC. Production: an E & E.K. Enterprises production. Producer: Ernie Kovacs, Richard Newton. Directors: Ernie Kovacs, Joe Behar. Writer: Ernie Kovacs. With: Ernie Kovacs, Jolene Brand, Bobby Lauher, Joe Mikolas.

Excerpts and outtakes

Our program concludes with a rare gag reel of blue outtakes from Kovac’s pseudo-game/panel show Take a Good Look (ABC, 1959-1961) and a bonus selection of innovative commercials (including a surrealist spot with partner Edie Adams).

Digital video, b&w, 8 min. Special thanks to Retro Video, Inc.


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