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Honoring Ernie Kovacs' comic genius

His name was Eugene. He was played by his creator, Ernie Kovacs, as a simple fellow with a gap between his teeth. He smiled a lot anyway, even if he never said anything. But then, neither did anyone else on the TV screen around him.

Everywhere Eugene went in his wordless world, the natural laws of physics were suspended.

When opening a door one way made too much noise, he simply removed the doorknob from the left side, put it on the right and opened it more quietly that way.

When browsing through a bookshelf, minor wonders would happen. He'd open "Moby Dick," and a geyser of water would jet from the pages into his face. When he'd open "Camille," he'd hear coughing. If he ruffled through the book to read some later pages, the coughing would get louder. And then there's the biography of Thomas Edison. The second Eugene opened that book, a semi-nuclear flash of light would leave him dazed and temporarily blinded. He'd have to close it up.

Most remarkable of all was Eugene's annoying magic table. If, on his lunch break, he placed an olive in the center of it, the olive would immediately roll off the table's left side. If he placed 30 olives in the center, they'd all instantly roll off the left side the minute he took his fingers off them.

This, needless to say, did not make lunch very easy. If, say, Eugene simply wanted to pour some milk into a cup, the milk would, of course, splash on the table a good three inches from the cup.

The answer to Eugene's magic table couldn't have been simpler. Ernie Kovacs had simply tilted it but shot the scene with a tilted camera to make it look as if it were level. Sir Isaac Newton and gravity took care of the rest, while Eugene just smiled at us and marveled at what a rich joke the universe is.

When "The Ernie Kovacs Collection" on DVD (Shout! Factory, six DVDs) came in the mail, a colleague heard my involuntarily loud murmur of contentment. I told her that it was a box set of the complete Ernie Kovacs on DVD. "Who's Ernie Kovacs?" she wanted to know.

And why on earth WOULD she know? Kovacs died in an auto crash in 1962, which -- to put it in perspective for some people -- was the year I graduated from high school.

So I tried to explain who he was. There have probably been only two indisputable geniuses in the entire history of television, certainly only two comic geniuses: Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs. Allen and his bunch generated enough comic and programming ideas to last for the next 50 years. Kovacs was so far ahead of his time that it was quite literally more than a decade before others had the guts to try the things he did so blithely.

This, after all, was a man who came onto your television screen with an electronic oscilloscope pattern between his hands. He'd then look at us mischievously with his infectious "let's turn the universe inside out" smile and slowly compress the whole oscilloscope wave between his hands until, ever and ever smaller, it disappeared, only to dribble out of the bottom of his clasped hands as a stream of milk -- he had turned a sine wave into a dairy product. (A whole subsection of Kovacs' career could be called "fun with milk." In one moment, a timpanist in a symphony orchestra is about to thump his tuned drum head, only to find when he does that his mallet disappears into the vat of milk his instrument has become.)

I don't know if my explanation to my colleague was the best. So here are a few others'.

*David Letterman: "Ernie Kovacs knew exactly what to do with television before television knew what to do with itself. It's 60 years later, and we still haven't caught up."

*Chevy Chase: "Ernie Kovacs was, to me, the first to look directly into my face, through the camera, and make me laugh at television itself I saw him do an entire show with an egg attached to his forefinger by a Band-Aid. Made no reference to it. Look back to early Band-Aid commercials, including a pot of boiling water, and you will 'get' Ernie."

*Mel Brooks: "If there is such a thing as dangerous laughter, it happened to me every time I saw [Kovacs'] Nairobi Trio." (Three men in ape costume miming the music to a novelty song called "Solfeggio" until, by the end, the one in the middle has turned into a human drum for those on either side.)

*Terry Gilliam: " 'The Ernie Kovacs Show' knocked me sideways into a world where the bizarre and the daft and the preposterous all lived happily alongside wisdom, wit and perception. I had never experienced anything so visually absurd and inventive. It was sublime. It hurt. I was 11 years old -- was this some form of child abuse? If it was, it was one of the most momentous things that ever happened to me. Ernie Kovacs scarred me for life. I've never recovered."

All those testimonials -- plus a brilliant essay on Kovacs from novelist, short-story writer and essayist Jonathan Lethem -- were collected by the people bringing out the Kovacs collection.

It's this "genius" thing I've been turning around in my head since the DVD box arrived. Let's stipulate, if only for argument, Kovacs and Steve Allen. Who else in the history of television was an actual genius?

Executive Sylvester "Pat" Weaver? He invented both the "Today" and the "Tonight" shows, after all. Roone Arledge? TV sports coverage was never the same after him, nor was "up close and personal" TV news either. Both are close, but they don't leave you awestruck the way Kovacs did.

Chuck Barris? Ridiculous, I know. But "The Gong Show" began something in television. Amateur hours are ancient, but not Barris'. Watch "American Idol" auditions sometime to see what.

David Chase, writer/creator of "The Sopranos"? Of living and functioning TV stalwarts, he's not a bad choice. "The Sopranos" may have started with the premise of a Billy Crystal movie -- a mob boss and his shrink -- but it went to places of middle-class banality and consumerist evil no one imagined before.

Try this one: Charlie Parsons, British inventor of "Survivor," who put human beings into the wilderness and then set the commonplace back-stabbings and treacheries of modern corporate culture into motion, all for audience amusement. Human identity itself became a game and capitalist profit the ultimate joke.

Too bad Ernie died so early in that car crash. I'd love to know what he'd have thought of it.


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