Ernie Kovacs – The mad genius of TV

I mentioned earlier how Chaplin took on a new technology and carried beyond what anyone had otherwise imagined.  Ernie Kovacs did the same thing in television.

When television was a new medium, local tv stations had airtime to fill.  A Philidelphia station manager found Ernie Kovacs on the local radio, and offered him some time on the TV.  He was given practically no budget and his only expectation was to be entertaining and find an audience.  The bit below may be his most famous, and it looks like it cost about $9.75 to produce.

This is also a good example of surrealism in film.   The imitation mechanical movement is quite intriguing.

Kovacs had very cartoon sensibilities. Like this:

This next video has some great narration by Kovacs, as he both explains, and makes fun of film making. He opens with this line:

There’s a standard formula for success in the entertainment medium, and that is beat it to death if it succeeds.

Inside the Actors Studio with the cast of Family Guy

It’s great to have a serious, in depth interview with creators of animated comedy. Seth MacFarlane shows some of this childhood artwork, and student film from RISD.  Unfortunately, the poster had to cut out the clips from TV.  Still a fun interview.

The Duck Factory

How many of you remember the TV show “The Duck Factory”?

A young unknown actor, Jim Carrey, played a young unknown animator who gets a job at the studio run by his hero Buddy Winkler. He arrives on the day of Buddy’s funeral, and has to step in and help keep the studio in business. Here is the description from

“The Duck Factory was set in a small, run-down Hollywood studio peopled by the loony crew who produced a TV cartoon show called Dippy Duck. The newest employee was Skip Tarkenton, an eager, young cartoonist fresh from the

Midwest and bursting with excitement at his first professional job. His wide-eyed innocence contrasted sharply with the cynicism of his co-workers: Brooks, the fatherly artist full of doubts about his own brilliance; Andrea, the sarcastic, man-hungry film editor; Marty, the two-bit gag writer; Roland, the only black storyboard artist in the business; and Wally, the voice-over narrator who had a repertoire of so many cartoon voices that he had long since forgotten his own voice. …the place was virtually leaderless when Skip arrived, so the whole crew turned to the reluctant newcomer to save Dippy Duck–which was constantly on the brink of cancellation by the network. This brought the enmity of Aggie, the pushy, penny-pinching business manager who thought she should be in charge, but also the appreciation of [Sheree], the sexy, young bimbo…who was…now the studio’s owner.” (Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present)

Two veterans of 1960’s cartoons came together to create this mix of live action and animation, which featured a then-unknown Jim Carrey in a now-unthinkable straight-man’s role. Not to mention veteran voice actor Don Messick doing what he did best. Despite the presence of a laugh track, The Duck Factory was one of the very few MTM comedies to not be filmed/taped in front of a studio audience — which probably doomed its chances right there, as the days of successful single-camera sitcoms were over by 1984. NBC and Brandon Tartikoff did give the ahead-of-its-time show a plum time slot — between Cheers and Hill Street Blues (the latter of which it would cross over with) — but did little to promote it. (Perhaps they had already used up all their yearly promotional dollars on The New Show.) Then Tartikoff ran several episodes out of order, and cancelled it after just a few weeks on the air, like pretty much everything else he put on that season. That summer, the show was nominated for two Emmys — and won them both.

Soupy Sales meets Krusty the Clown

I am currently reading Soupy Sez the autobiography of Soupy Sales.  Soupy was another television pioneer who had a local “kids” show.  I put “kids”  in quotations because it also became popular with adults.  I’m sure he was at least a partial inspiration for Pee-Wee Herman.

The book is light reading, entertaining and informative about early TV production.  He described sharing a dressing room with performer from another show, who happened to be a clown.  The similarities with the Simpson’s clown character is unmistakable.

I had my own dressing room, but I shared the bathroom and shower with a guy who did a clown show there in the morning…  He had just finished taping when I would come in.  I’d talk with him while he took a shower, and it was fascinating to watch.  It was like seeing a Sherman Williams paint sign come to life.  Clowns wear something like eight different colors of makeup, and while he took a shower the colors would just stream down his body.  I found that fascinating, and one day he asked me what the big attraction was.  “Well” I said, “it’s the idea that you spend all that time putting on the make up and then you get in the shower and the colors all run down your drain.  Your character runs down the drain.”

“Yeah” he said, “but the difference is the people know me as the clown.  When I take off this makeup I can go to a bar, pick up a girl, and I can get drunk and nobody knows it’s me!  But if you do it, they know it’s you.”

“Yeah” I replied “but when you go in for a raise, they say ‘nuts to you.  We’ll pick somebody else up.’  Do you think Ronald McDonald gets a raise? They say ‘nuts to you.  Bring in another guy.’

Well the guy hadn’t ever thought about that and it blew him away.  He was never the same because he was always afraid that if he asked for something they were going to get rid of him.  And you know what, eventually they did.”

I like that story all by itself, but I have some follow up thoughts.  Tomorrow I’ll explain how Soupy missed an important concept. For that click HERE

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