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.


One evening I was teaching a class at the Academy of Art.  A student, Aaron Koressel I think it was, presented his latest animation.  It included a boy character and a goat.  The boy was standing in a hole, holding a box, and he was eye to eye with the goat.  That evening I happened to have a guest in the class, Phil Captain 3D McNally, now working as global stereoscopic supervisor at Dreamworks.  Phil pointed out how when the image of the boy and goat first came up, it caused him to stop and ask himself “what’s going on here?”  It’s strange scene, in a good way.  It caught his attention.  You have accomplished something when just the set up of the shot already has the viewer interested.  That in itself is a lesson.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but what Aaron had done was create a “surreal” image.  If animators should know one art movement, it should be surrealism.   Founded in the 1920’s, it encompassed visual art, writing, music and film.   It was influenced by Freud’s study of the subconscious, using free association and dream analysis.  I would define surrealist visual art as “the juxtaposition of unexpected objects, resulting in a dreamlike image.”   Surrealists felt that art could be free of aesthetic and moral preoccupations.   In other words, it doesn’t have to “mean” something.  Like unfocused thought, it can just “play”.

Often, surrealist art can be just plain funny. I imagine that the artists themselves understood this.  Whenever Salvador Dali posed for a photo, he often struck the same crazy wide eyed face.  This was not a man who took himself terribly seriously.   There is even a branch of surrealism called surreal humor.  Such humor includes absurd situations, and nonsense.   Also, non-sequitur, where statements can be made that have no logical connection to what comes before or after.   Literary examples of this pre-date the surrealist movement, for instance Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or Edward Lear’s “Book of Nonsense.”   One might use the word, silly.

With words like “nonsense” “absurd” and “silly” it should start to become apparent why surrealism has a place in the discussion of animation.   When artists are freed from the expectation of being logical, or sensible, it is fertile ground for imagination.

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