Report: It’s Been Real

It’s Been Real: A Look at Ernie Kovacs Through the Lens of Dada and Surrealism

Ernie Kovacs was the spark that created much of television, as we know it today. He was hailed as the father of video art, but now almost fifty years after his death he is nearly forgotten. while his gags and subtly subversive comedy still echo in our culture, our entertainment, our very way of thinking. While the effects of his programming were obvious, his motivations were not. I will be focusing on Kovacs through the lens of Dada and Surrealist art and philosophy, specifically looking at his use of reflexivity, and counter-distinction. To talk about Kovacs as having Dadaist or Surrealist influences, we will first need to understand what it means to work in these art movements.

Dadaism was a series of absurdist movements that sprang up simultaneously throughout westernized countries and without connection after the First World War. Though they had their differences, they shared an aim. “(Dada’s) aim was to free art from its role as the stupefying veneer on a society whose values no longer could be sustained, and whose collapse had shown that it was obsolete.” (Dachy 13) The artists all saw that their countries had become broken machines, or that they had been all along, and that they needed to be fixed. What had been accepted for so long, the barbarity of war and suffering, just didn’t make sense anymore.

“Dada wished to replace the logical nonsense of the men of today with an illogical nonsense. Everything was permissible as regards materials, subject matter, and placement. The more banal and everyday the object, the better it served its purpose.” (Vogel 48)

To show the world that it itself didn’t make sense, the Dada artist would take what was logical and make it illogical. Many of these pieces were actually broken or otherwise useless machines. Marcel Duchamp was famous for his ready-mades, objects taken out of their usual context and therefore given a new meaning. The most famous of which is Fountain (1917). For this piece, he had taken a porcelain urinal into a gallery space and signed it with the name R. Mutt. He claimed it had been sent in by a man name Richard Mutt, a take off of the name of the man who actually sent it in. This was a classic example of taking something logical and making it illogical, and through that process subverting the established art community. Industrial elements and diagrams of illogical or useless machines ended up in much of Dadaist work as well.

Dadaists also enjoyed using low forms of art to create their pieces. Collage or photomontage was a favorite medium of theirs. Their collages frequently confused man and construct or displayed grotesque and otherwise skewed images of their subjects. Within collage, there is also an element of chance, a manifestation of anarchy, which many Dadaists saw as subversive as well. While poetry isn’t in itself low art, Dadaists found ways to make it so. Offensively colored physical displays of the poems being assembled on stage were just one of the methods. Schematics, a form not usually considered art at all, ended up on the covers of many dada magazines. Dada’s manifestation in film was mostly in collage animation and included offensive representations of political figures or sexually charged imagery. They’re mostly comedies. The use of low art in a high art setting, later dubbed counter-distinction, seems to have been an effective tool in subversion of high art and fixing culture.

Eventually, as with all art movements, things change. Perceiving that Dada had failed, several of its artists moved onto a new movement. Surrealism was much more cohesive than the anarchist Dada as well as more directed, but it still maintained many of the same ideals. Both movements saw the bourgeoisie as the enemy and practiced the art of subversion. “All Dadaists called for a tabula rasa and concentrated on subverting middle-class culture. The Surrealists accepted the end of the bourgeois world as given, and were more concerned with what would come afterwards.” (Rubin 15)  Rather than relying on the rational absurdity they were rebelling against to express themselves, Surrealists turned their attentions inward.

The Conscious states of man’s being are not sufficient to explain him to himself and to others. His subconscious contains a larger and especially a more authentic or accurate part of his being. It was found that our conscious speech and our daily actions are usually in contradiction with our true selves and our deeper desires. The neat patterns of human behavior, set forth by the realists, and which our lives seem to follow, were found to be patterns formed by social forces rather than by our desires or temperaments or inner psychological selves. (Fowlie 16-17)

Surrealists started digging in their subconscious and dreams for subject matter. They still maintained a subversive attitude and it was reflected in their art.

Rather than focusing so much on being against everything that the system the Dada were fighting, the Surrealists frequently worked within the mediums expected of practitioners of the higher arts. The surrealist oil painters, such as Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, were much more interested in craftsmanship than most of the Dadaists were with their collages. The Surrealists lost the prickly appearance of Dada, while still achieving many of the same goals by putting items, like Dali’s famous clocks, within an inappropriate landscape.  This also carried over to surrealist film.

The Surrealists decided that film was the least realistic art and that it also gave the impression of reality in its presentation. It was high on the list of Realist illusions and therefore needed to be swiftly subverted.

The cinema is the least realistic art. It can distort shapes, colors, life; it can imitate dreams and free associations by transformations of times and space; it can combine objects and backgrounds (or have them collide) in the most ‘objectionable’ concatenations; it can destroy space, already rendered suspect by the surrealists, in a fraction of a second; it is able to portray the subconscious or reveal the ‘automatic’ artistic activity of the filmmaker. The shocking introduction of new objects into the frame, the explosive juxtaposition of conflicting images by means of editing, the startling ability of the medium to create even ‘impossible’ new realities by superimposition, masks and other technical devices. (Vogel 50)

The Surrealist method of revealing the medium, a carry-over from vaudeville plays called ‘breaking the fourth wall’ or reflexivity, is intended to make the audience realize that they are in fact the audience of an artist who is trying to influence them. This realization serves a similar function to the changed context of Duchamp’s ready-mades and Dali’s clocks. Reflexivity is usually used to comic effect in surrealist films. “(The unreality of cinematic devices) led surrealists, dadaists (…) quickly to realize the subversive potential of film comedy” (Vogel 50)

Comedy was and still is the perfect vehicle for subversion. It is disarming, allowing the artist to hide social commentary under a curtain of laughter. Upon inspection, many comedy films of the Surrealist and Dadaist eras show many of the political leanings of the movements.

In (comedy) films, relativity and ambiguity – hallmarks of the modern sensibility – reign supreme. No one is what he seems, friend turns into foe, buildings collapse, innocent episodes turn into catastrophes involving mass destruction; nothing is firm or eternal. (Vogel 52)

A good example of this subversive comedy is in Charlie Chaplin’s films from the period. Chaplin’s films are rife with subversive Surrealist imagery and themes, anti-bourgeois themes, the embracing of dreams, and reflexive pointed looks at the audience. The comedy of Kovacs relied heavily on these themes as well

Ernie Kovacs, from early on in his career, was continually experimenting with television as a medium. It was still new and very few artists had really experimented with its creative potential. Most intellectuals had quickly dismissed the medium as commercial and therefore low art at best, a label it’s never gotten out from under. Kovacs’ first significant television job, Three To Get Ready, a wake-up show, quickly became the testing ground for his new artistic vision.

Three to Get Ready had a low viewership when Kovacs got on board. The wake-up show format would normally have been news and weather, but with a great improvisation artist such as Kovacs, keeping the show straight-laced was an impossibility.

Regular viewers learned to expect anything and everything on Three to Get Ready – Polish versions of Mona Lisa, Yiddish interpretations of The Call of the Wild Goose. The cartoons were sometimes discontiguous with the music, or perhaps the camera would focus on a wind-up toy. (Walley 62)

Kovacs kept pushing the envelope. Eventually he had a pile of props that a production assistant would toss to him from off camera and create spontaneous improvisations throughout the show.

Even this early on, Kovacs had already started using subversive comedy in his work. When he conducted The 1812 Overture with progressively larger batons and when he showed his Polish versions of Mona Lisa, he was practicing counter-distinction. With The 1812 Overture bit he was mixing a lowbrow physical comedy with the famous highbrow/middlebrow musical piece. The Polish versions of Mona Lisa may be referential to another famous counter-distinctive image, a mustached reprint of the Mona Lisa entitled L.H.O.O.Q, created by Duchamp.

When Kovacs went fishing on set with a boom microphone and when the production assistant gave him props from off camera, he was clearly using reflexivity to great effect. The boom microphone gag reminds the viewer that the show is taking place inside of a television studio, a simple enough type of reflexivity. When getting props from off stage it is suggested that there is a person standing just off camera tossing things at Kovacs, a more jarring reflexive device that reminds a viewer of the illusion created by the framing of the camera. He was not afraid to show that television had many visual tricks available to it. He was known to superimpose himself into impossible places, play with split screens or mirror images so he could stage interviews or swordfights with himself. (Walley 66)

While at CBS Ernie started to hit his stride during Kovacs Unlimited and The Ernie Kovacs Show. On Unlimited, Kovacs had a weekly news segment. “Billed as the ‘Eyes, Ears, Throat and Nose of the World,’ the ‘Pathetic News’ highlighted the surrealist news of the week.” (Walley 92-3) The segment showcased fabricated news stories of absurd and or surreal happenings.

CBS dropped Kovacs after his shows failed to impress the network. He was then picked up by a independent Dumont station, belonging to the smallest and poorest of the networks. The Ernie Kovacs Show rode again, but with a shoestring budget. This constraint only served as an interesting new chaos to play off of. “When camera work was cluttered or the equipment broke down, it could be a segment of ‘Audio Lost,’ a sketch where the visual and sound effects were discontinuous, and quite absurd.” (Walley 98) Kovacs managed to fit his artistic agendas into even his ad-lib cover-ups for technical difficulties.

NBC, when searching for a new comedian to add to their roster, offered Kovacs one million dollars to switch stations again. The Ernie Kovacs Show moved to NBC and continued to be a test ground for more Kovacsian innovation. Several new segments were added, one of them being called “You Wanted to See It”. Parodied off of a thrill-seeker show called “ You Asked For It,” the sketch consisted of failure stunts. The stunts, like catching a cannon ball, were completely ridiculous and always resulted in a terrible resolution, like the cannon ball tearing the man to splinters. This sketch is reflexive due to the commonsense type of knowledge that people don’t splinter when hit with a cannonball and therefore it was revealed as an illusion of the screen.

Kovacs was also a master of vertical montage as was apparent from his show. After 3 to Get Ready, he continued using many highbrow classical pieces in his lowbrow television work. The use of these pieces became more refined and precisely timed and became the counter-distinctive montages, my favorite of which is his The 1812 Overture. His choices for imagery were the most abstract, featuring black gloved hands breaking and cutting celery, a cow head with a bell spinning on the wall, eggs being dropped into a frying pan and a series of toys that were all perfectly timed with the music. Kovacs’ montages all use counter-distinction, cementing them as subversive to the “rigidly defined taste hierarchies of the 1950s” (Spigel 198)

Kovacs had other challenges as a video artist that had not been addressed by Surrealists or Dadaists. He had to develop an entirely new subversive comedy for the issue of loudness in television. Many people of the era felt that television was too loud. Volume was not the issue; it was the type of talking and who was doing it. Kovacs had a creative response and his name was Eugene.

“Eugene, in many ways, was the inverted Kovacs, his foil (…) with his sense of wonder and innocence in the face of civilized barbarities.” He was “a victim of society who always kept his good nature in spite of circumstances beyond his control.” (Walley 27) Eugene was a recurring silent character in Kovacs’ skits, but he was most famous for his appearance in what was known as the Silent Show. The Silent Show was far from silent, but it did not have any speech.

The scene opens with Eugene walking down a hallway wearing a pair of squeaky shoes.  He stops right in front of the camera and gets out some tape to make himself a doorway. He walks through the doorway into a room full of invisible things and within which he has the power to create with a drawing implement. When he draws the doorway to get out of the room, he takes an obvious route around the wall. Upon viewing the highbrow paintings in the next room and being tricked by them, Eugene does nothing. It goes on for a while from there. Kovacs uses camera tricks, slapstick gags, out of place sound effects and a negative view of the bourgeois men looking down on poor Eugene. Eugene continues about his business, seemingly unaffected. The show was a direct response to the controversy around the loudness of television, but confronts the other themes present in Kovacs’ work making this one of his most surreal and artistically interesting programs.

Not only did Kovacs use many of the same techniques as the Surrealists and Dadaists, they also had similar enemies. When television was in its formative years and the networks were still figuring out the formulas and what would be profitable, the average television viewer expected their set to be an attempt at realism, a window on the world. To them TV “would not, could not, lie.” (Spigel 182) Although there is no way to be certain, Kovacs’ comedic subversions of this perceived realism were timely and well executed for undermining the perceived honesty of television. The

While most of his work pushed a Surrealist agenda, not all of Kovacs’ comedy was so progressive and egalitarian. Kovacs’ characters, more often than not, perpetuated prevalent stereotypes of the time. In Kovacs’ on air world, women were blatantly objectified, poets were effeminate and homosexual, Europeans were all mustached drunks, and people of color didn’t exist at all. Many of the Dada were bigoted as well, maybe its just baggage that came with the times.

It is clear that Ernie Kovacs was either aligned with or was influenced by the Surrealist and Dadaist movements of the first half of this century and that he passed those influences on into the world of television and video art. Before his death in 1962, Kovacs’ comedy was already being co-opted by his peers and rivals. Because of him, something changed in our culture, our entertainment, and our way of thinking. He popularized surrealist criticism of reality, gave his viewers the tools to understand and resist the forces of complacency and fascism, to be conscious of their relationship to art.

To be conscious of one’s role as a creator or consumer of art, it is important to understand the subtleties of comedy and the effects it has on its consumer. Throughout history it has been proven again and again that humor can be a progressive as well as a regressive force. The irresponsible use of comedy can result in perpetuation of stereotypes and the sedation of an audience, while with proper use it can become progressivism’s weapon against complacency and fascism. “Does not humor sometimes enable people to confront authority, to diminish it, reduce its distance and majesty?” (Paletz 484) I think so.