Ernie Kovacs: Dadaist

Ernie Kovacs was one of the first performers and producers to understand and employ television as a “true medium,” to quote the critic J. Hoberman, “capable of being conceived and applied in a variety of ways.” Kovacs recognized the potential of live electronic visual technology and manipulated it in ways both dynamic and artful.

In his programs and specials Kovacs appropriated a range of special effects from Dada, Surrealism, and other avant-garde genres: dream sequences, kaleidoscopic imagery, autonomously moving inanimate objects, disorienting camera angles, extreme close-ups, fade-outs, dissolves, double exposures, superimposition, and rear-screen projections.

Borrowing from avant-garde music, he employed long stretches of silence as well as ordinary, repetitive sounds. The soundtrack for many of his on-air performances included sharp, disruptive noises or unmelodic phrases, such as the gurgling of a drainpipe, the clink of a glass, or the explosion of a miniature cannon. In the end, Kovacs reliably transgressed what few conventions existed on television and repeatedly surprised and confounded viewers with his brilliant and bizarre actions.

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Screen Captures: The Ernie Kovacs Show, ABC, 1961-62. With Ernie Kovacs, writer and performer.

WATCH: “Kitchen Symphony,” The Ernie Kovacs Show, ABC, 1961

WATCH: “Eugene,” The Ernie Kovacs Show, ABC, 1961