New Jersey, Trenton honor native son Ernie Kovacs, TV comedy pioneer

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Comedian Joel Hodgson, known for his show

Comedian Joel Hodgson, known for his show "Mystery Science Theater 3000," speaks at a tribute to Trenton-born television pioneer Ernie Kovacs, held at the New Jersey State Museum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The city of Trenton and the state of New Jersey declared Wednesday, May 22, as Ernie Kovacs Day.

The proclamation in honor of the television pioneer came on the 100th anniversary of his birth in Trenton.

Ernie Kovacs’ television work was funny, experimental, and deeply strange. He was known for his low-budget ingenuity: making jokes out of camera tricks; breaking the fourth wall by talking directly to his crew, and sometimes not talking at all. A variety special he produced in 1957 for NBC called “The Silent Show” had no dialogue for its entire 30 minutes.

Fans of Ernie Kovacs gather in the auditorium of the New Jersey State Museum for a tribute to the television pioneer on what would have been his 100th birthday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A centennial event at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton on Wednesday included readings of proclamations honoring Kovacs from Mayor Reed Gusciora, the state Senate, and Gov. Phil Murphy, who wrote that Kovacs was “TV’s first significant video artist. As governor of this home state, I commend those who continue to celebrate Kovacs’ life and legacy.”

“Ernie wasn’t afraid to push boundaries, or even be a little weird,” said Secretary of State Tahesha Way.  “As we celebrate this important centennial, we are also witnessing a tremendous revival of the film and television industry here in Jersey.”

Last year, Murphy signed into law a $75 million tax incentive to lure film and television production to the state. His predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie, had allowed the incentive to expire during his tenure.

A panel consisting of comedian Joel Hodgson, Trentonian columnist Jeff Edelstein, and Josh Mills, executive director of the Ernie Kovacs Estate, discuss the contributions of the pioneering television personality during a 100th birthday tribute. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Born in 1919, Kovacs worked for years in Trenton radio and newspapers before jumping to television in Philadelphia. Although his was a relatively short life – he died in a car accident at age 42 – he left a big influence on late-night television comedy shows and American comedy, generally.

Kovacs not only knew how to work an audience but the industry. Always plagued with money problems (his epitaph is literally “Nothing in Moderation”), he sometimes took jobs because he was short on cash. In 1959, Kovacs hosted a game show for ABC called “Take a Good Look.” It ran for two seasons.

The show was similar to “What’s My Line?” with a signature goofy take: Kovacs would invent and perform skits, in which clues were buried. A panel of celebrities was supposed to eke out the clues to be able to identify a mystery guest.

The show was utter nonsense, said Joel Hodgson, the creator of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and a big fan of Kovacs.

“It doesn’t make any sense as any kind of game show,” he said. “But they were blackout sketches,” he said. Blackout sketches are strings of brief, unrelated comedy skits punctuated by a fade to black at the punchline.

“He was banking blackout sketches to construct another ABC special,” Hodgson continued. “You see what he was doing? He was using a stupid game show to fulfill what he could then piece together and create new TV shows.”

Hodgson was invited to the centenary celebration by the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission, and he attempted a few “Kovacsian” gestures, like trying to sell the audience a pair of authentic Kovacs shoes for $12,000 (they were actually his own loafers – walking around in his socks was the giveaway) and jumping off stage to interact with the audience. He met a woman in the front row identified as Louise, 99, who said she knew Kovacs at Trenton High School where they playacted together.

This is not the first time Trenton has honored its native son. A blocklong street running behind the former New Jersey Network building downtown has been officially named Ernie Kovacs Place.

The tag line for the centenary celebration was a classic Kovacs bon mot: “Television is a medium, so called because it is neither rare nor well done.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year the TV show “Take A Good Look” started. 

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