Television Needs Another Ernie Kovacs

IT'S hard for anyone who hasn't experienced it to know how heady a medium TV can be, especially since today's formats allow so few hints. Yet a handful of creative people through the decades serve as tantalizing reminders, and perhaps the most exhilarating of these was a refugee from radio who did things like throwing eggs at the camera and walking on the ceiling. He was the late Ernie Kovacs. In the 1950s and early '60s, his work as comedian and entertainer set an example of how a comic genius, given his head, can deal with the medium. I still have memories of the way he turned its electronic nature to his own devices. Strange props and visual puns became outrageous ways to explore ideas - often ones that dealt with viewers' own perception of TV itself. He would twiddle dials on a panel in front of him and make faces as he explained how to adjust your set. He would appear to walk on the ceiling. Cameras would pick him up hustling out of an elevator and follow him into the studio.

Such effects were early pattern setters in a medium still defining itself. Now, through TV specials and other events, people are becoming more conscious of Kovacs's relevance - and especially of how the medium forgot his example after he was killed in a car crash in 1962.

When New York's Museum of Broadcasting offered a retrospective called ``The Vision of Ernie Kovacs'' in 1987, it was the biggest draw in the museum's history. Many born long after Kovacs's time found his creative presence on screen irresistible.

Today one of the best ways of understanding Kovacs is through an instructive new book called ``Kovacsland,'' by Diana Rico (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). She's too young to have viewed Kovacs live on screen, but has so steeped herself in his work that when she speaks you feel she knew him. Over lunch the other day she told me, ``Kovacs was fascinated with the medium. He would look at the camera and think `What funny thing can I do with this set?' Oh! I see it has a switch on the camera that you can flip and reverse the image. Or he would pretend to be a flyman and walk into the room upside down.''

His message, in short, was the medium - at a time before the medium had become the message. He knew TV must be made to serve a performer's creative instincts - even explosively anarchic ones like his - or else it would absorb and denature them. Kovacs used the medium as if he owned it - as if we owned it - and not as if it owned us, the way it seems to now. By subverting its customs, he never let you forget the medium was there, but his cool, on-camera personality said, ``Don't worry, we're the boss of this experience. So let's enjoy ourselves?''

It didn't last, of course. Today a few entertainers could be called creative, but Rico agrees there aren't any radicals like Ernie Kovacs around any more. Even if there were, they'd have a problem: There isn't any TV like that around any more. The medium that let Kovacs play loose and fast with ideas ignored his cue, calcifying into a copy-cat conservatism. In its wake, the Kovacs phenomenon left a few latter-day anomalies - like David Letterman, who uses the camera-walk-in bit today, and Gary Shandling. But the networks' capacity to mainstream creative energy like Kovacs's was gone, along with its tolerance for human differences. After all, money was at stake.

Kovacs had time to tap only one facet of TV's potential - it has lots of other uses, also largely unrealized. But if you're station-hopping some day and catch a performer who seems to treat TV itself with a healthy irreverence, one who doesn't play to its smothering conventions but instead turns the medium into a tool of his own thought - keep your eye on him. He might be another Ernie Kovacs. We could use one.

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