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Comedy Veterans Remember TV Pioneer Ernie Kovacs

When Ernie Kovacs was a star in the early days of live television, he was called a clown, an oddball and an innovator. But in the years since 1962 — when he died in a car crash at 42 — he has been hailed as a genius.

Much of the humor for which Kovacs became noted was visual: a trio of musicians wearing gorilla suits and playing as if they were part of a children's toy; or a lady in a bubble bath who gets visitors popping up in her suds.

Kovacs rarely told jokes, and he didn't believe in punch lines. He was funny in an unhurried and usually unscripted kind of way.


Now, a new DVD box set of Kovacs' work — The Ernie Kovacs Collection — is out with 13 hours of shows, specials and bits culled from a time when a television audience could be enchanted by seeing a man pour milk sideways.

His humor didn't make an audience laugh so much as gasp — or just shake their heads.

Weekend Edition calls on three comedy writers and an actress who worked with Kovacs for their thoughts on the pioneer's legacy. George Schlatter was executive producer of the sketch comedy program Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and compared notes with Kovacs; Robert Smigel has written for Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O'Brien; Bill Scheft has been on David Letterman's staff for more than two decades; and Jolene Brand Schlatter, George Schlatter's wife, often worked alongside Kovacs on his various projects.

They join NPR's Scott Simon to discuss how Kovacs helped change the face of television comedy.

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