Ernie Kovacs – the Hungarian-American comic genius

I just recently discovered how little is known in Hungary about Ernie Kovacs, the American comedic genius. This wildly popular American star spoke pretty good Hungarian and died tragically at the height of his career in 1962.

Los Angeles Times extra edition with the news of his car crash

Ernie Kovacs was born in a Catholic family in 1919 in Trenton, New Jersey. His father Andrew (András) was 13 years old when he arrived to the US. He was a big jovial man, well known in Trenton for constantly telling jokes and smoking fat cigars. First, he was a policeman, later operated a restaurant, and did some bootlegging during prohibition. Ernie grew up in an affluent neighborhood in the 1930s; at one time the family even owned a 20-room mansion.

Little Ernie was a terrible student. He hated academics but loved acting and telling jokes to his friends. In 1941 the 22-year old got a job as a disc jockey at Trenton’s WTTM radio station and soon became a local celebrity. His radio programs were fresh and innovative. For example, he broadcasted from the cockpit of a plane while he took flying lessons. As an actor, he got involved in local theater and also did some directing. The Trentonian, a local newspaper regularly published his columns.

In 1950 he started his TV career at NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate, WPTZ. He did promotional programs, commercials and funny cooking shows. Ernie loved special effects and spontaneity; he soon became the king of visual humor. In 1954 he started his own late-night talk show, The Ernie Kovacs Show and his off-the-wall comedy skits took off. He published several books, appeared in movies and Kovacs became one of America’s first TV-stars.

Kovacs married his first wife Bette Wilcox in 1945. After a messy divorce in 1952, the court awarded him custody of two daughters determining that his former wife was mentally unstable. His second wife, comedic actress and his partner on stage, Edie Adams married him in 1954 in Mexico City.

Edie Adams and her husband Ernie Kovacs.

Kovacs claimed that the secret to a long life was a good steam bath, brandy, working all night, and smoking twenty cigars a day. He strictly followed that regimen. In 1962 while driving home in his brand new Corvair station wagon he slammed into a power pole and died at the scene. Ernie was not even 43 years old. On the car seat they found an unlit cigar leading to speculations that perhaps he lost control when he was trying to light his beloved Cuban.

A proof of Kovacs’s comic genius is this almost 60-year old TV sketch. He is narrating it with his usual cigar.

In his classic Miklös Molnar cooking show skit Ernie even speaks some Hungarian. Enjoy!

György Lázár

3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Gyorgy. My family is Hungarian, but only my grandmother spoke it. I often wonder if the Hungarian words he says are all correct, or are some ‘pigeon’ Hungarian? I know when his chef says “Nem, nem” that’s real, but some of the others, I’m not sure, and he speaks a lot of apparent Hungarian in his various characters (and apparent German too). Can you verify one way or the other?

  2. György Lázár says:

    Hello Jerry,

    Yes, Ernie’s Hungarian words and use of grammar are correct. I assume that he spoke “kitchen Hungarian” which he learned from his father who was part of the sizable Hungarian community in Trenton, New Jersey.

    • Thanks, Gyorgy. Yeah, that’s what it sounds like. He was so conversant in this “kitchen Hungarian” that it flowed out of him and his characters quite easily. Much the way Yiddish words and phrases dripped from Lenny Bruce and his characters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *