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Two books capture the comedic genius of TV legends George Schlatter and Ernie Kovacs

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Today our TV critic David Bianculli isn't looking at television. Instead, he's looking at two new books about television, specifically about some very vintage TV shows and personalities. One book is an autobiography by producer George Schlatter, the creator of "Rowan And Martin's Laugh-In." The other is a lavishly designed coffee table book dedicated to one of TV's first and most forgotten creative geniuses and true visionaries, Ernie Kovacs.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: George Schlatter's book, which was published July 11 by The Unnamed Press, is called "Still Laughing: A Life In Comedy." And it's been a long Life. Schlatter was born in 1932. His memoir is a conventional treatment, a basic compendium of stories he's polished over decades about entertainers he's known and worked with. But "Still Laughing" is an entertaining read because of the sheer weight of the names he drops - Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Lucille Ball and Cher - not to mention, though he certainly does mention, all that talent he shot to stardom on "Laugh-In," including Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn and Tiny Tim.

But even Schlatter might agree that "Ernie In Kovacsland," just published by Fantagraphics Books, is the more important and innovative book here. Schlatter, in his new memoir, freely concedes that he patterned "Laugh-In" after the wildly unpredictable comedy shows of Ernie Kovacs. He also, just to drop one more name, married Jolene Brand, one of the members of the Kovacs TV comedy troupe. Kovacs himself married Edie Adams, a singer and comedian who also was a Kovacs co-star. They met in 1950, when she was hired for his first TV program, a local show for what is now KYW in Philadelphia.

Ernie Kovacs made TV shows for various networks from then until his death in 1962, and all of them were brilliant and unique. He played with the technical possibilities of TV like no one else in the 1950s and early '60s. He portrayed several different offbeat and endearing characters, including the poet Percy Dovetonsils and the always-unpredictable Answer Man, who replied to what he claimed were questions sent in by viewers. One classic example reprinted in the book - question; can fried chicken be eaten with the fingers? Answer; no, fried chicken should be eaten by itself. The fingers can be eaten separately.

Kovacs also loved music and championed everything from classical and jazz to nonsense and novelty tunes. His fast-paced shows included what essentially were early music videos, and the most famous recurring bit of his entire career featured him and two co-conspirators - usually Edie Adams, sometimes Jack Lemmon - dressed in gorilla costumes and wearing derbies and fancy overcoats, always pretending to play the same obscure Italian instrumental, "Solfeggio." This unlikely musical group was billed as The Nairobi Trio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE NAIROBI TRIO: (Singing) Do, mi, so, do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: And finally, on his various variety shows, Ernie Kovacs also served as host, talking directly and casually to the viewers at home and sometimes acting as a sort of on-air TV critic. My favorite moment from any Ernie Kovacs show and maybe from all of television is presented during a lengthy series of blackouts in which Ernie pokes fun at Westerns, which at the time were dominating primetime television. Ernie suggests, then directs and demonstrates various ways to liven up the monotony of the endless gun duels. He also presents Westerns as they might be reimagined for "The Twilight Zone" or as B-movie monster films and then slips in a bogus promo about an upcoming Western. The gun duel in this one is between a cowboy and a horse - a man wearing a horse costume with a giant mustache, a gun tied to his hoof and, after the horse shoots and is victorious, an evil whinny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ERNIE KOVACS SHOW")

ERNIE KOVACS: One of the more iconoclastic producers of this year has a new series ready called "Rancid The Devil Horse."

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

BIANCULLI: In the book, there's a priceless behind-the-scenes picture of the cast member wearing the Rancid the Devil Horse costume. But from the waist down, he's in shorts and, from a previous sketch, lederhosen. And that's what's so fabulous about this book. It's like a combination art museum and treasure chest. Its editors include Josh Mills, the son of Edie Adams, who, like her, preserved all of Ernie's shows and memorabilia, and Kovacs historian Ben Model. The photos and other parts of this book are eye-opening rarities, from original script pages to excerpts from Ernie's comic novel and Edie's serious memoir. Magazine articles by or about Ernie, press clippings, on-set photos - they're all here as a gloriously disconnected hodgepodge of absurdity and hilarity, which means it's exactly true to the spirit of the TV shows Ernie Kovacs made for 12 years during TV's infancy, many examples of which, I'm happy to add, are available to stream on Roku TV, Prime Video and other outlets. Read the book. Then, by all means, see the shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, the first Black sheriff of a southeast Virginia county deals with racial tensions while hunting down a serial killer who preys on Black children. S.A. Cosby will talk about his new crime novel and its connection to his experiences living in a county with a Confederate statue in front of the courthouse and going to a high school named after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SASHA MASHIN'S "SOME THOMAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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