Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Interview: "Kovacsland" Author Diana Rico

In January of 2008 I was contacted by one of my favorite authors/biographers Diana Rico who wrote the definitive biography on Ernie Kovacs, "Kovacsland".

What follows is an interview with Diana that has been in the works for the past year. I sincerely hope you enjoy it and I thank Diana for taking the time out of her very busy schedule to answer my questions. - Al Quagliata, February 11, 2009

1. Give our readers some background on yourself and how you got started as a writer.

I studied English literature at UCLA because I wanted to become a writer, and I minored in film history because I was an obsessive film-o-phile. Writing had actually been my dream since I was seven and read my first novel, "Little Women" (I realize now it was probably an abridged child’s version, but nevertheless I wanted to be Jo March!). When I got out of school I went to work as a magazine editor, then gradually started to pitch article ideas and get writing assignments. Eventually I was writing about the arts and entertainment for major publications like GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and Architectural Digest, and I became the art writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the art critic for the NPR flagship station in Los Angeles, KCRW.
2. What first got you interested in writing a book about Ernie Kovacs and how did the project finally come to pass?

I was first introduced to Ernie when I was associate editor at Emmy, the magazine of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. My editor at the time was a big Kovacs fan, and he assigned me to do an article on the history of Ernie’s shows. I sort of knew who Ernie was, but as a little kid I’d mix him up with Tennessee Ernie Ford—they both had black mustaches and smoked cigars. I think Ernie Kovacs’s work was too weird for my parents, so we didn’t watch him at home. Anyway, when I went to the UCLA Television Archives and saw Ernie’s work for the first time, I went wild. It was like watching Theater of the Absurd, only on mainstream 1950s TV. I loved the surrealism of it, his casual attitude about being on TV (unheard of at the time), his strangeness and whimsy, all his kooky characters and playful use of language. Then, in the course of researching the Emmy article, I discovered Ernie had had a fascinating, roller coaster life as well as, of course, a tragic death at the height of his creative powers. He was a bigger-than-life creative genius, and I felt he deserved a serious, in-depth biography. I hung onto all my research. A few years later, when I had an agent, I pitched the idea to him and he had me write a proposal. He actually got an auction going among several publishers, including William Morrow, where Edie Adams eventually sold her own memoir. I ended up going with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. They were immensely supportive, especially my fantastic editor, John Radziewicz. When the book came out in 1990 they organized a book tour for me, and I was interviewed on "Larry King Live," "CBS Nightwatch with Charlie Rose," "Good Morning America"—lots of places. I must say I was blessed with a thoroughly marvelous publishing experience for a first-time book author.
3. Did you have any other titles in mind for the book besides "Kovacsland?" What made you decide on that particular title?

My editor felt, quite rightly, that it was important to have some reference to Ernie’s name visible on the spine of the book. I was a longtime fan of Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland" and had found it enchanting that Ernie had a 1951 TV show referencing that, "Ernie in Kovacsland." So I borrowed from the best! As it turned out, it was quite apt, as I felt like I was guiding readers through this marvelous, wacky world that was peculiar to Ernie Kovacs.
4. What did you find to be the most difficult aspect of the research?

The most difficult aspect of the project was just figuring out how to write a biography for the first time. There is no roadmap for it (despite my attempts to find one by reading a zillion biographies I admired). One amasses fantastic quantities of research, ideas, notes, scripts, etc., and also develops some spiritual sense of who the person was. To say that putting order to all that chaos is daunting is an understatement. It was one of the biggest writing challenges I’ve ever had. Of course, that experience paid off years later, when I became a producer-writer for E! Entertainment Television and got to make biography shows of other artists I loved, like Richard Pryor, Steve McQueen, Alfred Hitchcock, John Lennon, Natalie Wood, and Jane Fonda—great, great talents with big, complicated lives like Ernie’s.
5. What (or who) did you find to be the most valuable aid in your research?

I think the love people still had for Ernie, years after his passing, was my greatest aid. Old crew members, his writers, poker buddies, even childhood friends—they were so happy to share their memories of Ernie, so open and forthcoming. While all the other types of research are critical for a biography, I find that interviewing the people who actually knew the subject is the best way for me to get a deep feeling about who they were and what made them tick.
6. Who was your favorite interview for the book?

Oh gosh, they were all fantastic. One of the great privileges of working on this book was getting to talk to all these wonderful people who knew Ernie. But I would have to say my absolute favorite was the late Louis “Deke” Heyward, one of Ernie’s writers from New York. We just clicked (probably because we’re both writers). Deke was an extremely intelligent man with a highly developed sense of whimsy—a wonderful combination, which Ernie shared. When I found out Deke had been a writer on Winky Dink, one of my favorite childhood shows, I was hooked! We didn’t just talk about Ernie. I mean, how often do you get to chat with the guy who invented adventures for Tom Terrific and Manfred the Wonder Dog? I got to hear all about the Magic Screen!
7. How long did it take you to complete the book?

It took three years from the time I got my contract with Harcourt Brace. I had already done the preliminary research for the Emmy article, so that helped me get off to a good start. I knew who to go after for interviews, where a lot of the resources were, the places I needed to go where he had lived, and so forth.
8. Tell us about the first time you ever saw Ernie Kovacs on TV and what sort of impression it made on you.

Please see #2 above.
9. I always get emails from Ernie fans asking me if any copies of "3 To Get Ready" exist and of course I have to tell them no. At any point in your research did you hear from a source or an interview that a copy might exist someplace?

“3 to Get Ready” was a local show in Philadelphia, as you know. In the early 1950s local shows just went out live over the airwaves and were gone, poof! In those days they only made kinescopes when a show was going to be “syndicated,” or sent to another market beyond the local one. I mean literally they would shoot the broadcast off a TV screen using a film camera, take the film cans, and “bicycle” them to another city; that was the available technology of the time. This was not done with "TTGR," because it was only sold in the Philadelphia market. So unfortunately the only documentation that exists is in written material and photographs. Andy McKay was a great help to me in reconstructing the experiences of "TTGR."
10. You quoted Ernie's ABC-TV cameraman Bob Kemp as saying "If management put up a barrier he (Ernie) would tear it down." How do you feel Ernie would have dealt with the management structure in today's television world given that there was less management interference when he was on TV? Do you feel today's bottom line "television by committee" structure would have adversely effected his art?

I doubt that Ernie would be working in TV if he were alive today. He was always attracted to what was on the cutting edge, whatever arena hadn’t been explored yet. TV was like that when he first entered it, but, as you point out, it has changed into television by committee. I think he’d being doing something way out there on the internet, or making his own independent productions (something he wanted to do, but the technology and distribution systems hadn’t become democratized as they have now in the digital era). He just wanted to be free to create, and I think if he were around now he’d be seeking out the most open-ended means of doing that.
(ED. NOTE: I interviewed Ernie's head ABC cameraman Bob Kemp a while back and he has a similar opinion.)
11. I've read the biographies of many of the famous TV comics/comic actors from Ernie's era; giants such as Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, etc. and while all were comic geniuses there are many stories about the conflicts they sometimes had with others or about employees disliking them. Yet in your book and in David Walley's "The Ernie Kovacs Phile" the picture that's given is that for the most part everyone liked Ernie. Why do you think this is?

For all his genius, I think Ernie had very little ego (except when, as you mentioned earlier, management was trying to quash his creative urges—then he could fight like a tiger). Everyone, everyone I interviewed talked about his sweetness, his extreme generosity, how he treated everyone as equals. He had a childlike quality too that was genuine, a really charming innocence. These characteristics set him apart from the usual “star” type personalities. The crew members and writers I talked to wanted more than anything to please him. They just adored him.
12. What are your favorite Kovacs sketches and why?

To this day my favorite sketch is the Nairobi Trio. It’s almost a mystical thing; the charm of it cannot be explained. It’s mimed, it’s slow, it’s deliberate, it’s crazy. I will never tire of it.

13. Which is your favorite Kovacs film and why?

In truth most of the films Ernie appeared in were pretty dismal and not strong showcases for his talent. I like him best in "Operation Mad Ball" – it’s lovely to see him with his best pal, Jack Lemmon. And I think "Our Man in Havana" is an elegant film. I’m working on a novel right now that takes place partly during the Cuban Revolution, and director Carol Reed actually shot that film on location as the Revolution was happening. I mean, I read a magazine interview with Ernie in which he talked about how they could hear the rebels setting up firing squads as they were filming the movie. So for me it’s also an interesting document of the time.
14. In your intro to the book you say that some of Ernie's work is "nearer in structure and spirit to absurdist theater and Dadaist and surrealist art than to the sitcoms and stand-up routines that have defined most of television comedy since the earliest days." Which pieces do you feel most exemplify this?

I think the last work he did, the ABC specials, were the most avant-garde expressions of his sensibility and the closest to the European avant-garde movements I cited. I mean, Ernie didn’t even appear in those pieces. They were strange little films of his peculiar, unique visions. It still amazes me that they were made for broadcast TV. But then he was selling those cigars in the commercials. As long as he brought the sponsor’s money in, the network was ok with the rest of it.
15. Would you consider some of Ernie's more abstract pieces to be an early form of performance art?

Performance art uses the artist’s body as a sort of instrument and is presented live before an audience, so I wouldn’t say Ernie’s work was performance art. But I would definitely consider it early video art. A lot of the concepts he pioneered in his use of the TV medium were ideas that video artists like Nam June Paik and Teddy Dibble later explored in depth.
16. Two of the people closest to Ernie, Edie Adams and the late Jack Lemmon, declined to participate in the project. What was the reason for this? It's a generally positive and very honest portrayal and you figure they'd want to share their reminiscences.

Edie cooperated with me when I was working on the Emmy article. In fact, at one point we were in discussions about the possibility of my helping her catalog her incredible cache of Ernie costumes, props, and other paraphernalia, which she had in storage at Bekins in L.A. She had Percy Dovetonsils’ leopard smoking jacket! But when I got my book contract, she decided she wanted to do her own book. She hired a theater writer, Robert Windeler, to ghost it for her. She was very close to Jack Lemmon, and out of respect for Edie, he shared his memories exclusively with her. But absolutely everyone else I approached participated happily, including his two daughters, Kippie and Elisabeth, who were marvelous.
17. If Ernie were alive today how do you feel he would make use of all the new technology?

Please see #10 above.
18. Is there any TV comic performing today who you feel best carries the torch passed on by Ernie Kovacs?

That’s a good question, but I can’t say. I don’t watch much TV these days, to be honest.
19. It seems that while you do see movies with Ernie frequently on cable (especially "Bell, Book And Candle" and "North To Alaska"), its only TRIO-TV which shows his programs as part of their "Brilliant But Cancelled" series and I've heard this is because the president of that network is a fan. In the beginning Comedy Central used to show his work all the time but then stopped. Why do you think there aren't more cable nets showing Ernie's work given the fact that there are so many channels that you'd think there'd be a need for content?

Oh, that would require a dissertation on the vagaries and politics of cable TV management and economics. But I also think Ernie’s work never appealed to very large numbers of people, and it still may not. His fans are fiercely devoted, but not as huge in numbers as those of some of the more mainstream comedians. And TV, whether it’s cable or broadcast, always tends towards the mainstream.
20. How do you feel about the state of the television industry today?

I think TV is still a marvelous medium with so much potential. But unfortunately a lot of what gets made and watched is, in my opinion, junk. In particular I deplore the mean-spiritedness of a lot of the so-called “reality” shows, which (I can tell you because I have a lot of friends who have worked on them) are anything but real. There is, however, some brilliant writing and producing going on in the area of dramas and “dramedies.” I have great respect for the really gifted producer-writers who manage to get their unique visions and voices on the air, like Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) and Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives).
21. You're a producer, publisher, photographer, writer/journalist and I want to strongly encourage our readers to visit your website AND pick up a copy of this great book. What projects are you working on currently?

Well, I left Los Angeles three years ago and became a nomad, dividing my time between New Mexico, Colorado, and Guatemala, where I wrote documentaries for a director named Mischa Prince. Those projects are now in post production. Now I’m settling in New Mexico and building up my business, The wordARTist (http://www.wordartist.net/), which offers premium writing, editing, producing, and multimedia content development services exclusively for individuals and organizations in the arts. I love doing this! I’m also in the middle of curating a series of live readings by major award-winning authors (Alisa Valdes Rodriguez, Hampton Sides, Robin Romm, numerous others) for the Society of the Muse of the Southwest, a venerated literary nonprofit in northern New Mexico. And I am working on an experimental novel about the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta called "The Woman Who Fell to Earth". I researched her life and work as if I were writing a biography, but now I am freely imagining her life, and bringing in elements of magical realism, the SanterĂ­a religion, Cuban music, mythology, art history—all sorts of things. I’ve received fellowships and grants from a number of organizations for this project, including the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Harwood Museum of Art. Oh yes, and a few days ago I launched a blog! It is sooooo fun, a whole new genre of writing. It’s on the subject of creativity, and people can check it out at http://theloveartblog.wordpress.com/. Please leave comments on the posts—I truly want this to be an interactive endeavor! Maybe that’s what Ernie would be doing now. Blogging.
Thanks again Diana! You can also visit Diana's main website at http://www.dianarico.com/.

Kovacsians, if you've never read "Kovacsland" you really need to pick up a copy. I've read it several times and its my constant reference companion for helping to answer all the questions I get from Ernie's fans. Its a fantastic and wonderful resource about everything to do with Ernie and his work.

While the book is available from most major online booksellers we suggest you get your copy from Powell's Books; they give authors a much better percentage on book sales than most. For a great biography like this that is most deserved.

Thanks for stopping by and until next time: "It's Been Real!!"

8 comments:

Brian Train said...

I've read Kovacsland several times too, and to my mind it is far better than the Walley biography, especially if this is one's first introduction to Kovacs.

Recently I watched the Turner Classic Movies Kovacs three-fer (well, it was part of a Jack Lemmon six-fer, I guess): Operation Mad Ball, Bell Book and Candle and It Happened to Jane. Yes, none of them particularly good films but certainly a slice of life as it was supposed to be in the late 1950s (especially "It Happened to Jane"; so many of those scenes reminded me of Norman Rockwell paintings - the cookout/singalong, the town meeting, etc.). My favourite Kovacs film will always be Our Man in Havana (starring Alec Guinness just after he did The Horse's Mouth, another of my all-time favourite movies).

Thanks for publishing this interview!

Al Quagliata said...

Thanks for a great comment.

I love both bios; David Walley's is very angular in its approach which is what makes it different from Diana's book which is very straight forward. I suggest that people read Diana's book first before reading David's. I was supposed to interview David a couple of years ago but he passed away before we could get to it. Very interesting man and a fine writer. Both books have wonderful appendices that are quite different and fascinating.

"Our Man In Havana" just came out on DVD. If you look in the upper left corner of the blog you'll see some links to a review and some sites where you can purchase it.

Brian Train said...

I definitely agree one should read Diana Rico's book before David's, so you will have some idea of what the latter is talking about, or past.

Thanks for the notification about Our Man in Havana. I saw The Horse's Mouth on TCM t'other night too; they are serving up some corkers!

Al Quagliata said...

You're welcome. Thanks for your support!

Brian Train said...

I forgot to add one other kurious Kovacs konnektion (OK I will stop now):

The dominant musical theme in "The Horse's Mouth" is from Prokofiev's "Lt. Kije Suite", a favourite of Ernie's which is reproduced on the EK Record Collection CD... perhaps not a great concidence but since Alec Guinness had something to say about the design of the movie (he also wrote the screenplay), interesting to observe that they both liked the piece enough to incorporate it into their performances.

Al Quagliata said...

Brian,

Great point. That's my favorite piece on the EK Record Collection.

For those of you not familiar with that CD I wrote a post on it back in March 2007.

Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

It was a pleasant surprise to find this site dedicated to the great Ernie Kovacs. They just don't make 'em like Ernie anymore, that's for sure - a true American original.

I never read a good review for Ms. Ricco's book when it came out which perplexes me to this day. It was a fine biography, as was the book by the late David Walley - whom I met and spoke with a number of years ago - an absolute gem of a man.

http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.com

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

Al Quagliata said...

Tom,

Thanks so much for your kind comment about both this site and Diana's book. I agree with you 120% on all fronts. I'm very glad you found us!

I was supposed to interview David Walley as well. He contacted me when he found my site, www.erniekovacs.net, and we had set something up but schedules got in the way and he passed on before I could. Also a wonderful book.

I used to live about 20 miles below Goshen. Great town!