Ernie Kovacs (January 23, 1919 – January 13, 1962) was an American comedian whose uninhibited, often ad-libbed, and visually experimental comedic style came to influence numerous television comedy programs for years after his death in an automobile accident. Such iconic and diverse shows as Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Uncle Floyd Show, Saturday Night Live, Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and TV hosts such as David Letterman[ and Craig Ferguson have been influenced by Kovacs. Chevy Chase acknowledged Kovacs' influence on his work in Saturday Night Live, thanking him during his acceptance speech for his Emmy award for SNL. Chase appeared in the 1982 documentary called Ernie Kovacs: Television's Original Genius, speaking again of the impact Kovacs had on his work.
Kovacs was more than another wide-eyed, self-ingratiating clown. He was television's first significant video artist. He was its first surrealist... its most daring and imaginative writer. He was... television's first and possibly only auteur. And he was a genius. In commercial terms, a genius is any entertainer... who finds a new way to make money. Kovacs never fit that description. Kovacs' genius lay in the realm of art. There, a genius is someone who causes an audience to look at the world in a new way.
Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident in Los Angeles in the early morning hours of January 13, 1962. Kovacs, who had worked for much of the evening, met Adams at a baby shower given by the Billy Wilders for Milton Berle and his wife, who had recently adopted a three-year-old boy. The couple left the party in separate cars. During an unusual southern California rainstorm, the comedian lost control of his Chevrolet Corvair station wagon while turning fast, and crashed into a power pole at the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevards. He was thrown halfway out the passenger side, dying almost instantly from chest and head injuries.
He may have lost control of the car while trying to light a cigar. A photographer managed to arrive moments later, and morbid images of Kovacs in death appeared in newspapers across the United States. An unlit cigar lay on the pavement, inches from his outstretched arm. Years later, in a documentary about Kovacs, Edie Adams described telephoning the police impatiently when she learned of the crash. An official cupped his hand over the receiver, saying to a colleague, "It's Mrs. Kovacs, he's on his way to the coroner - what should I tell her?" With that, Edie Adams's fears were confirmed, and she became inconsolable. Jack Lemmon, who also attended the Berle party, identified Kovacs' body at the morgue when Adams was too distraught to do it.
Kovacs is buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. His epitaph reads, "Nothing in moderation—We all loved him." Only one of Kovacs' three children survives: his eldest, Elizabeth, from his first marriage. Kippie, his second daughter, died on July 28, 2001 at the age of 52, after a long illness and a lifetime of poor health. Keigh Lancaster, born to Kippie and her husband, screenwriter Bill Lancaster (1947–1997) (son of actor Burt Lancaster), is Kovacs' only grandchild. His only child with Edie Adams, Mia Susan, was killed on May 8, 1982, also in an automobile accident; Mia and Kippie are buried close to their father; when Edie died in 2008, she was buried between Mia and Kippie.