Interview: Joshua Mills on his upcoming Fantagraphics book about the late comedian Ernie Kovacs

Even though it's often employed innocently, there's an inherent element of tragedy in the phrase "ahead of their time" when it's associated with unsung or overlooked geniuses in a field. If one is "ahead of their time," odds are they'll never live to see the impact their existence inspired or receive the adulation they so richly deserve. Very rarely is one regarded as a visionary in their lifetime who can also enjoy the fruits of their foresight. However, in the world of television, Ernie Kovacs was one such individual.

Ernie Kovacs possessed a uniquely comedic mind in the early days of television. Kovacs' ability as a writer and actor was only trumped by his filmmaking prowess, which was considered revolutionary for the era. Unlike his peers, Kovacs viewed every aspect of television production as a tool to accentuate his already offbeat sense of humor. Although his material on the page was designed to elicit big laughs, Kovacs would frequently play with the camera or the audience's understanding of the television medium and what it could do to push a joke over the top.

Unfortunately, Ernie Kovacs passed away in 1962 after a brutal car accident at the age of 42. Kovacs was survived by his second wife, actress, and comedienne Edie Adams, who took great pains to preserve her late husband's legacy by collecting his various television appearances and personal effects. Now, Joshua Mills, Adam's son from a subsequent marriage, is releasing a book through Fantagraphics that chronicles the life, career, and mind of the late Ernie Kovacs.

Mills was gracious enough to sit down with BoingBoing for an exclusive interview.

BoingBoing: So, can you explain your relationship to Ernie Kovacs?

Joshua Mills: So here's the deal. I was born in '68. He died in '62. My parents got married in '64. My dad was a photographer, but I did grow up in the house that my mom and Ernie lived in. And I knew that he wasn't my father, but I didn't exactly understand at that age. Like, you know, I only lived there until I was, like, nine or 10. But you know, his pictures were on the wall; there's like even things like TV guides. There's one of him and my mom. So I kind of knew who he was as a little kid, but I and I had stepsisters and half-sisters and all sorts of family, not family members. So there were a lot of confusing things going on.

BB: That sounds like quite the childhood home. It must have been an excellent place for a kid's imagination. 

JM: I will say because my mom's last name is Adams, and I was a big fan of The Addams Family. I was convinced that they based the show on our family because Ernie's Den was famous for having a very sort of Hemingway-like, you know, a manly man-type thing where there were suits of armor and pistols and, you know, bearskin rugs and trap doors that went to wine cellars. And so it very seemed like Gomez Addams. It seemed like we were in The Addams Family. So that's how I saw my life as a kid, I guess. 

BB: To be fair, Ernie Kovacs does bear a striking resemblance to Gomez Addams, so it was probably an easy mistake to make. 

JM: Very much so, yeah. And John Aston has mentioned Ernie a couple of times too. He knew him, he worked with my mom in a couple of things, and they knew each other really well.

BB: Really? 

JM: There was a thing on TV called Evil Roy Slade, and he was Evil Roy Slade. My mom was in it; Dick Shawn was in it. It's like right around the time of Blazing Saddles.

BB: Even though the book is about Ernie Kovacs, your mom is a massive part of his legacy. I mean, they were very much a duo. Not only did she take over his professional obligations after his death, but she kept everything. 

JM: When my mom passed away in 2008, I basically just acquired everything that she had. And my mom saved a lot of stuff. She was the one that paid to save his television shows from being erased. And she's the one that kept them in a temperature-controlled vault. And, you know, she had a lot of stuff in her house [from] her own career. My mom was in a ton of TV shows and movies and whatever, [and] she kept all of her gowns. I mean, we had rooms dedicated to all of her like stage gowns. So she kept everything, but I realized at a certain point, I would look through the stuff and go, "Man, this is really cool," and I'd be like, I'm the only one that can see this. 

So I just really felt like there's all this great stuff here, and it's part of comedy history, and my mom preserved it. And if I don't preserve it in, in keeping her legacy going, cause it's the book is as much as about my mom as it is Ernie. 

BB: Not to steer it away from Kovacs, but your mom sounds like an amazing woman. She seems like she had very progressive ideas for the time. 

JM: She was like a real pioneer for women, and I don't think that story is told enough because my mom always said, "Every mother is a working mother, whether you're getting paid or not getting paid." 

She wasn't like the bra-burning, you know, women's lib type [of] feminist, but she was the person that's like equal pay for equal work, you know… So I really would love that part of her story to come out because she really is a trailblazer.

BB: What was it like to grow up with her? 

JM: Because my mom was always in theater, I was always around her when she was going to do a play or a musical or something. So I was always around that as a kid. And I was on the set of The Love Boat.

BB: Did you meet Issac?

JM: You know, Isaac wasn't there that day. I've talked about this. It's the famous two-part episode with John Aston, actually, bringing it full circle. 

BB: It makes sense that your mom and Ernie Kovacs had such a mutual admiration for each other because they were both forward-thinkers. I mean, I liken a lot of Kovacs' work to like a 1950s version of Adult Swim. Where do you see Kovacs' influences in modern comedy?  

JM: I see, like, a throughline, and you can kind of see it going from, like, Ernie to Saturday Night Live through Monty Python. And you can start seeing it moving into absurdist things like maybe Steven Wright or Stand Up. But modern-day, you know, there are some people on YouTube I've seen that kind of take some of his weird gags. And I guarantee you that if Ernie was born now and was doing stuff, he'd be doing stuff on social media. 

Yeah. But I mean Adult Swim, Mystery Science Theater, and even people like Paul Rubens.

BB: Can you tell people what to expect with a book like this? 

JM: The way we kind of ended up doing it was that it's sort of like a look into Ernie's brain. Like, it's not chronological. It's not like divided into his television work and his film work and his, you know because he did have a stage act with my mom, or his drawings; it was really just like, we just threw everything together in a blender, and it looked good.

BB: That sounds really fitting for Kovacs' style of creativity. 

JM: We were really hoping that it might clue people in to go like, "Oh, that's interesting. I want to know more," or "That's interesting. I want to know more." 

The hard part was really the nuts and bolts. Captioning, which Ben Modell, [who] is our Kovacs and Adam's archivist, did all the captioning, which was tremendously helpful. But it really kind of, like, it was editing stuff down and then being really super specific about things. 'Cause there are Kovacs fans out there that are gonna go, "No, that was on ABC in 61, not NBC in 59," and we just wanted to try to get that right.