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DVD Review: Ernie Kovacs – The ABC Specials

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The five half-hour programs on Shout! Factory’s Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials offer enough evidence to safely proclaim the man a comic genius. Fifty years later, these specials positively overflow with imagination, and the surreal, madcap nature of it all dispels any notion of TV stodginess from a bygone era.

A repackaging of one of the discs from Shout!’s highly acclaimed six-disc set The Ernie Kovacs Collection from last year, this release offers an excellent introduction to the comedian’s work. But be warned — after blitzing through the ABC Specials, chances are you’ll want to re-up for the big set, rendering this single disc redundant.

Ernie Kovacs: The ABC SpecialsErnie Kovacs: The ABC Specials offers a look at the final work of Kovacs’ career, before he died tragically in a car accident at age 42. Of the eight specials Kovacs filmed for ABC in 1961, five are presented here, with the final one aired posthumously just 10 days after his death, on what would have been his 43rd birthday.

Each special is wildly different, with little in the way of routine structure — even the credit sequences are distinctive each time. Occasionally, Kovacs would include a longer segment but often the show careens from vignette to vignette, some only lasting just long enough to register one singular, bizarre image, like a finger emerging from a rotary phone to dial itself. The comic setpieces range from elaborate symphonies of household objects to blissfully silly sight gags, like a threesome of musical apes known as the Nairobi Trio.

Even the segments that last longer — Kovacs creates a room simply by drawing it on blank walls, a deconstruction of Western tropes that grows increasingly absurd — move quickly from gag to gag. There’s an enormous amount to take in constantly, and it’s clear these specials are the product of a boundlessly, restlessly creative mind.

A decade before Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a decade and a half before Saturday Night Live and nearly three decades before The Kids in the Hall, Ernie Kovacs put legitimately experimental, boldly surreal comedy on primetime television. Who knows what the man could’ve accomplished if his career hadn’t been cut so short?

This single-disc release from Shout! is identical to disc five of the earlier box set, right down to the menu, which still proclaims it to be “Disc Five.” It includes five uncut specials, with the sponsoring Dutch Masters Cigars commercials (often as inventive as the sketches themselves) intact, along with a bonus 15-minute reel of additional Dutch Masters commercials.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.