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DVD Review: The Ernie Kovacs Collection

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As a producer, writer and creative multi-tasker supreme, Ernie Kovacs used television as his pallet, making office supplies dance to symphonies, submarine scopes rise from the depths of bubble baths, and gorillas perform pirouettes to “Swan Lake”. These, as well as many other Kovacsian delights, were created way before the advent of computers. Although Kovacs, gadget lover that he was, would have probably enjoyed working his magic on a Mac, he wouldn’t need to. All he required were television cameras, a studio, and an able staff willing to go without sleep to get the job done.

When he died tragically in a single car accident in January, 1962 at the age of 42, he was just hitting his artistic stride.

Never heard of him? If you’ve ever watched Saturday Night Live, Laugh-in, Late Night With David Letterman, and, yes, even Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you’ve seen how lasting his legacy is. Laugh-In’s de rigueur “blackouts”, one quick skit zipping by to make room for the next, were originated by Kovacs. Breaking down the “fourth wall” by bringing the audience backstage past the cables and wires and prop people to witness the inner workings of the show was also a Kovacs schtick, which Letterman and Saturday Night Live have put to good use over the years.

In 1977, PBS broadcast a weekly series of half hour programs comprising the best of Kovacs’ “specials”. These shows featured his later works, including the much lauded “silent show”, starring the mute sad-sack character Eugene (originally broadcast as a posthumous tribute shortly after Kovacs’ death). It also introduced viewers to his other classic creations such as the lisping, googly-eyed poet, Percy Dovetonsils, DJ Wolfgang Sauerbraten and the Nairobi Trio.

White Star video released a set of five video tapes in 1991 (later offered as two DVD set), featuring the PBS material. But, until now, a comprehensive overview of Kovacs’ career did not exist. Shout Factory’s six DVD set The Ernie Kovacs Collection is a long overdue video chronology of Kovacs’ too-short career.

The journey begins with It’s Time For Ernie, the earliest surviving kinescope of any Kovacs show. Unfortunately, the program is missing its last few minutes but it is “amazing”, as the liner notes proclaim, it survives at all. In order to save money, the networks regularly taped over shows in their vaults and many of Kovacs’ programs were lost in this manner. It is only when his widow, Edie Adams, took matters in hand and bought up anything the networks had left in their archives, that these treasures were salvaged and preserved.

The best of Kovacs’ early 1950s work is represented here with episodes of Ernie In Kovacsland, Kovacs On the Corner, and Kovacs Unlimited, shows with small budgets and big hearts. These programs was casual and fun, featuring skits, puppets, talking goldfish and turtles voiced by Kovacs and his crew, and the occasional stroll outside or into the audience. Besides aiding and abetting her husband in his comedic work, Edie Adams also provided much of the musical entertainment. Her choice of material was not at all what you would expect, and she would often eschew the popular songs of the day for operatic arias or traditional folk tunes. This was one more thing that made Kovacs’ shows so different from its contemporaries.

As his fame grew, his budgets began to expand, enabling him to experiment more with skits, characters and music. On the morning program, The Ernie Kovacs Show, he asked for and received a set that looked like a dungeon. He had an announcer now: Bill Wendell who, years later, would be employed in the same capacity by David Letterman. The Collection contains five episodes of The Ernie Kovacs Show, which are many times more entertaining and innovative than what is offered as morning fare today.

About Mindy Peterman

  • Tom Degan

    Ernie Kovacs was a visionary. He was the first to realize that great art could be created within the nineteen-inch confines of an ugly box with a glass tube at its center. Unfortunately for humanity, he’s gone and he’s not coming back. Thank God for Edie Adams. Because she had the foresight to save her husband’s work, we now have these kinescopes and videotapes to gently remind us what once was. Ernie’s world was a delightful, wondrous and riotous place to enter. Someone once remarked, “In an ocean of noise, this island of quiet genius was typical of Ernie Kovacs.” Indeed it was.

    Early in his career, he would close his programs by telling the audience at home, “It’s been real!”, a phrase he coined. He was a bit of a paradox in that respect. Ernie Kovacs was the real deal alright – and television’s first surrealist. Go figure.

    Tom Degan