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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.

In order to cut costs, Shout Factory was forced to edit out some of the musical performances which were originally part of these shows. The licensing fees for their use would have been prohibitive. However, in no way does this take away from the charm of these early Kovacs’ outings.

When the popular prime time comedy show, Caesar’s Hour, went on hiatus, The Ernie Kovacs Show pulled up stakes and became its replacement. Now Kovacs was given a “bigger toy chest to play with”; the television screen was his personal playground and his special effects grew grander and more innovative. This is where his genius truly began to shine. The Collection includes three full episodes of this show.

An episode of the rarely seen Kovacs’ game show Take a Good Look (Kovacs’ spin on the game show format, the likes of which you’ve never seen) is included along with four sets of his very unusual clues.

A generous helping of Kovacs’ classic sketches are provided on disc six of the set. But to truly understand why Kovacs’ genius has influenced so many over the years, disc five is required viewing. Here you’ll find five of the eight hour-long ABC specials presented in their complete uncut form for the first time. Behold Kovacs the car salesman, sending his shiny new auto plunging through the floor after he pounds its hood, the wondrous absurdity of the aforementioned gorilla ballet, inanimate objects cavorting to a lively Esquivel soundtrack, and so much more. This work might seem primitive by today’s standards but consider the era in which it was created and the tools Kovacs had to work with, and you’ll understand how ahead of his time he was.

An abundance of extras is packed into each disc: from Kovacs’ Dutch Master Cigar commercials, to tributes from his peers, to trailers and behind the scenes footage from his films, and many other unique and surprising treasures.

Also included is a 44-page booklet containing a wealth of entertaining and informative essays by Edie Adams’ son, Josh Mills, Kovacs expert, Ben Model, and others.

Shout Factory has offered some hard-to-resist incentive for you to purchase the set directly from their website. If you do, you’ll get a seventh disc entitled “Buried Treasures”, which contains programs not seen publicly since their original airings over a half-century ago.

This disc also offers up something completely different: a segment from Tonight! America After Dark in which Kovacs takes the viewer on a tour of his Central Park West penthouse apartment. Adams has just arrived home, still dressed in her Daisy Mae costume (she was starring on Broadway in Li’l Abner, at the time). They plug Kovacs’ novel Zoomar, and as they lead the cameras through the various rooms, nearly fall over the cables and wires that are everywhere. Kovacs would have surely loved wireless mics.

The Ernie Kovacs Collection is a triumph: a set put together with painstaking care and attention to detail. From the extraordinary video content to the humorous, touching and informative liner notes and the beautiful packaging, it is a Kovacs fan’s dream come true.

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About Mindy Peterman

  • 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