(Guest review by Ken Burke) (Shout Factory)
Television pioneer Ernie Kovacs created hundreds of hours of bizarre, somewhat abstract programming during the infancy of the medium. Whether cooked up on the fly or carefully scripted and timed, it was all crafted under the guise of humor but now gleams with the sobriquet of innovation. Kovacs, who for a while burned up as much air time as Arthur Godfrey and Art Linkletter, was different from the average television time waster. At one time or another, he too hosted morning shows, network prime-time hours and even game shows. But, unlike his contemporaries, he had a compulsion for creating scintillating visuals that made his programs superior to the talking heads, old Gene Autry westerns and laugh-track soaked sitcoms that ruled the airwaves.
A comedy genius, Kovacs wasn’t always funny in the traditional sense. Conceptual in nature, his humor relied upon the unspoken context of “what if.” What if apes danced Swan Lake dressed in frilly tutus? What if TV westerns evolved from good guy vs. bad guy shoot ‘em ups into dramas showing gunslingers lying on a psychiatrist’s couch talking about their feelings? What if you replaced a timpani drum with a vat of tapioca pudding? What if all the inanimate objects in a typical business office came to life upon hearing the big beats of dramatic music? What if a game show existed where a contestant was mortally wounded and his secret had to be guessed before he died? Kovacs asked those questions and his visual responses just spilled out onto the airwaves where he alternately delighted some viewers and mystified others.
Most of Kovacs’ best concepts can be found on this sumptuously packaged six DVD set which features a classy booklet with essays and rare photographs. Culled from the remaining kinescopes of the mustachioed innovator’s television years circa 1951 — 1962, each disc has a theme. Some feature generous clips of Kovac’s forays into primetime variety television where the New Jersey native proved a bit self-conscious as a host but reveled in playing characters; like martini-swilling poet laureate Percy Dovetonsils, crackpot chef Miklos Molnar and Matzoh Hepplwhite, a magician who had to have a belt of scotch before he would do a trick, and German disc-jockey Wolfgang Sauerbraten. Years before Steve Allen would appropriate the bit, Kovacs delivered off-center advice with his Mr. Question Man sketches. Decades before Craig Ferguson decided to use puppets for his cold openings of his late-night talk show, Kovacs can be seen running surreal daytime puppet dramadies via the Kapusta Kid. Of course, Kovacs’ signature routine, the Nairobi Trio (three derby-wearing guys in ape masks pantomiming to samba music), is prominently featured as is horror movie host Uncle Gruesome and the perpetually harassed kid-show host Mr. Science.
Better still, are the episodes primarily featuring Kovacs’ unorthodox visual sense personified by his groundbreaking half-hour silent comedy special Eugene - both an early color version for NBC and the ABC triumph that made his reputation as an auteur are included. Like many great comedians, Kovacs was constantly reworking his best gags and concepts making some longer and other shorter. At his side for most of these exploits was his wife Edie Adams. A Broadway star — she played Daisy Mae in the stage version of Li'l Abner — she proved a worthwhile foil as well as a top vocal talent. Indeed, Adams’s legitimacy helped her husband lampoon the very industry that fed him which makes his best work all the more satirically satisfying. Working with commonplace items and mundane actors, if truth be told, he set up quick sight gags and extended pieces of irony that are still fascinating to behold. Yet his true masterpieces were his illustrations of music. From his whimsical painting of an audio line underneath a scene used as a connecting device for random black-out sketches to his remarkable “Kitchen Symphony” - which illustrates the music of Tchaikovsky by splattering eggs into a pan, cracking celery etc. - there are no better moments in the history of music television.
Although Kovacs’s sketches and vignettes were executed speedily for their time — and make no mistake, his work clearly informed the sensibilities of Steve Allen, David Letterman and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in - many of his bits play out rather slowly in this age. The MTV revolution, which couldn’t have happened without Kovacs leading the way, contributed to the “speed-up factor” of all contemporary media. Yet, it’s interesting to note, no other commercial entertainer has even attempted anything like the skits and commercials collected on this set. Even when the bits don’t quite work as comedy, they remain indelibly unique. Was he early television’s greatest genius? He might’ve been early television’s only genius. All the others were comparative vaudevillians whereas Kovacs literally defined and then redefined the broadcast medium simply because he thought it would be fun to do so.
Best disc: Disc Five features the cream of his specials for the ABC television network. Largely visual with only occasional spoken interludes, this is as close as television comes to slapstick visual poetry. Kovacs is especially adroit at integrating music into his offbeat sketches. In the process, he created joke delivery systems that we now take for granted. Nearly as fine is Disc Three which features generous samples of Kovacs’ summer replacement primetime variety series. Working with a real budget and an audience who had a clue, Ernie, Edie and the gang – future Letterman announcer Bill Wendell included - actually succeed in crafting an entertaining network comedy show. Unfortunately, due to the expense of licensing most of Edie Adams's songs were cut from the entire set.
Worst disc: Although I found it fascinating, most modern viewers will probably find Disc One a bit tedious. Featuring airchecks from his Philadelphia morning show It's Time for Ernie, Kovacs On the Corner and Kovacs Unlimited, the sight gags and verbal comedy seem to fall flat on live audiences that just didn't get Ernie. It's important to note that these glimpses into his early career are possibly all that remains from the hallowed early days of television.
Bonus features: Every disc has something powerful and worthwhile in the bonus features. Behind the scenes material and tests are included but the best stuff for comedy fans are the previously uncollected sketches contained on Disc Two and the commercials for the Dutch Masters cigars on Disc Five. Like his contemporary Stan Freberg, Kovacs was able to achieve some of his greatest short comedy moments by way of Madison Avenue. Often, they play out as cartoons come to life. At his peak at the time of his 1961 death, Kovacs’s work — even in commercials — is always left brain, quite often funny and fun to think about afterwards.