Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Collection
directed by Joe Behar
starring Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams
It has been said that the history of comedy eventually boils down to vaudeville and Lenny Bruce, but the most influential person in the history of TV comedy may very well be Ernie Kovacs. Who? some may ask. Ernie Kovacs was a pioneer in utilizing the TV medium to its full comedic possibilities and his influence is still being felt today. Shout Factory has released a 9 dvd set with the most complete archive of Ernie Kovacs many TV shows ever available to date.
Ernie Kovacs took the entire medium of television and used it as a tool for his genius comedic mind and talents. He pushed against the restraints of the medium, satirizing, exploring, and helping to define just what television could be. He wasn’t content to do stagey comedy bits and variety acts, his shows defied expectations and at times defied explanation. Not content to merely break the fourth wall, he broke all the walls, sometime literally. He used the cameras, the camera men, the audience, the sets, the props, the advertisers, even the running time of the shows as comedy bits. Kovacs was snarky but not mean and a meter of the comeback and slow burn. His bits were finely crafted but he was astonishingly fast on his feet. Some of his greatest moments were his reactions to gaffes and problems that would happen during the broadcasts. His ad libs and asides to the audience were so funny that Kovacs’ cast and crew would sabotage the show just to get a rise out of their star and too see what he would make of it. Sometimes he didn’t say a word and just let his omnipresent cigar do the work.
Although the influence of his work is far reaching with direct links to Monty Python, Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, and even Rocky & Bullwinkle yet Ernie Kovacs is not a household name. Kovacs’ legacy is difficult because he never really had that signature show. He had numerous variety shows on multiple networks but never had a singular breakout like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners. The other major factor was the star’s untimely death in 1962 which took a away any second career on the talk show/game show circuit like Milton Berle or Lucille Ball, much less a later movie career like Gleason. His name was bandied about but his work was rarely seen apart from clips. People would hear the name and may have seen bits of the Nairobi Trio, Percy Dovetonsils, or the oscilloscope Mack the Knife, but these moments were without context and missing the fast wit and put upon star routinely flummoxed in the face of a less than perfect world. His ad-libs were every bit as important as the structured set pieces. In fact it is the marriage of the two that makes his comedy so unique.
The Shout Factory DVD set Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition helps greatly to put Kovacs’ work in context. Offering up nine discs over 22 hours, of mostly complete episodes of shows spanning his career from It’s Time for Ernie (1951) to Take a Good Look (1962) The shows are “mostly complete” as most of the musical guests on the show had to be deleted due to music rights clearing. The full episodes show a great deal of the technical magic he was able to pull off that don’t really come through with just a sketch. He used a great deal of trick photography including double exposure and chroma key in ways that were visionary in the early 1950s. Not everything works. Some of the dance numbers, while a technical marvel at the time are hard to sit through, and frankly some of the references are lost on today’s audience. But most of it does work and is surprisingly timeless. The fake commercials, TV show parodies, and quips about the network brass that are so commonplace today started with Erine Kovacs and still pack a comedic wallop. The shows also are decidedly non-PC but also lack many of the crueler stereotyping than some of his contemporaries. Percy Dovetonsils, his recurring character that is a lisping, gin swilling, poetry reading queen could ruffle a feather, but is far too funny to worry about.
Shout Factory has added loads of extra content including TV pilots, extra set clips, 8mm home movies, behind the scenes footage, interviews, and Ernie’s Dutch Masters cigar commercials.
Since there was no perceived replay value in variety shows so most of his work was seen once and forgotten. If not for the efforts Ernie Kovacs’ widow and co-star Edie Adams, there might not be any of his work left. She fought for, and at time had to buy, the kinescopes of Kovacs’ shows from the network to keep them from being destroyed to clear up storage space. Without her dedication to preserving his legacy there may not be any Ernie Kovacs for us to enjoy today.