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Tuesday, November 20, 2018


While he was always known as one of the great technical innovators of early television, one thing Shout! Factory's 9-disc DVD set ERNIE KOVACS: THE CENTENNIAL EDITION really brings home for me is the fact that it was just plain fun to hang out with the guy for awhile.

Early TV viewers had plenty of opportunity to do so, since Ernie had a number of different shows throughout the 50s and early 60s, several of which are sampled in this collection. 

Whether live via kinescope or recorded on early videotape, these shows glow with Ernie's childlike and often giddily enthusiastic attitude as he delights in spending time with us, entertaining with jokes, informal patter, bits of business, and, most of all, mindboggling bursts of surreal humor done on the fly with a shoestring budget.

The earliest examples of this are from a live morning series that resembles a "Howdy Doody"-type kids' show for grown-ups, the studio barely containing Ernie as he demolishes the fourth wall (as well as the other three) and shows us the cameras, the hallway outside the studio door, and every other aspect of TV production through which he can romp and play with us as his "peanut gallery."

Much of this helps lay the groundwork for just about every other television comedy show to follow.  His influence is unmistakable on, for example, "The Soupy Sales Show", "Pee Wee's Playhouse", comedy segments with talk show hosts such as Johnny Carson, Conan O'Brien, and David Letterman, "The Uncle Floyd Show", and even "Saturday Night Live" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus." 

All are touched in some way by Kovacs' groundbreaking and imaginative style even when they don't consciously realize it.  When Ernie goes up into the audience to interact with the people, or jokes around with his gregarious bandmembers and audibly guffawing crew, we're seeing the inspirations of practically every TV comic and talk show host to come.

Later shows would continue to serve as experiments for Ernie's innovative use of the television medium and, as in "Kovacs On the Corner", a delightful parody of the medium itself.  A "Mad Magazine" brand of satire (pre-dating "Mad Magazine") infuses much of his comedy and its witty jabs at commercials, movies, and other aspects of popular culture at the time.

Even when he hosts a game show, as in the episodes of "Take a Good Look" seen here, he can't help making it the most confusing and obtuse game show ever created.  Later network specials take advantage of video to present extended, intricately-conceived comedy pieces that boggle the mind while showing off Ernie's sweetly cockeyed sense of humor at every twist and turn.

Sight (and sound gags) abound.  He passes a statue of "The Thinker" and notices it humming to itself. He demonstrates how to adjust the horizontal and vertical dials (remember those?) on your TV by using his contorted facial expressions as a guide.  He interacts with his friend Howard, the world's strongest ant, who drives a tiny minature car and plays tiny miniature golf. 

He even puts on bad puppet shows such as "The Kapusta Kid In Outer Space" and helps his pet turtle cure its hiccups by feeding it sips of water.  Whatever tickles his childlike fancy at the time, he indulges in for our enjoyment. 

Ernie's characters are a joy, especially (my favorite) the endearingly prissy poet Percy Dovetonsils, whose poems boast such titles as "Ode to Stanley's Pussycat."  His hardluck character Eugene stars in Ernie's famous all-silent special, which consists of nothing but sight gags with sound effects and, of course, his own inimitable comedy style.  This one really uses the television medium with its tilted sets, weird optical illusions, and disorienting indulgence in undiluted surrealism. 

The supporting players are headed by Ernie's adorable and talented wife Edie Adams, who has her own stock characters as well as an operatic voice perfectly suited for the occasional serious musical segment (Kovacs loved music and often showcased it).  Edie is particularly adorable whether playing a dowdy housewife, vamping as Zsa Zsa Gabor, or doing a stunningly kittenish send-up of Marilyn Monroe as she shows off her knack for impressions.

My favorite moment is a bizarre sketch about a white-haired old conductor (Ernie) recording a commercial jingle with an orchestra and three difficult singers.  These include Edie Adams, Casey Adams (aka Max Showalter, one of my favorite actors), and, displaying a keen sense of off-the-wall comedy, Louis Jordan as an odd fellow whose pants lengths keep changing.  It's one of the most belly-laugh segments in the set if your mind's off-kilter enough to appreciate it.

The 9 discs in this set from Shout! Factory feature the following:

* Episodes From His Local And National Morning Shows
* Episodes From His NBC Prime-Time Show
* Kovacs On Music
* Five ABC TV Specials
* The Color Version of His Legendary Silent Show, "Eugene"
* His Award-Winning Commercials For Dutch Masters Cigars
* Short Films, Tributes, Rarities
* 18 Bonus Sketches Featuring Many Of His Most Beloved Characters
* 3 Complete Episodes Of His Offbeat Game Show Take A Good Look
* "A Pony For Chris" – His Rare TV Pilot For Medicine Man Co-Starring Buster Keaton
* The Lively Arts Featuring The Only Existing Filmed Solo Interview With Ernie Kovacs
* 2011 American Cinematheque Panel

The generous bonus menus include:

1987 ATAS Hall Of Fame Induction
Remembering Ernie With George Schlatter And Jolene Brand
"Baseball Film"
Making Of "Baseball Film"
"The Mysterious Knockwurst"
Andy McKay 8mm Home Movies
Percy Dovetonsils: "Ode To Stanley’s Pussycat"
Martin Krutch, Public Eye
Rock Mississippi In "Fingers Under Weskit"
Howard, The World's Strongest Ant
J. Burlington Gearshift
"Superclod" Test
"Take A Good Look" Clues
"Take A Good Look" Sales Film
"Silents Please"
"Our Man In Havana" Behind-The-Scenes Footage
Dutch Masters Commercials
Trailer For "Operation Mad Ball" – "It Happened To Ernie"
Muriel Cigars Commercials Featuring Edie Adams
Interview: Algernon Gerard, Archaeologist
Howard, The World's Strongest Ant: A Hot Date
Strangely Believe It: Writers To Blame
The Kapusta Kid In Outer Space Meets Olivia Scilloscope
Charlie Clod In Brazil
Ernie's Opening Monologue
Miklos Molnar's Glue
Percy Dovetonsils: "Ode To Electricity"
Interview: The World At Your Doorstep
Irving Wong: Tin Pan Alley Songwriter
Percy Dovetonsils : "Ode To A Housefly”
Introducing Coloratura Mimi Cosnowski
Howard, The World's Strongest Ant: Howard's Campground
Skodney Silsky, Hollywood Reporter
Ernie's Opening Monologue
Surprise Audience Member
Audio Lost
Matzoh Hepplewhite
Interview With Ernie Kovacs On The Lively Arts
"A Pony For Chris" – Pilot For Series Medicine Man
Ernie Kovacs Panel Discussion (August 27, 2011) At The American Cinematheque In Hollywood, CA
Home Movies: Golf With Edie And Ernie
Original Theatrical Trailers: "Wake Me When It's Over" And "Five Golden Hours"

Having only seen a smattering of his work in past years, I eagerly delved into ERNIE KOVACS: THE CENTENNIAL EDITION and binge-watched these delightful shows to my heart's content.  There's a wealth of wild comedy here, but even in its simplest moments, it's nice just to hang out with Ernie and listen to him chat as he puffs away on his ever-present cigar.  For a short, wonderful time before his tragic death, he was a fearless pioneer of television comedy and seemed to love every minute of it.

Discs 9
Run-time 22 hrs
Aspect Ratio 1.33:1
Color/Black & White
Language English
Region 1
Rating Various
Production Date Various
Closed-Captioned ? No
Subtitles None

Buy it from Shout! Factory

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