Judge Chris Claro goes back sixty years to experience the future of comedy.
Our review of The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2, published November 24th, 2012, is also available.
Thank you for inviting us into your living room. It's just a shame you didn't clean up a little first.
Before the Web was the Web—ubiquitous, egalitarian, and a clearinghouse for virtually any kind of entertainment—there was a little thing called television. Maybe you remember it: box with moving pictures underwritten by the toilet cleaner and toothbrush folks. Sixty or so years ago, TV offered entertainers many of the same opportunities that the web yields today. In increments of ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes, everybody from chefs to clergy to comics would fill the screen of the infant medium with rudimentary programming. One or, at most, two cameras would follow the "action," such as it was, and the privileged few who had one of the magic boxes in their living rooms would watch in rapt wonder at the images being beamed through space.
Into this quaint world of primitive entertainment came Ernie Kovacs, who made it his mandate to fiddle with the new medium. A soft-spoken, genial type from Trenton, New Jersey with a matinee-idol mustache and an anarchic yet accessible wit, Kovacs paved the way for everything from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In to David Letterman and Robot Chicken.
Like those shows and performers, Kovacs was all about tweaking the medium, deconstructing its elements in the name of comedy. But as progressive as he was in using the technical elements of television for laughs, his characters and sketch work, while hilarious, were as traditional as those of more established comics like Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton.
Thanks to Shout! Factory, Kovacs' innovative techniques and singular comedy are available to a new generation through an exhaustive six-disc box that chronicles Kovacs' criminally short career. The box includes material Kovacs created from 1951 to 1962, with samples of everything from his morning show—shot, it seems, with one camera, which Kovacs addresses as if it were a friend coming over for coffee—to his more well-known sketch comedy from the late fifties and early sixties, which featured such Kovacs creations as chef Miklos Molnar and effete poet Percy Dovetonsils.
Much of the comedy features Kovacs' wife and foil, Edie Adams. A game dame who played yin to Kovacs' yang, Adams brought an elegance to her husband's shows and classed us his crudely produced sketches with a touch of Broadway. Adams was responsible for more than just performing with Kovacs, as she also was saddled with the comic's debts in the wake of his car-crash death in 1962. Notoriously bad with money, Kovacs died owing the IRS big dough. For years after his death, Adams worked to clear the debt, starring in dozens of commercials for Kovacs sponsor Dutch Masters cigars, some of which are included in the box.
Among the other gems that Shout! Factory has unearthed for this cornucopia of Kovacs is the comic's silent half-hour, "Eugene." While it certainly appears dated fifty years on, the invention behind the special, in which a mild-mannered guy goes about his day, is still dazzling. It's a perfect example of how Kovacs was able to both create memorable characters, and use the tools of the medium to showcase them—and Shout! Factory includes the black-and-white version of the show as well as a then rare color version. Throw in dozens of other characters, including the ape-mask wearing Nairobi Trio—which frequently featured, unbilled—Kovacs buddy Jack Lemmon, Wolfgang Von Sauerbraten, and magician Matzoh Hepplewhite, and The Ernie Kovacs Collection is everything a fan or student of comedy could ever want.
Video and audio throughout the set is clean, but, naturally, represents the age of the source material. What is novel to see through 21st-century eyes is Kovacs' use of black and white videotape. The modern sheen of tape combined with old-school monochrome offers an interesting incongruity that makes Kovacs' material even more unique.
As with many of its collections, Shout! Factory outdoes itself with extras. In addition to the Dutch Masters commercials and the two iterations of "Eugene," The Ernie Kovacs Collection includes Kovacs' induction, by Lemmon and Adams, into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, and a 44-page booklet about the comic, written by Motherless Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem.
Half a century after his death, Ernie Kovacs, with his antic eyebrows and head-honcho cigar, still stands as a comic genius. Thanks to this treasure trove from Shout! Factory, new generations can enjoy the innovation and invention that was Ernie Kovacs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Bonus Sketches
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