Appellate Judge James A. Stewart doesn't like even chocolate-flavored sauerkraut.
Our review of The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 1, published April 19th, 2011, is also available.
"What he was doing was truly revolutionary."—George Schlatter
Among the sketches from NBC's The Ernie Kovacs Show was one with Edie Adams (his real-life wife) playing ditzy as a certain movie star named Marilyn. It was one of hundreds of bits that Kovacs and his cohorts did on his various shows, but it struck me as significant because both Kovacs and Marilyn Monroe died young, with a lot of promise.
As you'll hear in an interview with Kovacs on The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2, the comedian was working on a variety of projects that died with him in a car crash, including a comedy album (featuring character Percy Dovetonsils), a neo-silent movie (featuring character Eugene), and a series of prime-time comedy specials. He'd also just made a strong showing in Our Man in Havana. On the other hand, he'd also gone bust with a so-so TV pilot, playing a not-quite Maverick in Medicine Man (also included in this collection).
The collection itself has other goodies, but mostly concentrates on two live or as-live shows he churned out in the fifties: The Ernie Kovacs Show (a daily daytime half-hour) and Take a Good Look (a panel game with comedy sketches).
As with Monroe, you could speculate endlessly about how Kovacs' career would have progressed—literally on "what might have Bean" in the case of the Eugene movie.
Facts of the Case
The three discs of The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2 include eight of his morning shows, three episodes of Take a Good Look, lots of bonus sketches, a CBC The Lively Arts interview with Kovacs, a panel on his legacy, home movies, and trailers for two of his films.
If there's something that impressed me about Ernie Kovacs, it's not the brilliance of particular sketches—the things the people who celebrate him at an American Cinematheque panel laud. The panelists try to get inside his mind to figure out where his genius came from. As I watched, the answer seemed fairly simple. In the early days of television, stations and networks apparently put some guy in front of a camera, live, and tell them to do something. Kovacs just did it—and did it well.
Much of the appeal of the shows seen in The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2 centers around the geniality that Kovacs and the people he works with bring to that live TV experience. There's a sketch about a German disc jockey, including an ad for chocolate-flavored sauerkraut. The sketch is okay, but the cast doing a German singalong as they wish Ernie a happy birthday afterwards is a lot more fun.
He does poke fun at television a lot—many of the sketches poke fun at technical glitches or parody then-popular shows or formats—but that comedy was a natural outgrowth of the fifties culture. Note that Kovacs was part of the early Mad writing roster, a collective of parodists. His own self-deprecating jokes ("These aren't very good, but it does kill the last few minutes of the program," Percy Dovetonsils says of his poetry at one point) even suggest that much of his gift was tied to the demands of live TV. When his work is described by a TV presenter in a vintage interview for Canadian television as a "pure product of radio and television," I realize, looking at that interview around fifty years later, that it's more specifically a product of a certain era. He's celebrated for his ingenuity; live TV showcased it, but as only one aspect of his personality.
The variety shows Kovacs did before his death aren't represented here, but the collection does present a pretty good range of his television work. As he mocks an upcoming NBC show that he's supposed to plug, you'll kind of wish he were around to go after The Voice, and you'll enjoy watching him get the studio audience up on stage so he can watch them instead. You also might find a favorite sketch like Percy Dovetonsils or his dialogues with Howard, the World's Strongest Ant (Edie Adams, I think). At the same time, his material is scattershot, even in a best-of package, and can be dreadful at times (for example, his Asian accent as detective "Charlie Clod").
The images include a lot of scratches, lines, and other problems that you'd expect from ancient kinescope.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some of you might not find Ernie Kovacs so great. Late-night talk show hosts (not just David Letterman, who's cited as Kovacs' heir in a panel discussion) all make something work on a daily basis, and references to 1950s shows and news stories might be missed. If you're not particularly interested in the history behind what you see every day, you could find this collection disappointing.
What you might take from Ernie Kovacs' live shows today is an appreciation not just for Kovacs, but for the people of live TV in general. I've often heard about this kind of expertise—Alistair Cooke honors an unnamed live TV host in a vintage Letter from America in the BBC archives, for example—and seen it in current personalities like David Letterman or Regis Philbin, but the Kovacs collection shows you what early TV was.
That's not saying Kovacs wasn't amazing. He was. Anyone who wants to act or broadcast could stand to take a good look at Kovacs, and would learn a lot. It's more that Kovacs has circumstantially ended up a stand-in for that unnamed host as well as a talent in his own right.
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