A crazy-quilt of
skits, musical numbers, audience participation and general kookiness – that was
brainy, brash television pioneer Kovacs in a nutshell.
BY MICHAEL BERICK
Ernie Kovacs. The name might not ring bells with today’s
audiences as he has been dead for 50 years, but anyone who has watched modern
sketch comedies or late night talk shows has seen the influence that Kovacs had
on today’s comedians. As Letterman co-creator Merrill Markoe mentions during a Museum of Broadcasting
Kovacs tribute – included in the new 3-DVD box The Ernie Kovacs Collection Volume 2 (Shout! Factory) that they studied tapes of old Kovacs shows before launching
Letterman’s morning, and later, late night, shows.
While his 1962 death in a car accident put a tragic, and
abrupt, end to Kovacs’ career, he
was a very busy man between 1950 (when he started out on Philadelphia TV) until
his death. Shout! Factory’s 2010’s
acclaimed, 6-disc Ernie Kovacs Collection boxset did a great job chronicling his career. This follow-up set spotlights
Kovacs’ 1956 NBC morning show (that served as an obvious Letterman inspiration)
as well as his twisted game show Take A
The Ernie Kovacs Show is unlike anything you’ll see on morning TV. This half-hour comedy program
plays more like the first half-hour of late night talk shows – it’s a
crazy-quilt of skits, musical numbers, audience participation and general
kookiness. Kovacs’ interest in satirizing television, even in its then-early
form, is in full force. He parodies interview segments (guests often don’t know
their own story), puppet shows (the oddball but hilarious “The Kapusta Kid In
Outer Space”), and game shows (The What’s
My Line satire Take A Good Look makes more fun of the format than Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life). Even the standard “talk to the audience”
segments were far from standard in Kovacs’ hands. In one episode, he exchanges
places with the audiences – taking a seat in the audience bleachers while he
coercing audience members to go on stage and urging them to perform.
Watch clips from the
Kovacs, with his trademark thick moustache and always-present
cigar, made fun of television as well as toying with its possibilities. His
sketches had premises involving “lost audio” and “crossed audio” (the latter
skit, in a rather absurdist/avant garde touch, made the wrong audio to the
visual image). While it may seem simple
and primitive nowadays, Kovacs was doing this in the mid-Fifties when
straight-laced variety shows like the Ed Sullivan Show or Jack Benny Show were popular.
Kovacs also did all of his magic with rather low budgets,
which make these programs look like today’s cable access shows than a network
production. He used his micro-budget to his advantage, however. One reoccurring
comedy bit involved his reactions to just off-screen sound effects. His live
show’s wonderfully unpredictable quality is something mostly absent in today’s
more regimented television environment.
Kovacs fans will recognize many of his familiar characters,
like the effete poet Percy Dovetonsils, the Nairobi Trio and the now very
un-P.C. Charlie Chan take-off Charlie Clod. Fans will also recognize Kovacs’
wife Edie Adams (whose work here serves as a reminder on what a talented singer
and skilled comedienne she was) and Bill Wendell (who was Kovacs’ announcer and
actor, and later was Letterman’s announcer).
The third disc on this marvelous collection contains a
couple special rarities. One is the 1962 CBS pilot Medicine Man that Kovacs starred in with Buster Keaton as his
Indian sidekick. While it can’t be called a “lost classic,” the show has its
amusing moments, and makes one wonder what Kovacs and Keaton might have cooked
up if this had become a series. Also interesting is a rare, sit-down interview
Kovacs did for Canadian TV program. It reveals that Kovacs was more of a
cerebral comic thinker and a constant wisecracker. Watching both his morning
show and game show, viewers also get to see Kovacs’ gentler side, where he
displays crafts that viewers sent in or get embarrassed when Adams
talks about how great the show’s ratings have been.
This wildly entertaining DVD set continues to demonstrate
what a comic genius Kovacs was. The approximately 9 hours of material here
showcase Kovacs’ unique comic mind, which created such an innovative and
influential body of work and elevated him to a revered spot in American
television and comedy history.