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Ernie Kovacs Collection, The (DVD Review)

24 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Shout! Factory
$69.97 six-DVD set
Not rated.

The most with-it guys in my elementary and middle schools dug Ernie Kovacs to ultimate extremes, and I’m talking about pubescent hipsters who subscribed to Downbeat as well (in seventh grade, no less). And though significantly less developed than those peers, I at least knew enough to relish Kovacs as a singular TV personality — and further loved it when he proved surprisingly malleable to the big screen in a bunch of movies I liked as a child: Operation Mad Ball, Wake Me When It’s Over and in North to Alaska as the conniver who tried to cheat John Wayne on a fake diamond ring (look out for your bridgework).

So when you read the superbly knowing/loving essays here by David Kronke and Jonathan Lethem — plus curator Ben Model’s thorough episode annotation on what is going to be a contender for DVD release of the year — there is one eye-roller. This is when son Joshua Mills reveals in the launching note that Kovacs widow Edie Adams — the late saint who’s responsible for this set even existing — actually ran into young suits who didn’t know who Kovacs was when she was trying to put this collection together. You have to wonder just how dim today’s dimmest showbiz dim-bulbs can be: The line from Kovacs to “Laugh-In” (which is one reason why that show’s producer George Schlatter appears on this boxed set’s extras) to Monty Python to “Saturday Night Live” to David Letterman to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and right up to today is not exactly a crooked one.

Though Kovacs was more subtle about it, this master of surreality satirized some of the same things film director Frank Tashlin did (or might have) in the ‘50s and early ‘60s: comic books, game shows, cooking shows, jungle adventures, TV hucksters of all kinds, a long list. But Kovacs’ two most famous creations — the Nairobi Trio of musically progressive but sometimes out-of-synch apes, plus the lisping, sight-impaired, martini-swilling poet Percy Dovetonsils — were so out there that it was impossible to think of them being conceived by anyone other than the mustached host who smoked cigars and looked just dreadful in a blond wig playing Leena, Queen of the Jungle.

Because his humor was so unapologetic — the kind that appealed to maybe one (worshiper) out of 10 at the time — Kovacs bounced around from network to network and even served time at short-lived Dumont. Unlike White Star Video’s vintage The Best of Ernie Kovacs set (a fine, crisply edited VHS/DVD that my children grew up with), this is an uncommonly comprehensive view, basically unfiltered. We see Kovacs on local TV, on morning network shows, summer replacement shows and on the classic but not particularly highly rated ABC specials that he did at the end — just before his untimely 1962 death in an auto mishap (I will never forgive the wire service ghouls who printed the graphic aftermath photo). Had, say, the Beatles reunited in 1979 for their own TV special, Kovacs probably would have been scheduled against it. But in the long run, this was OK: Niche slotting probably helped give him the freedom to do what he wanted.

This is a remarkable salvation job. As Mills explains in the opening essay, Edie had to go from network to network and buy surviving kinescopes with her own money — paying as well to store them with proper temperature control when she had already worked for years paying off Ernie’s IRS tab (tax preparation was not among his virtues). This was a period when NBC, in particular, was junking its holdings (even into the Hudson River) to save storage costs, which is why next to nothing from the early Allen-Paar-Carson “Tonight” shows exist (though we do get morsels of Kovacs’ own hosting appearances on a bonus disc; see below). As they say, there’s a special place in Hell for some folks. Incredibly, this set even contains a color copy (runny color, but it’s color) of Jan 19, 1957’s Saturday Color Carnival, which actually ran on a Friday. I remember it vividly: NBC offered Jerry Lewis 90 minutes for his first solo TV special after the breakup with Dean Martin, but Lewis wisely only wanted to take 60. That left a 30-minute gap that probably only Kovacs would have agreed to fill — and he surpassed all expectations. The critics just killed Lewis’s part of the package while using Kovacs’ as the hammer.

Spread over six discs (with that terrific bonus seventh if you order this set from Shout! Factory’s website), the chronicle gets progressively funnier as it goes. The early local stuff in Philly (1951; with Adams;) isn’t that uproarious, but as a window into what primitive TV was like, it’s among the great gifts of recent years. During high school and college, I worked five years in the film and promotion departments of a CBS affiliate, and I can tell you that even then, pioneer local television had basically not been preserved — at all — outside of old still photos.

The later network material is parceled out with precision: there are full shows (minus some songs due to the standard music rights quagmire) and also lots of excerpted individual skits that are sometimes verbally witty but frequently sans dialogue in the tradition of our bedrock silent comedians. Some are surprisingly gruesome (a la Blake Edwards) as well, including a killer bit on the bonus disc where a game show contestant appears with an arrow in his bloodied chest, and the panel has to guess which famous person committed the violence. Going this even one better, the main set also includes a beautiful 1960 copy of an episode from ABC’s “Take a Good Look,” bankrolled by Kovacs’ trademark sponsor Dutch Masters and almost certainly the weirdest game show in TV history.

A regular on “Good Look” and in a lot of Kovacs’ later work was looking-good Jolene Brand (Mrs. Schlatter and also, I was delighted to learn here, the model on the cover of Robert Mitchum’s 1957 Calypso album). Her recollections are a standout amongst bonus goodies that also include a sampling of Edie’s own Muriel Cigars commercials, which were huge at the time. Which is a lead-in to this collection’s No. 1 revelation: that dialect-marvel Adams was one of the great comediennes ever and possibly even Kovacs’ superior as a performer (all this in addition to her babe-dom dimension and a Juilliard-trained voice). Hopefully, the entire set will be a revelation as well for all who assume that ‘50s TV comedy was insipid. Actually, with Kovacs, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Martin & Lewis and more, the decline only came later. All of them were cooking in the middle of that decade — while those same old entertainment dim-bulbs (legion, as ever) were 10 years away from launching I Dream of Jeannie and its culturally irrelevant ilk.

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