The Ernie Kovacs Collection

The Ernie Kovacs Collection
Few people have stretched the boundaries of television and influenced as many people as profoundly as Ernie Kovacs, yet chances are you've never heard of him. While there are several early television luminaries who still have substantial followings, such as Rod Serling or Johnny Carson, Kovacs's name has long since vanished into obscurity, despite the fact that no one was a greater innovator. To this day, the techniques Kovacs pioneered are still imitated and emulated. Whether it's David Letterman's sarcastic dismissal of TV formula, Tim And Eric's gleefully surreal piss-take on the clichés of the medium or even music videos, Kovacs got there first. He was decades ahead of his time as a TV writer, director and actor back when most people were still trying to figure out what those jobs entailed. Kovacs sadly died in 1962, at the age 43, before he had a deserved hit to make him a star. He's an artist and comedian long-deserving of rediscovery and fortunately, and the good folks at Shout Factory have put together an obscenely comprehensive collection of his work, most of which has been collecting dust in museums for years. Describing exactly what Kovacs did is difficult, as his best work was purely visual and beyond intellectual deconstruction. It's weird, surreal, fourth wall-breaking comedy, equally as thrilling to those interested in the history of television as those under the influence of certain illegal substances. The DVD set starts with early specials that consist of little more than Kovacs sitting at a desk directly addressing a live audience, yet even here he mocks the necessity of advertising and the disposable nature of the TV medium at a time when it was still a new invention. From there, Kovacs went on to have the first ever morning TV show (think more along the lines of Letterman's failed attempt at a.m. anarchy than anything involving Regis) and, most famously, a series of primetime variety shows on various networks. His most beloved bits involve a very Mr. Bean-like, socially awkward silent comic character named Eugene, surreal Family Guy-style cutaway gags set to music, Michel Gondry-esque music videos, where inanimate objects dance to classical music, and a trio of violent music playing monkeys. Simply put, Kovacs' comedy needs to be seen to be believed and still feels fresh a half-century later. The technical quality of Shout! Factory's DVDs isn't fantastic, but that's primarily due to the technological limitations of the time and the fact that the recordings were never properly archived. The only reason these tapes even exist is because Kovacs' widow, Edie Adams, purchased as many master tapes and kinescopes as possible when she learned that networks were taping over and destroying all of their archives in the '60s to avoid storage costs (Johnny Carson's early NYC Tonight Show era was lost for this very reason). It might not be a complete collection, but it's literally everything that exists and some of the material hasn't been seen in decades. There aren't many special features, but simply having access to this material is a borderline miracle. Sure, watching forgotten TV from the '50s might not sound like an ideal way to spend an evening, but quite honestly, you've never seen anything quite like Ernie Kovacs' TV comedy. Anyone with even a passing interest in comedy and the visual possibilities of filmmaking needs to check out this DVD set. There are still lessons to be learned from what Kovacs accomplished so many years ago, and it's all pretty funny too. (Shout! Factory)