I missed Volume 1 but if it's anything like The Ernie Kovacs Collection - Volume 2, I may have to go back and get it. An intriguing compilation of material spanning 1956 and the comedian's NBC morning show to a 1961 television interview conducted mere weeks before his untimely death.
I first became interested in Kovacs after seeing the 1984 TV-movie Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter, with Jeff Goldblum in the title role. However, until recently Kovacs has been one of those talents whose most visible work is his least representative, namely his ten feature film appearances. He's okay and sometimes better than that in movies like Operation Mad Ball; Bell, Book and Candle; and Our Man in Havana, but his movie roles rarely played to his strengths.
This DVD set, conversely, is mostly unadulterated, not-quite-but-almost pure Kovacs, allowing the viewer to experience first-hand his unique, ahead-of-its-time approach to comedy, revealing obvious direct antecedents for later irreverent TV hosts like David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. Compiled, archived (and in some cases rescued from oblivion) by Kovacs's widow, muse, and frequent co-star Edie Adams, the set is also revelatory in terms of showcasing her talents, too. Like her husband, Adams is remembered mainly for her few films, particularly It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), playing the wife of Sid Caesar (his role was written with Kovacs in mind). In later years she was a ubiquitous presence at Hollywood functions where I always wanted to but never did chat with her about her husband, mainly because I had only been able to see little scraps here and there of his work.
Volume 2 consists of three single-sided DVDs. Discs 1 and 2 consist mainly of Kovacs's NBC morning show (1955-56), broadcast from Studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (Jack Paar and Johnny Carson later hosted The Tonight Show there; it's currently home to Jimmy Fallon's show). Kovacs had slowly been building an audience on NBC, CBS, and Dumont network affiliates, but this was his first big national exposure. In one of the episodes, broadcast on Kovacs's birthday, Edie proudly announces that the show's ratings are by the standards of their early timeslot through the roof. (One of the great pleasures of watching them together is they rarely playfully spar on camera like other Hollywood couples. They're crazy about one another and it shows.)
As Ben Model points out in the set's excellent liner notes, Kovacs was "television comedian-as-auteur," with a uniquely intimate yet seemingly informal, off-the-cuff and even slightly rumpled manner with a fondness for the surreal and convention-breaking, all of which was revived more or less years later by David Letterman (and his then-partner Merrill Markoe), first on his morning show and later to perfection on the NBC Late Night with David Letterman (1982-93). Kovacs, however, was more the visual comedian, an Americanized, TV-savvy Jacques Tati. Like Letterman, O'Brien, et. al, Kovacs's show was done live before a studio audience, but Kovacs much preferred working on tape without one, as his material was specifically tailored to the home audience, what the camera and microphones recorded.
The shows consist of long sketches - Ernie as a German disc jockey, for instance - though I found myself equally interested watching him seated behind a desk, commenting about the strange/amusing items his loyal viewers (particularly members of EEFMS, the Early Eyeball Fraternal & Marching Society) would send him. Intriguingly, the shows writers included Rex Lardner, son of Ring, and Louis M. "Deke" Heyward, later the writer-producer of several astonishingly unfunny comedies for AIP in the 1960s. Most of these episodes are abbreviated due to music rights issues.
Disc 3 begins with three episodes of Take a Good Look, a 1960-61 game show obviously patterned after What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret. Indeed, it's virtually identical to those shows save for Kovacs's pre-recorded "clues": Dada-esque sketches as outré as anything on network television at the time. Kovacs also wrote and supervised the humorous, highly regarded Dutch Masters cigar commercials accompanying each show.
The sketches, beguiling as they are, actually weigh the show down, which is entertaining on its own terms. Adams and Dragnet co-star Ben Alexander are regular panelists, and the mystery guests include Mack Sennett (very shortly before his death), test pilot Scott Crossfield, Clarence "Ducky" Nash, and Daniel Inouye (the first full member of the House of Representatives from the then-new State of Hawaii).
Also included is an excellent interview with Kovacs conducted for Canadian television just 2 ˝ months before his fatal car accident. Throughout Kovacs is funny and thoughtful, and it's clear how precisely organized his notions of comedy (which he refers to more as an "experiment") were, describing in great detail sequences from his later TV specials (such as the need for cutting a half-second of an eye-blink). He also describes a sadly unmade film he was hoping to write, produce, and direct only, which was to star Alec Guinness. As described the film sounds a lot like cross between Jerry Lewis's The Bellboy (1960) and Tati's later Play Time (1967).
Ironically, the very things about the television medium Kovacs criticizes in the interview are on full display in Medicine Man, the pilot film for a thankfully unproduced sitcom. A Western comedy that Kovacs must have taken on solely to pay bills, it strains for laughs that aren't Kovacs's style at all. Only Buster Keaton, as his Indian sidekick, rises above the weak material.
An "Ernie Kovacs Panel Discussion" at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood follows, with comedy heavyweights Harry Shearer, Merrill Markoe, Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Bob Odenkirk, George Schlatter (who freely admits stealing wholesale from Kovacs for Laugh-In) and wife Jolene Brand, who worked with Kovacs for a time. There's much insightful conversation, such as Shearer's observation that while many comics, such as Jerry Lewis, also attempted silent (or, more appropriately, dialog-less) comedy during Kovacs's era, Kovacs was the only one who avoided the pitfalls of Chaplinesque sentimentality.
"Home Movies: Golf with Edie and Ernie" is better than it sounds, as it includes rare footage of Jackie Gleason cavorting with the couple on an overgrown course. The disc wraps with two dog-eared trailers for Wake Me When It's Over and Five Golden Hours, the former notable for its celebrity endorsements.
Video & Audio
Except for the two trailers, which look pretty terrible, the video/audio end of things is generally fine. The Medicine Man pilot, for instance, was newly-remastered by Sony Pictures, while the NBC morning show and Take a Good Look episodes look perfectly adequate given their age and rarity. The Cinematheque panel is in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, while everything else is 4:3 standard size. Audio is good throughout, with once again the exception of the two trailers.
It's all bonus material in one sense, but beyond what's described above, the first two discs each include nine "bonus sketches" with such titles as "Strangely Believe It: Writers to Blame," "The Kapusta Kid in Outer Space Meets Olivia Scilloscope," "Irving Wong: Tin Pan Alley Songwriter," and "Matzoh Hepplewhite." All three discs together run about nine hours.
Fascinating and funny, The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2 is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.