"As a foot note, it might be interesting that in spite of the lack of quality, the dearth of big names, the absence of a large budget, this show still teeters on the brink of mediocrity." - title card from The Ernie Kovacs Special, 1961.
Let's get to the nitty gritty first: Shout! Factory's Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials is a single-DVD repackaging of one of the discs from their acclaimed 2011 box set, The Ernie Kovacs Collection (check out Paul Mavis' DVD Talk review of that set here). While those who already own the Collection will find nothing new here, the disc does serve as a nifty primer on the visually inventive, ahead-of-its-time comedy style of Mr. Kovacs.
In describing the specials on this disc, I'll just throw out somebody else's impression of something else (in this case, George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip): "bizarre, sweetly amusing, and blissfully continuity-free." The black and white merriment on this set came about as the result of an agreement Kovacs had with ABC to do a series of TV specials over the 1961-62 season. Eight half-hour shows were produced, with final five broadcasts making up the contents of this disc. They represent the last projects Kovacs worked on before perishing in an auto accident in January 1962 - a tragic end to a brilliant talent.
It appears that ABC gave Kovacs carte blanche to do whatever he wanted on these specials, since they positively buzz with invention and creativity (even the end credits have a different, wild look with each installment). The shows have a nominal amount of structure with Kovacs popping in - with striped shirt and ever-present cigar - to casually describe whatever was on his mind. There's also a bit of regularity with the commercials from sponsor Dutch Masters Cigars, but even these are done with a delightfully weird twist that makes them of a piece with the sketches and visual gags surrounding them. A typical (?) installment will have a barrage of clever sight gags (a track-and-field runner getting catapulted by a rubbery finish line, for instance), dialogue-free recurring sketches, non-sequiturs and elaborately produced tableaus backed by lush music. In the cast of the latter, these sequences count as beautiful, proto-MTV mood pieces that were unprecedented in their visual ambition. One such memorable sequence involves a group of men and women getting ready for a night out on the town - a bit that manages to be astonishing, heartbreaking and hilarious within the span of a few minutes.
The humor in these specials performs the neat trick of being both nostalgic and strangely forward-thinking. Kovacs was obviously fond of silent comedy, and it shows not only in the more blatant old-timey skits but also throughout the many bits where he employs visual tricks of the eye (like the famous skit where he sits down to eat, with the contents of his lunch box mysteriously rolling and spilling off to the side). Mostly the humor anticipates the kind of surreal sight gags and contemporary, irony-infused humor that would later be popularized on shows like Laugh-In and Monty Python's Flying Circus. One gets a sense of Kovacs stretching the medium to its limits, playing around, and communing with the audience while gently mocking the crazy world we all inhabit. That kind of subversiveness has gotten commonplace to the point of cliché, but as of 1961 it was a rarity shared by perhaps MAD magazine and some of director Frank Tashlin's weirder gags.
The specials on this disc all all pretty much the same, quality-wise, with most gags hitting the bullseye while others fall flat (even geniuses aren't 100% funny). Special #7, originally broadcast on December 12, 1961, was an especially fantastic one. That show is highlighted by a series of gags that look at permutations of the typical Western movie shootout with an increasing oddness (including a sci-fi piece - were the producers of Cowboys and Aliens watching?) and a lyrical segment that follows the journey of a raindrop with classical music integrated with the action. Although Kovacs is the nominal star, he is aided by a talented group of performers here which include Jolene Brand, Joe Mikolas, Bobby Lauher, and Maggi Brown.
It also occurred to me that these specials would be excellent to show to a young person with a yen for the offbeat/surreal - as long as the parent doesn't mind all the onscreen smoking. Kids are very receptive to humor that operates on its own weird logic, and they're not as judgmental if something is older and in black & white. One of Kovacs' more memorable gags has a beautiful woman taking a bubble bath (soundtrack: "Mona Lisa") while various people nonchalantly step out of her tub as if emerging from a subway station - an image that personally stuck with me since first viewing it, thirty-plus years ago. A huge part of the enjoyment of this stuff lies in the surprises they present, so I will stop right there.
Apparently mastered from the original videotapes, the picture quality on Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials is of below-average quality with some distortion and video artifacts on the image. In a way, the faulty image enhances the hallucinatory quality of the gags. The tapes are much preferable to kinescopes, however, and for that we have to thank Kovacs' widow Edie Adams (who saved these precious documents from destruction by personally buying them up from ABC).
Only the original mono soundtrack is supplied, which is cleanly mixed and pleasant. No subtitles are present, which isn't a big loss for these mostly visual-oriented programs.
The only extra is 12 minutes of Dutch Masters Commercials, presumably from the other three specials not included on the disc*. Kovacs poured as much energy and effort into these hilarious spots as the main portion of his program - he knew which side his bread was buttered (or where his stogie was lit, I guess).
Although the contents of Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials come highly recommended, this is merely a repackaging of previously available material and the cynic in me has to dock Shout! Factory for that (they didn't even change the "Disc 5" notation on the menus, for Pete's sake). The specials themselves are brilliant, however, brimming with weird, subversive and visually innovative gags. Adults and kids alike would find a lot to enjoy here. Recommended.
* Update: Ernie Kovacs Collection curator Ben Model informed us that the bonus commercials are from Ernie's panel/quiz show Take A Good Look (1959-61).