Saturday, June 18, 2011

DVD Report: The Ernie Kovacs Collection (Disc One — The Early Years)

[post 154]   

Clown friends come to my apartment, look at all my books and DVDs, and are impressed with how much I must know.  I do the same thing at my doctor’s office. All those thick volumes line the walls. Surely he’s read them all.  He does know what he's doing, right? Right??

Well, I’m hoping my doctor’s doing a helluva better job than me, because I know I can’t keep up.  I continue to collect, but finding the time to read or watch is another matter.  I’ve waited months or even years with great anticipation for a new DVD box set to appear, snatched it up on its release date, and then never watched more than a half hour of it. "I'll get around to it... one of these days."

Of course not every book makes for an engrossing read, nor is every multi-disc DVD collection a non-stop laff riot.  Yes, I’m a fan of silent film comedy, but much of it is formulaic and only sporadically entertaining, and when you’re tracing the early years of a famed comedian, you discover that they are human too and that it took them quite a while to reach their stride.  Their development process may be historically interesting, but you really have to be in the right mood for that. And if you're writing a physical comedy blogopedia, you feel obligated to take notes on it as well.  Hmm, maybe I’ll watch another episode of [fill in the blank] on Hulu tonight instead.

So, why this review? 

Well, they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I’m experimenting on myself nonetheless: instead of undertaking the daunting task of viewing all six volumes of the admirable new Ernie Kovacs Collection and posting some sort of comprehensive report — a homework assignment I might never finish — I decided that for the time being I’d limit myself to the first disc, and hopefully add on later.  So here goes……

Ernie Kovacs was an early pioneer of television comedy whose brilliant career was cut short when he died in a car accident in 1962, ten days shy of his 43rd birthday.  Here’s why you might find him interesting:
His comedy was conceptual, improvisational, and often brilliant; he was an absurdist and post-modernist before his time
He was a visual comedian, and has been described as the "Buster Keaton of television." Although not a physical performer in the knockabout sense of Keaton and Lloyd, he had an affinity for silent film and often used it as inspiration for his own work, especially his character Eugene.
He wrote for Mad Magazine for a few years.
He was a VFX innovator, what were known in those days as "camera tricks," and is credited with the invention of television's first form of "greenscreen" effect.
He coined the sign-off line “It’s been real.”

For more of an overview, here's part of a Carl Reiner tribute to Kovacs:

Early Television
Although I still pass for 29 (or so), I can actually tell you a thing or two about early television. My first acting job, a baseball skit with Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason on the Red Skelton Show, went into rehearsal just before my seventh birthday in 1955, only four years after Kovacs' first shows in Philadelphia. Television was 100% live in those days, and if my family wanted to watch me perform, they had to go to a more prosperous neighbor's house, because like many people we did not yet own a TV. And the only reason we have recordings of any shows before 1957, when videotape came into use, was the kinescope: basically the results of a 16mm film camera being pointed at a television monitor.

Most of these "kinos" did not survive. Early episodes of the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson were dumped in the Hudson River to save on storage costs. NBC was actually dubbing over Ernie Kovacs tapes to record game shows, and much of his work was lost forever. When Kovacs' widow Edie Adams caught wind of this, she had the smarts to buy up any and all kinescopes and videotapes of her husband's work that still survived, without which this DVD collection would not exist.

[ASIDE: One more old-man anecdote. In 1957, I had a small role in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews, and with Edie Adams, wife of Ernie Kovacs, playing the fairy godmother. We were in rehearsal for a month at CBS Color Studio 72 on NYC's upper east side, and though I know I met Rodgers or Hammerstein (don't remember which), I'd like to think that Kovacs must have dropped by from time to time that month to visit his wife and that we were at least in the same room... and perhaps he even said "hi, kiddo" to me. And speaking of kinescopes (I told you this was an aside), the black-and-white kinescope recording of the live color telecast of Cinderella was re-broadcast on PBS in 2004 as part of its Great Performances series, and I actually got a royalty check for $285, a mere 47 years later; no residuals on the DVD, though.]

What I do remember about those days was that television was more like off-off-Broadway than the slick high-tech advertising machine we're so used to today. Smaller crews, less equipment, more chaos. Even Cinderella, the most lavish production of that era with 56 performers, 33 musicians and 80 stagehands, had only four cameras! I think what happens in the early days, where everyone's just learning the medium, is that there's both a rare chance to invent whatever you want but also a push towards "what works," towards a safe commercial product.  Somehow Kovacs managed to be a leading innovator while enjoying enough commercial success to stay on the air.

Disc One — The Early Years 
What we see on this first disc is Kovacs from 1951 and 1952, working in a small ramshackle studio, no laugh track, no audience except his crew — a preference he was to retain — and trying out all kinds of bits. There is no fourth wall, no pretense at naturalism.  He breaks character, chats with the cameraman, the other performers. You see his mind constantly working. Anything goes, no apologies.

Here are a few sample clips to whet your appetite, interspersed with some choice quotes from the excellent DVD booklet.

In this enduring bit, Kovacs teaches "you ladies" how to use the dials on your new-fangled television set.


“Ernie Kovacs knew exactly what to do with television before television knew what to do with itself. It's sixty years later and we still haven't caught up.”— David Letterman

A very short William Tell gag with a simple camera trick.


"It's appropriate that television is considered a medium, because it's rare if it's ever well done."  — Ernie Kovacs

A silly enough whipcracker gag.


"How many recent geniuses... are so utterly erased from their right place in cultural memory? In Ernie Kovacs' case, literally erased.  Taped over, for crissakes. This goes beyond any artist's worst fears of being out-of-print, or of receding in mists of antiquity, or even of being a victim of the chemical time bomb of nitrate prints that have devoured century-old silent films.: this is more recent and irresponsible and lousy than that. They taped over his work, the fuckers. Here's Ernie Kovacs, the bridging figure, at the very least, between Groucho Marx and David Letterman; the immediate and proximate father, at the very least, of both Monty Python's Flying Circus and Nam June Paik; the uncle, at the very least, of Laugh-In and the Tonight Show and a thousand lesser television moments; the permissive next-door neighbor, at the very least, of Donald Barthelme and Frank Zappa. "  — Jonathan Lethem, novelist (Motherless BrooklynChronic City)

If you saw this mock commercial for Briefy cigarettes on Saturday Night Live, it would be 30 seconds long. Kovacs rambles on for almost four minutes — "When I flounder, I flounder" — but it was all part of his endearing persona.


"The Ernie Kovacs Show knocked me sideways into a world where the bizarre and the daft and the preposterous all lived happily alongside wisdom, wit and perception. I had never experienced anything so visually absurd and inventive. It was sublime."  — Terry Gilliam, original Monty Python member; director (Time Bandits; Brazil)

An opening to one of his shows from August, 1951, done partly in the style of silent film.


I would say that there's more of the same on disc one, and there is, but there's even more variety: puppet shows, classical theatre parodies, eccentric music numbers à la Spike Jones, cooking routines, and more. Should you buy this box set based on what I've watched so far?  Yep!  The material's great and everything about the collection is quite well done, not surprising since it was curated by New York's own silent film historian and piano accompanist, Ben Model. You can get it here for under $40. As I've preached before, if fans like you and me don't buy this stuff, they're not going to keep making it. And it's so much better than watching crappy compressed 2-minute excerpts on YouTube.

Finally, if you want links, I'll give ya links. The Wikipedia article on Kovacs has some good information, but for more go to the source: Al Quagliata and Ben Model have three — count 'em, three — Kovacs web sites up there:

To be continued?


Tom Degan said...

The best review I've read yet on the Ernie Kovacs Collection. You nailed it!

"It's been real".

Ernie was a bit of a paradox in that respect. He was the real deal alright - and television's first surrealist. Go figure.

Al Quagliata said...

I shall back up comments of my friend Tom Degan; such a great review. Wonderful! You really nail it.

And thanks so much, John, for mentioning and linking the blog, my site, and Ben's.

Here's to keeping Ernie's legacy alive for a whole new generation!

Tom Degan said...

Here is my own little contribution to the discussion:

Again, your review was fantastic.

All the best,

Tom Degan