Ernie Kovacs – The ABC Specials (1961-62/2012)
Director/Performer: Ernie Kovacs
5 half-hour specials
Studio: ABC/Ediad Productions/Shout Factory SF 13156 [4/17/12]
Video: 4:3 B&W
Audio: English PCM mono
Extras: Dutch Masters cigar commercials
Length: 145 min.
Last year Shout Factory released a 5-DVD set of archives from Ernie Kovacs’ TV shows. This is one of them, consisting of five of the eight specials he put together in the last year of his life—before he died at age 42 in an auto accident in LA. It was just after videotape came into use in TV studios, which amped up the already-unique tricks Kovacs had been doing all his TV career with live on-air cameras. Now he could develop new editing and special effects techniques, at a time when nobody else used videotape aside from just recording a program for later airing. He really invented video art way before it came into existence.
Kovacs had gained experience doing a lot with almost nothing in his early days in radio, and he continued his offbeat, often surrealistic approach with TV. Often one of his various characters was the only person on screen and other times there was no one—just ordinary physical objects doing unexpected things, such as moving in sync with some classical music. He had all sorts of crazy characters and quick sight gags. For example, he tilted the entire set so that his character could pour milk from a pitcher and have it miss a cup and instead flow down the table into the lap of someone sitting at the end of the table. Kovac’s improvised visual tricks influenced many different later comics. The fifth special was produced just before Kovacs’ death and was aired afterwards.
Some gags in these specials may strike one as rather corny today, but the masterpiece of the set is his half-hour no-dialog “Silent Movie” titled Eugene. It is full of wordless sight gags that just keep coming. Seeing a moose head on the wall and then the body of the moose in the next room with its tail wagging has been in a number of comedy sketches and animations, but I wonder if Kovacs did it first in Eugene. There was also an early color version of Eugene, which is available on another DVD from Shout Factory; this one is black & white. Kovacs’ wife Edie Adams was his sidekick on many of the specials, with other shapely ladies often assisting Kovacs in his sketches. The Dutch Masters cigar commercials are just as offbeat and creative as the rest of his work. (Kovacs loved his cigars, and it is even thought that perhaps his accident might have occurred when he was trying to light one while driving.)
The picture quality is excellent, being videotape—so much better than the kinescopes on which much of Kovacs’ earlier work is preserved. Edie Adams labored to save as much of Kovacs’ original material as possible. At ABC they had been erasing his videotapes to re-use them, since at the time of his death Kovacs owed the network a great deal of money.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.