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'Ernie Kovacs Collection': A DVD Set That Belongs in Yours
April 19, 2011  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment

One of my absolute favorite TV heroes and icons, Ernie Kovacs, is celebrated in a lavish new DVD boxed set released today (Tuesday) by Shout! Factory. Like its subject, who was TV's first visual genius (and so much more), it's amazingly entertaining...

Ernie Kovacs started in TV when the medium itself was in its infancy. He began doing local TV in Philadelphia, and hosted an early morning show there when there weren't any other morning TV shows ANYWHERE. Very quickly, he got picked up by the networks, and is one of the original, usually overlooked hosts of what is now called The Tonight Show.


He did shows and specials for various networks over the years, until his sudden death in an automobile accident in 1962. They never were ratings blockbusters, but they always were unique. He played with the medium of television -- special effects, sound, polarity, videotape editing -- when doing so was a cumbersome, painstaking task.

But he also created a string of hilarious comic characters, from the poetic and prissy Percy Dovetonsils to the silent musical ape that was one-third of The Nairobi Trio. And, as himself, he dissected the medium on which he appeared, talking so naturally and honestly to the camera that he seemed born and destined to be a TV star.

If you need more reasons to embrace this set, I can provide some of them by directing you to my NPR Fresh Air with Terry Gross review of this boxed set, The Ernie Kovacs Collection, which ran Monday. You can read it, and hear it, by clicking HERE. I definitely recommend hearing it, because you'll get to listen to Ernie, and some of his musical favorites, and a very funny piece about TV sex and violence.


As part of that piece, cast member Jolene Brand delivers the weather dressed in a sexy nightgown, reclining on a couch while whispering about various highs and lows. On the radio, I couldn't show pictures. Here, I can.

But reading about Ernie Kovacs, and hearing him, and even seeing still photos, doesn't begin to do him justice. More than anyone else in the formative years of television, Ernie Kovacs has to be seen in context, in full sound and motion -- which is precisely why he should not be forgotten, and why this DVD set is SO much fun.

There are elaborate music videos here, set to both popular and classical music. There are ballets with dancers dressed as gorillas. Brilliant spoofs of The Howdy Doody Show, Ask Mr. Wizard and just about every Western ever made. (Four words: "Rancid the Devil Horse.")


I learned, from this box set, that Rancid the Devil Horse -- perhaps my favorite bit of business in all of Kovacs' shows -- was predated by such formative forebears as a racy book called "Rex the Devil Horse," and a Candid Camera spoof, featuring that show's host Allen Funt, called "Rancid Camera."

I'm not used to learning things from TV boxed sets, but this collection taught me lots. And showed me many, many things I'd never seen before, from the comic's earliest live shows to his few surviving Tonight spots.


The Tonight stuff (including, shown in the photo at the top of this column, Kovacs' tour of his own Central Park penthouse, with wife Edie Adams dropping in, in costume as Daisy Mae, fresh from Broadway's hit production of Li'l Abner), and some other material, appears on a seventh bonus DVD that's available only when ordering The Ernie Kovacs Collection directly from Shout! Factory at the link in this sentence.

Otherwise, the six-CD set, without the bonus "Buried Treasures" disc, is available from Amazon at a reduced rate. You can buy that by clicking HERE.

You owe it to yourself, and your own TV on DVD collection, to do one or the other.





Tom Degan said:

Ernie Kovacs was a visionary. He was the first to realize that great art could be created within the nineteen-inch confines of an ugly box with a glass tube at its center. Unfortunately for humanity, he's gone and he's not coming back. Thank God for Edie Adams. Because she had the foresight to save her husband's work, we now have these kinescopes and videotapes to gently remind us what once was. Ernie's world was a delightful, wondrous and riotous place to enter. Someone once remarked, "In an ocean of noise, this island of quiet genius was typical of Ernie Kovacs." Indeed it was.

Early in his career, he would close his programs by telling the audience at home, "It's been real!", a phrase he coined. He was a bit of a paradox in that respect. Ernie Kovacs was the real deal alright - and television's first surrealist. Go figure.


Tom Degan

Comment posted on April 21, 2011 6:49 AM
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Lyman Green
I am finally watching this set based on getting it based on the Fresh Air interview that I listened to last year. It was a present so unfortunately I missed out on the 7th disc from shout factory, but I'm already absoultely intrigued by what he did with the medium 60 years ago.
Dec 31, 2012   |  Reply
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