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At the Paley Museum: Hearing, Rather than Lecturing, About Ernie Kovacs
April 13, 2011  | By David Bianculli

Tuesday night, instead of teaching a college TV History class about Ernie Kovacs, I went to New York to attend a Paley Museum presentation ABOUT Ernie Kovacs -- moderated by Keith Olbermann, who, even before opening his mouth, honored the spirit of Ernie Kovacs by delivering a memorable, visual ad lib...


Olbermann, seated in the front row of the small auditorium, was being introduced from the stage, and was credited as being about to resurface as the news editor, and a new program host, on Current TV. Still seated, with his back to the rest of the audience, Olbermann acknowledged the crowd's warm reaction to that announcement by thrusting an arm in the air and offering a big thumbs up.

Then, a few seconds later, he raised the same arm again -- but this time, at the end of it, his fingers were crossed. The audience laughed heartily, for the first of many times.

The panel assembled to salute Kovacs featured Kovacs repertory cast member Jolene Brand; her husband, George Schlatter, creator of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In; Joel Hodgson, creator and original star of Mystery Science Theater 3000; Robert Smigel, creator of TV Funhouse and the "operator" of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog; and Ben Model, curator of Shout Factory's superb Ernie Kovacs Collection DVD box set, which comes out next week, and was the occasion for this tribute.

The set, though far from definitive in a quantitative sense, is deliciously definitive in terms of representing the various facets of Ernie Kovacs' TV career and creative development. The collection begins with a pair of 1951 live shows from his days hosting a local Philadelphia program, It's Time for Ernie, and follows his career all the way to his posthumously presented 1962 special, with an absurdly generous amount of extras.


Kovacs, for the uninitiated, was the first true visual artist of the new medium of television -- a triple-threat artist who would have deserved his status as an iconic TV figure if all he had done was generate the inventive visual and aural gags that turned television on its head. But Kovacs also was brilliant at creating characters, from prissy poet Percy Dovetonsils to horror-movie host Uncle Gruesome -- and equally brilliant, and amazingly at ease, at talking directly to the camera as himself.

Kovacs, Hodgson said admiringly, was "so GOOD on camera. You LIKE him." Model agreed, adding, "I always felt like the shows were visits with Ernie."


The best new insights into the show came from Brand, who was immortalized by Kovacs when she was placed in a bubble bath (see photo at top of column), in a bathtub that had a trick section with a secret entrance beneath it, allowing for the unexpected intrusion of everything from people to pets.

"That was really weird, wasn't it?" she said, laughing. Kovacs told her nothing about what, or who, would be exiting from the bubble bath as she soaked there, but specifically instructed her not to react to anything that might happen.

"What you didn't want to do is crack up and ruin the take," she said, recalling, "Almost everything was one take."

Given the complexity of the sight gags, that's amazing.

What else is amazing is the sheer variety of the bits themselves, as well as the subsequent TV shows and stars who appropriated or adapted them. Smigel remembers, when he and Conan O'Brien started work on the latter's first late-night NBC show, "Our goal was to rip off the part of Steve Allen that David Letterman HADN'T ripped off." It was only later, Smigel said, that he realized they all, including Allen, really were ripping off Kovacs.


Schlatter, whose Laugh-In was a blatant updating of Kovacs' blackout editing style and rapid-fire sight gags, said he credited Kovacs as his inspiration at every opportunity, and freely admitted, "We knew who we stole from."

I'll review The Ernie Kovacs Collection DVD set next week. But if you can't wait -- if you're pre-sold, and want to pre-order, click HERE.

Or, even better, order direct from Shout Factory by clicking HERE -- and get an exclusive bonus DVD of Kovacs' 'Tonight Show' appearances and other stuff.




Ben Model said:

The link to Amazon will get you the six disc set only. If you want the BONUS dvd that includes 1956 episodes of the "Tonight!" that Ernie hosted and an hour of extra sketches, order direct from Shout Factory's website.

Ben Model


Kovacsland Online!

[Good to know! And thanks, Ben -- you were terrific at the panel, and your archive work on this set is fabulous, too. I'll insert the direct Shout Factory link in the column now... -- DB]

Comment posted on April 13, 2011 1:45 PM

Eileen said:

Your mention of Percy Dovetonsils made me laugh-out-loud. My father absolutely loved Ernie Kovacs, so we were exposed to his antics at a very early age. He was truly a comic genius -- and Edie Adams wasn't too shabby either.

It's sad that he passed so early in life, as he still had years of entertaining ahead of him.

Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane.

Comment posted on April 14, 2011 9:04 AM

David Bianculli Author Profile Page said:

[You're welcome -- and I promise, you'll LOVE the DVD set! -- DB]

Comment posted on April 14, 2011 9:29 AM

Eileen said:

I'm really dating myself here, but I do remember the "Bath Tub Skit", and how my dad howled with laughter. The good old days...

My dad was a very astute mechanical engineer, with patents galore, but his idea of heaven was Laurel & Hardy, Ernie Kovacs, Jackie Gleason and Steve Allen. Go figure...

[Makes perfect sense to me. Kovacs was an "inventive" comedian himself. -- DB]

Comment posted on April 14, 2011 12:31 PM

Mac said:

Well,I've been on the fence for months about this but, David, you pushed. It's on the way! Interesting to see that double disc of PBS stuff from 2000 going for fifty bucks or so (at least till this new box hits the street). But Ernie is the Chaplin of TV, has Philly roots (hopefully, someday a National Parks plaque where the old studios existed) and after numerous viewings, still makes me laugh out loud.I can't use a thermos without thinking of his lunch sketch. With Blockbuster & Borders bailing out, my entertainment dollars are flying out of my checking account. And that complete Bullwinkle box sits at Barnes & Noble and laughs at me. Why can't Christmas be twice a year?
Right now, with freight, the Shout Factory extra disc version is about ten dollars more than Amazon's standard set. 10 bucks for two hours of extras -- I'm there. But, David, a brief question: Is it close captioned? Shout and the Foos Bros have a habit of not CCing stuff. Just got the first season of Bill Cosby's 1969 show for 8 bucks at FYE, but, alas, another Shout item with no CC. One would think that the logic of marketing stuff that many a senior citizen has interest in would include captioning.

[Except with Kovacs, it's either purely visual or pure accented nonsense. But thanks for the trust. You won't be disappointed. -- DB]

Comment posted on April 14, 2011 4:45 PM

Tom Degan said:

We all came together at the Paley Center in New York City on April 12, 2011 - one week ago tonight - to pay tribute to a man who has been called (with no exaggeration) "Television's Original Genius". The event, which was hosted by Keith Olbermann was set to herald the release today of a six-DVD retrospective of the hideously-brief career of this extraordinary talent. The release of The Ernie Kovacs Collection is reason to celebrate - and I'm celebrating - trust me.

I am a huge fan of Keith Olbermann. During his eight-year run as host of MSNBC's Countdown, I rarely missed a broadcast. Yet when the evening was over and the participants in the discussion were mulling about underneath the giant video screen, I walked right passed the guy. No offense, Keith, but I just had to introduce myself to Jolene Brand (photo on the left). She was there with her husband, the producer (and creator of Laugh In) George Schlatter - or as we inhabitants of Kovacsland fondly refer to him, "Mr. Jolene Brand". It can be said that Jolene was Edna Purviance to Ernie's Charlie Chaplin, and a vital presence on the Kovacs program for the last three years of his life. Fifty years later, she is still a heart breaker!

The one palpable absence from the evening's festivities (besides Ernie of course) was Edie Adams who passed away three years ago. She was the woman who stuck by Ernie through thick and gaunt and who saved the videotapes and kinescopes in this beautiful collection from being destroyed by foolish network executives. (Incredibly, in an effort to make space in a warehouse, untold hours of films from Ernie's Dumont Network period were dumped into the East River in the 1960s). I spoke to Edie on the telephone one night in 1986. I remember practically begging her to release on video the NBC special from May 1959, "Kovacs on Music". She told me, "I will someday, Tom, I promise". It is contained in this collection.

As someone once remarked, "Ernie was lucky to have Edie. Television was lucky to have Ernie - probably television's only genius". I have to agree.


Tom Degan

Comment posted on April 21, 2011 7:45 AM

Colleen said:

I'm jealous - there's an added bonus for me on that panel, since I'm a huge MST3K fan. It sounds like an amazing event.

And thanks to you, every time I hear "Ernie Kovacs", I think "Rancid The Devil Horse"! Looking forward to visiting this box set soon.

[My TV History students will NEVER forget Rancid the Devil Horse. No matter how hard they try. -- DB]

Comment posted on April 22, 2011 1:32 PM
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