You’ve probably never heard of Ernie Kovacs, which is a shame. During the 1950s, until his untimely death in 1962, he was one of the first and best TV comedians. He used television as a medium in itself, exploring what this new venue could do instead of simply televising vaudeville sketches or stage gags. Critics loved him, but he didn’t always catch on with viewers, resulting in a set of various TV series instead of one longer-running one.
His work could be surreal, full of technical experiments, or silly. Kovacs has been acknowledged as an influence on Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, and The Tonight Show. (He also wrote for Mad Magazine.) Here are some sample blackout sketches demonstrating a sometimes dark sense of humor:
Shout! Factory is assembling much of his work into a comprehensive DVD set out April 19. The Ernie Kovacs Collection will contain six discs of both classic and previously unseen content, include episodes of his morning shows, his prime time NBC show, five TV specials from ABC, classic sketches, and Take a Good Look, his game show. Here are excerpts from the press release:
With a gift for inventive comedy that was alternately cerebral, goofy, and just plain absurd, Ernie Kovacs transformed television’s early era into his own personal playground — and invited viewers to enjoy every sight gag and loony character.
Kovacs, whose humor graced the airwaves for just a decade in the 1950s and 60s, served healthy portions of the offbeat to his audiences, who had never seen anything quite like this cigar-wielding charmer. Wickedly funny but not offensive, Kovacs’ unique humor and flair for improvisation would ripple across generations, influencing TV funnymen from Johnny Carson and Monty Python to David Letterman, Pee Wee Herman, and Saturday Night Live.
Distribution of this special collection is designed to introduce audiences to Kovacs’ genius. Kovacs, who died in a 1962 car accident, left behind a stunning body of work that survives thanks to the indefatigable efforts of his wife and co-star, the late Edie Adams.
With many of the programs newly transferred from original 16mm kinescopes and curated by noted film/television historian Ben Model, The Ernie Kovacs Collection DVD box set is the first-ever comprehensive collection of Kovacs’ work — encompassing the full breadth of existing material, from his local Philadelphia morning shows in the early 1950s and national evening shows to the ABC prime time specials in the early 1960s that cemented his legend. Along with such iconic pieces as The Nairobi Trio and such signature characters as poet Percy Dovetonsils, Miklos Molnar, Matzoh Hepplewhite, Mr. Question Man, and Uncle Gruesome, fans will finally get to enjoy Kovacs’ genuine gift for improvisation, charm and warmth as host of his many variety shows.
The DVD set also includes the rare color version of Kovacs’ famous Silent Show (aka Eugene), an unprecedented wordless classic featuring a hapless character wandering through a typically Kovacsian world of surreal visual gags.
In addition to a wealth of bonus features, The Ernie Kovacs Collection includes a commemorative booklet filled with rare photos, informative program notes and a special tribute by award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem. Priced to own at $69.97 SRP, The Ernie Kovacs Collection from Shout! Factory offers fans what they have long waited for — the rest of the iceberg.
Bonus features include the 1987 Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame Induction, Kovacs’ cigar commercials, Remembering Ernie with George Schlatter (Laugh-In), and lots more. If you pre-order from ShoutFactoryStore.com, you get a bonus DVD with two more hours of “rare gems, including episodes of the Kovacs-hosted Tonight Show, which have not been seen since their original broadcast over 50 years ago!”
You can also watch a documentary about him online (series of QuickTime clips).