Thursday, April 14, 2011
THE GENUIS OF ERNIE KOVACS
By FRAZIER MOORE, AP Television Writer
NEW YORK – If you have ever laughed at, say, David Letterman or "Monty Python's Flying Circus" or "Laugh-In" or "Saturday Night Live" or Steve Allen or Craig Ferguson, then you owe a debt to Ernie Kovacs. After more than 50 years, he remains the wellspring of TV as an instrument of humor and delighted innovation.
Sadly, much of Kovacs' work is gone. In the 1950s, most shows weren't preserved after airing. Prerecorded shows were routinely erased so the tape could be reused for the next thing.
But a new six-disk boxed set, "The Ernie Kovacs Collection," curates surviving treasures from Kovacs' prodigious TV output stretching from 1951 through his untimely death in 1962. (Distributed by Shout! Factory, it will be released April 19, listed at $54.99.)
These precious samples, lovingly recovered and restored, provide startling glimpses of the birth of television — even TV as we watch it today, rejiggered and recycled by Kovacs' disciples long after his passing. Kovacs marks where TV started, and he has never been eclipsed as a TV visionary.
A native of Trenton, N.J., he was an aspiring-actor-turned-radio-personality when, in 1950, he landed a job at a local Philadelphia TV station. There he hosted wacky fashion and cooking programs, as well as the first-ever TV wake-up show (an unwitting prototype of NBC's "Today," which would debut nationally in 1952).
No recordings exist of these earliest efforts, but they gave Kovacs his providential entry to a video wonderland where, to him, the creative possibilities must have seemed limitless.
"The Ernie Kovacs Collection" kicks off with a March 7, 1951, edition of "It's Time for Ernie," a live, local afternoon show.
Radiating buoyancy, amusement, his signature mustache and cigar, Kovacs is clearly in synch with his TV playground. He is as adept at freeform foolishness as at masterminding a meticulously crafted gag. And he never shrinks from the offbeat or conceptual. In the midst of his riffing he throws open the studio doors to take a leisurely stroll down a long corridor into the distance, for a sip from a water fountain. Then he makes his way back into the studio and continues where he left off.
In another off-the-cuff moment, he begins dusting his props-cluttered set, then, moving offstage, turns his attention to a TV camera, whose lens he scrubs with his dust cloth.
"You're putting on weight," he chuckles at the viewer through the lens.
TV had hardly begun, and already Kovacs was giving viewers a peek behind TV's artifice, inviting the audience to join him on the inside.
Instinctively, Kovacs understood what none of his TV contemporaries had guessed, and what few in the business acknowledge today: TV isn't an extension of radio, cinema, vaudeville or theater. As a writer-producer-performer, Kovacs knew that TV begged to be something unique. His happy job was to figure out what.
To do it, Kovacs surrounded himself with an evolving troupe of fellow players (often including his wife, the singer-actress Edie Adams), and, as his budget allowed, musicians, dancers and fancier production. But some things never changed: From his first days on TV he claimed the ragtime-y "Oriental Blues" as his lifelong theme song.
The collection includes five half-hour prime-time specials Kovacs produced for ABC in 1961. (The last aired in January 1962, just 10 days after he died at age 42 in a car crash near his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.)
There are moments in these shows whose level of invention and avant-garde abandon not only holds up today, but may have never been excelled on TV since they were taped. In one sketch, a fellow grows increasingly annoyed by a kids TV host, "Freddy the Friendly Fireman." Finally the viewer raises a pistol and fires. Pan to the TV: Freddy, shot dead, is draped out of the TV screen into the viewer's living room. In one of Kovacs' music videos (an art form he apparently pioneered) a high-stakes poker game is set to the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Kovacs loved music, but also experimented with silent bits. He was sophisticated, but loved to show things unexpectedly crashing through the floor. He would stage extended pieces or quick visual puns. He loved when things went wrong.
His taste for the absurd was reflected in a bit that may remain his best-known: the Nairobi Trio. Three people costumed in gorilla suits, bowlers and long overcoats mechanically mime to a tune like wind-up toys, with one of them (played by Kovacs) repeatedly thwacked on the head with a timpani mallet by a fellow gorilla.
It was delightfully low-tech. But Kovacs was also ever on the lookout for ways to make TV, however primitive in those days, do extraordinary things. He came up with a simple device that allowed the picture to tilt or even spin, which served some of his comedy bits. He introduced an early form of the "green screen" effect, enabling a married man's "invisible girlfriend" to conveniently vanish from sight after taking off her clothes.
By today's standards, the TV equipment of the 1950s, and even early 1960s, was cumbersome and confining. But not for Kovacs, whose imagination made TV soar. To watch him at any phase of his career is to see a man at play. At times his care is painstaking, but there's no pain. He finds joy in every idea. For him, TV was too important to be serious about it.
As surveyed by this DVD collection, Kovacs' career spanned little more than a decade, with his many shows popping up on numerous networks at every hour until, a half-century ago, it was cut short, denying him the measure of stardom he deserved.
He did TV his way for a cult of Kovacs-worshippers, and left an imprint on TV that continues to be recognized by people who don't even know his name.
But oddly enough, there has been little acceptance or inspiration for advancing the cause he championed: broadcast video as an art form. This DVD treasury celebrates Kovacs as TV's first video auteur — and, thus far, arguably its last.