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Man Out of Time

by B.A. Nilsson on November 20, 2012

The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Vol. 2

 

The six-DVD set that Shout! Factory released last year was as wonderful a bounty of Ernie Kovacs material as you could desire, righting the wrong inflicted by an earlier collection that chopped his shows to smithereens.

This new collection, which is half the size, is very much a supplement, concentrating its contents on the morning show Kovacs hosted through most of 1956. Eight episodes were part of volume one; here are eight more technically crude monochrome programs minus most of their musical guests (to avoid paying licensing fees), most of them culminating in a sketch too labored to seem as funny today as it might have come across back then. It doesn’t matter. Every show has elements that transcend the limitations of time and technology, showcasing the nonstop inventiveness of TV’s first great comedy talent.

Kovacs was a one-off, an original, whose innovations during television’s crude adolescence (he worked from 1951-1962) showed promise that took years for the medium to fulfill. He blasted the small screen with surreal gags, blackout sketches, musical essays and an amazing ability to ad lib.

While Sid Caesar and Steve Allen created comedy in time-honored theatrical forms, Kovacs’ best work came out of the tension produced by subverting those forms. One day he’d walk into the audience and interview people as wittily as Groucho Marx; the next, he ordered the audience off their seats and onto the set, so that he could sit in the house and insist that they perform for him (which you’ll see in this collection).

Game shows got the Kovacs treatment with his antic version of What’s My Line parody called Take a Good Look, in which celebrity panelists must identify a guest with hints provided by surreal sketches prerecorded by Kovacs and company. One episode was in the earlier set; you’ll get to see three of them here and wonder why the format hasn’t, in all seriousness, been revived since.

After all the madness spread across these three DVDs, including sketches drawn from other Kovacs shows, it’s unsettling to see the man stuffed into a standard sitcom. Worse still, he’s alongside Buster Keaton, who by that time had long been misused. It’s a never-aired program titled A Pony for Chris, and you’ll watch it once with horrified curiosity before scrubbing all trace of it from your brain and retinas.

The only known extended interview with Kovacs was in October 1961, three months before his tragic death. He describes his working habits and reveals ambitious plans for TV and film projects, including a fascinating-sounding script he was developing for Alec Guinness, as well as a record (in the old-fashioned LP sense) of one of his best-known TV characters, Percy Dovetonsils. A record that wasn’t completed—until now.

Kovacs historian Ben Model, who has spent years digging through the archives that the comedian’s widow, Edie Adams, aggressively preserved, found the master tapes of the recording, added (his own) music, in keeping with Dovetonsils tradition, and filled it out with a half-dozen Dovetonsils sketches drawn from the audio tracks of his early TV shows to create Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils . . . thpeaks (Omnivore Recordings).

But can this character survive the scrutiny of today? Kovacs played the poetaster as a full-out swish, in dressing gown and spit-curled hair, with a lisp you can hear across two counties. On the surface it can be taken as a completely insensitive, not to say offensive, portrayal. In the context of its time, there’s another important dimension.

Sixty years ago, the image of queer was held up for ridicule or a cipher that needed decoding. While Ernie’s Percy tends towards the former, there’s nothing hidden or apologetic about this character. He admires the cameraman’s physique. He flaunts his fashion tastes. And the light verse he recites is clever and funny, with no trace of condescension.

This isn’t as apparent if you haven’t seen Percy on video, but the recording itself, originally intended for a time when Kovacs was rarely absent from the screen, takes that for granted. Today it’s more of a curiosity, but an enjoyable one, and it’s been issued on both CD and vinyl.

For all the critical acclaim his shows received, Kovacs never became popular with a mainstream audience. But as the participants in an American Cinematheque panel (included on the new DVD set) observe, modern TV comedy is entirely in Kovacs’ debt.