From the early 1950s until his tragic death at the age of 42 in 1962 in a car crash, Ernie Kovacs turned the small screen into his own personal TV funhouse of cerebral, goofy, eccentric and visually inventive comedy, most often working with his wife, singer-actress Edie Adams. His comedic influence can be felt in such later groundbreaking shows as "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "Laugh-In" and "Saturday Night Live."
Thanks to his late wife, who saved an enormous amount of Kovacs' TV work, Shout Factory! has been able to release this week a six-disc DVD set, "The Ernie Kovacs Collection." It features 13 hours of TV content including episodes from his Philadelphia and national morning shows; episodes from his NBC prime-time show; his ABC game show, "Take a Good Look"; five specials that aired on ABC in '61 and early '62; his famed Dutch Masters cigar commercials; and even his hosting of "Silents Please," where Kovacs featured a silent movie each week.
Kovacs, said Paley Center for Media curator Ron Simon, was a breed apart because "he was able to create television almost directly from his own imagination, from his own mind. Television is so much of a collaborative art, but Kovacs made his TV very personal."
Simon said Kovacs realized he was a comedian in a box. "We experienced him as a series of pixels and he played off of that. He instinctively understood that there was a total falsity to being in everyone's living room. His great sign-off line, 'It's been real,' is so ironic. He understood, it's not real at all."
Ben Model, the curator of the DVD collection, said Kovacs' appeal was "the personal connection" he had with viewers. "He always speaks like he is across the room from you."
The DVD set illustrates Kovacs' growth over the decade from being a casual talk show host to "this visionary who did those eight specials that sort of redefined what we think of media," Simon said. "The specials are so strange. There was no linear narrative. "
Veteran publicist Henri Bollinger represented Kovacs from 1959 until his death and then continued to represent Adams until her death in 2008.
"Nobody could figure out how his mind worked," Bollinger said. "I am talking about people who worked with him. He would do things that made absolutely no sense. He never had a script, or at least he never had a script that he showed, anyway."
Bollinger recalled that when he did the specials, the crew and cast would show up and "nobody had a clue as to what the show was about. He would go about and say, 'We are going to do this, we are going to do that.' When I would see the show, I couldn't figure out what it was going to be about until we actually saw the show. The end result would be mind-boggling."
Bollinger said Kovacs was working on a small budget on those last specials because he had to have full control, so Dutch Masters paid for a half-hour show on the network every other week. "They would let Ernie do whatever he wanted to do. He was so identified with cigars, all they wanted was to get him to do commercials for them."
One of the sketches from the specials featured quick little comedic bits with a woman in a bubble bath set to the song "Mack the Knife" in its original German. A periscope would appear emerging from the tub or at another point, her feet would be sticking outside of the tub. Actress Jolene Brand played the woman in the tub.
"I thought he was just the sweetest man. He was laid back," Brand said of Kovacs.
That is, until Kovacs and Brand's husband, producer George Schlatter — who credits the comic for influencing the visuals on his seminal TV comedy variety series, "Laugh-In" — got together.
"He became zany and funny," Brand said of Kovacs. "It was really interesting their philosophy on comedy and what's funny. Ernie would tell him what he was going to do and George said, 'That's great, Ernie, but you should really have a punch line. Don't you feel it needs a punch line and Ernie would say 'no.'"
"One day he called me and said, 'Do you want to come over to the studio?'" Schlatter recalled. "'I want to tell you a punch line and see if it works.' So I go over to the studio and he was standing there. He put his hand on the fender of a car and it went through the stage. He said, 'Is that a punch line?'"