DVD Review: The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Vol. 2

 The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2STUDIO: Shout! Factory | DIRECTOR: various | CAST: Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams, Bill Wendell, Jolene Brand, Bobby Lauher, Cesar Romero, Hans Conreid
RELEASE DATE: 10/23/12 | PRICE: DVD $29.95
BONUSES: 18 Kovacs sketches; American Cinematheque panel; “Medicine Man” pilot; CBC interview with Kovacs; color home movies
SPECS: NR | 540 min. | Comedy | 1.33:1 fullscreen video | Dolby Digital mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall


Fans of the late, great Ernie Kovacs have been hoping that there would be a follow-up to the indispensable Ernie Kovacs Collection, and the three-disc Ernie Kovacs Collection, Vol. 2 box does not disappoint. Structured around episodes of the two longer-running Kovacs series that his wife and collaborator Edie Adams was able to rescue from erasure and destruction, the set provides further evidence of Ernie’s uncommon charisma as a TV host, his ability to play weird, unforgettable characters, and his genius for crafting sublime visual humor.

The series that is the central focus of the box, a weekday morning NBC show that ran from December 1955 to July 1956, was a scripted but still very loose sketch comedy series that combined the best of what Ernie had done in his preceding series (both locally in Philadelphia and nationally) and his fascination with the TV medium. The NBC morning show finds Ernie and his writers serving up several of his best characters and smart-aleck movie spoofs (a la Mad magazine, to which Kovacs frequently contributed).

More important, though, are the esoteric concept bits that evoked nearly no laughs from the studio audience. In the American Cinematheque panel on Kovacs included as a supplement here — and the notes from archivist Ben Model in the booklet that accompanies the set — it is emphasized that Kovacs was more concerned with entertaining the home viewer than the studio audience.

The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Vol. 2

Ernie Kovacs and wife Edie Adams in TV’s Take a Good Look.

Thus, a very unique and odd bit called “Audio Lost,” in which we watch a completely silent sketch for a few minutes, leading to a properly bizarre punchline. And the strangest moment of Kovacsian whimsy in the whole box — the time that Ernie had the entire studio audience come onstage so he could watch them from the upper tier of seats (a bit unfortunately cut short by the show’s end).

The other series focused on here is Kovacs’ extremely odd anti-game show Take a Good Look (1959-61). Ernie’s unusual variation on I’ve Got a Secret found him offering “clues” (in the form of short bizarre sketches) to a panel that was surprisingly able (sometimes) to figure out the mystery guest’s profession or achievement, despite the wildly oblique nature of the clues.

As with the first Kovacs box, this set has a great selection of extras. The aforementioned Cinematheque panel finds Kovacs cast member Jolene Brand and fans of Ernie’s work (Harry Shearer, Merrill Markoe, Bob Odenkirk, Jeff Garlin and colleague George Schlatter) comparing notes.

One bonus that is very unfunny but still deserves attention is the pilot for the stillborn sitcom “Medicine Man,” made just before Kovacs’ tragic death at 42. Ernie plays a Western-era snake-oil salesman accompanied on his journeys by a winsome little boy and a Native American, played by the legendary Buster Keaton (Our Hospitality).

The most eye-opening (and mind-bending for true fans) extra is a TV interview Kovacs gave to a Canadian arts show in 1961. He eloquently discusses the visually inventive work he was doing on a now-revered series of ABC specials, but also gives the interviewer specific details about the script he’s writing for a projected film version of his silent “Eugene” character, to be played not by him but by Alec Guinness (!). This interview is the closest fans will get to an answer for the oft-asked question “what direction would Kovacs have gone in had he lived?” As such, it is both inspiring and profoundly saddening.

As was done with the first Kovacs box, Shout! is offering a limited-edition extra disc to those who buy the set from the Shout! website. The bonus disc contains seven more episodes of Take a Good Look, with more surreal clues and mystery guests (including fan-dancer Sally Rand, wrestler Mildred Burke, and Bobby Fischer).

One can only hope those who enjoyed the first Kovacs box will buy this one, so that a third collection might be released. Among other items, there are still three more of the final ABC specials (which did appear on the Kovacs box released by White Star back in 2000) and the sole surviving episode of Ernie’s Dumont show to be collected….


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”