DVD Review: The Ernie Kovacs Collection (Volume 2)

Rejoice because there’s more Ernie Kovacs on DVD. For those that don’t know of Ernie, he’s the patron saint of TV comedy. Sure people will give this honor to Lucille Ball, Steve Allen or Milton Berle, but none completely pushed the medium of TV to suit their comic visions. They were stage performers being televised. Ernie’s hilarity projected through the cathode ray tube. He toyed with the technology and the relationship with viewers whether he was hosting a network morning show, a gameshow or comedy specials. Ernie made his mark on TV from the mid-’50s to his untimely death in 1962 when he was a mere 42 years old. The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2 focuses on Ernie’s time as the most demented morning show host and the perfect teasing game show host.

The Ernie Kovacs Show aired on NBC from Dec. 12, 1955 to July 27, 1956 at 10:30 in the morning. Shortly after the Today Show ended, Ernie had his way with the housewives of America. The eight episodes featured here are a wonderful insanity as Ernie sits on what looks like the set of The Addams Family for a monologue about what’s in that morning’s paper. He’s like Regis without being Regis. The episodes aren’t complete since they had to slice out a few musical segments because of music rights. What a shame. Ernie creates a TV playground on the set. He has quite a few characters he shared with his audience including the poetry loving Percy Dovetonsil. He put on puppet shows and created crazy cab rides.

If you ever want to draw a line between Ernie Kovacs and David Letterman, this show is it. Bill Wendell was the announcer for both men. Watching thes The big difference between the two is that Ernie didn’t have to book real interviews. He got to make fun of the phonies and fame lovers that clutter up the talkshow circuit. Plus Ernie could smoke his cigars on camera while Letterman hid them off camera. Both loved a certain level of mayhem on the screen. Ernie proved you could do weirdness at any hour of the clock and find an audience.

Three episodes of Ernie’s Take A Good Look make a case that Ernie ought to be in the Gameshow Host Hall of Fame next to Gene Rayburn, Bob Barker and Groucho Marx. The show is like What’s My Line except the celebrities are supposed to get hints about the mystery guest through confusing video clues. The clues resemble Ernie’s blackout sketches from his ABC specials (featured on the first boxset). Ernie enjoys teasing his star pals Cesar Romero, Tony Randall, Ben Alexander and Hans Conreid almost as much as his wife Edie Adams. The mystery guests include Clarence Nash (voice of Donald Duck), Mack Sennett, Carl Reiner and Sen. Daniel Inoyue. This is a brilliant panel show that deserves a good look.

While The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2 doesn’t cover as many of the shows as the previous boxset, it does allow you to soak in the genius of Ernie. Here he was working in what could be the most mind numbing of gigs with mid-morning talk shows and game shows. Yet he doesn’t just tone it down and produce acceptable schtick. He’s not Regis Philben or Jeff Probst. Ernie Kovacs was a force of nature in a medium that prefers calm and safe.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers do not look like episodes of today’s TV. Most were taken off old videotapes so there’s a glitch here and there. The good part is the comedy shines through. Odds are this is how it looked when grandpa watched the show using rabbit ears to get the network signal. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. This was live TV for the most part so the microphone did its best to stick with the action.

Interview: Algernon Gerard, Archaeologist (4:04) gives us the reason why the famous man has avoided interviews over the years.

Howard, The World’s Strongest Ant: A Hot Date (3:26) is a small chat with a bug.

Strangely Believe It: Writers to Blame (1:32) puts his staff in the line of fire.

The Kapusta Kid in Outer Space Meets Olivia Scilloscope (7:04) is a science fiction puppet theater.

Charlie Clod in Brazil (11:56) spoofs the low budget jungle movies.

Ernie’s Opening Monologue
(2:45) has the host get passionate about how rotten things are in TV. He climbs up on his desk and tosses off his suit jacket to deliver his message that he’s not overpaid, but everyone else is. It’s pure mayhem.

Miklos Molnar’s Glue (6:30) is the Hungarian Billy Mays.

Percy Dovetonsils: Ode to Electricity (7:47) is a poetry moment about a shocking subject.

Interview: The World At Your Door Step (6:41) brings out a beauty queen with 200 titles. She’s a former Miss Potash.

Irving Wong: Tin Pan Alley Songwriter (4:55) has Ernie present a Chinese songwriter that spoofs bad Chinese impersonators in movies.

Percy Dovetonsils: “Ode to a Housefly” (5:53) presents poetry to a bug.

Introducing Coloratura Mimi Cosnowski (4:37) has Edie Adams as a klutzy opera star.

Howard, The World’s Strongest Ant: Howard’s Campground (3:21) is a miniscule sketch.

Skodney Silsky, Hollywood Reporter (5:09) gives all the news from Tinseltown.

Ernie’s Opening Monologue (6:03) has Ernie losing his voice and reading out of the newspaper.

Surprise Audience Member (5:53) is from when Ernie chatted with the studio audience. He has prolonged chat with an art collector which has a great twist at the end.

Audio Lost (3:01) is a series of sketches where the microphone fakes cutting out.

Matzoh Hepplewhite (7:13) is a magician. It’s classic bad tricks on TV. Ernie predicted the arrival of Criss Angel.

The Lively Arts (20:23) is a CBC interview with Ernie from Oct. 31, 1961. Ernie speaks about his legendary ABC specials while they were in production. He is full of praise for his video editors and special effects wizards.

Unaired Pilot for Medicine Man
(25:33) is a sitcom starring Ernie and Buster Keaton (The General). Ernie’s sells snake oil with Buster as his faithful Indian companion. As a sitcom from 1961, it’s rather good in a conventional way. Ernie has to plot how to get real cash from the Confederate bills forced on him by outlaws. Buster does a few physical comedy moves. The print is fantastic shape with a crisp transfer.

American Cinematheque Panel
(39:49) has numerous comedians discussing Ernie’s lasting effect on TV comedy. Harry Shearer (This Is Spinal Tap) somewhat moderates the chat between Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Merrill Markoe, Ben Model, George Schlatter and Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad and The Larry Sanders Show). Actress Jolene Brand talks about her time with Ernie. This was done in connection with the release of Volume 1.

Home Movies: Golf with Ernie & Edie (5:45) guest stars Jackie Gleason on the golf course. This was shot in color.

Trailers for Wake Me When It’s Over and Five Golden Hours
are rather rough, but I want to see the features. Wake Me has Ernie yucking it up with Don Knotts. Five Golden Hours lets Ernie seduce wealthy widows in order to rob them blind.

The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2 explores how Ernie revolutionized mid-morning talk shows and romped in the world of game shows. The bonus features include plenty of sketches from the morning show. Ernie’s work in the early days of TV should be seen not merely as pioneering, but revolutionary. If you liked the first boxset, Volume 2 is essential. If you haven’t seen the original boxset, get both volumes. We’re still catching up to what he did on TV over 50 years ago.

Shout! Factory presents The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2. Starring: Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams and Bill Wendell. Boxset Contents: 11 episodes on 3 DVDs. Released: October 23, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.

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