Ernie Kovacs: The King Of Early Television Comedy From 1950 until he died in an auto accident in 1962, Ernie Kovacs created some of the most inventive and unusual television ever made. A new box set collects more than 13 hours of the TV pioneer's best and rarest programs. TV critic David Bianculli says it's "a mandatory purchase for anyone who loves TV."
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Ernie Kovacs: The King Of Early Television Comedy

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Ernie Kovacs: The King Of Early Television Comedy

Ernie Kovacs: The King Of Early Television Comedy

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(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

From 1950 until he died in an auto accident in 1962, Ernie Kovacs created some of the most inventive and unusual television ever made. That was true then and its just as true half a century later, says our TV critic David Bianculli. A new DVD box set collects more than 13 hours of the TV pioneers best and rarest programs. And David, who also teaches TV history, couldnt be more thrilled.

(Soundbite of song, "Solfeggio")

Mr. ERNIE KOVACS (Comedian): (Singing) Do, me, so, do.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI: If you don't know who Ernie Kovacs is, and never saw his brilliantly bizarre TV specials, the music youre hearing now, an otherwise obscure Italian song called "Solfeggio" won't be associated with any specific images. But if you know Ernie, you're doubtlessly conjuring up pictures of one of his signature recurring bits, The Nairobi Trio. It's nothing more than three people wearing gorilla masks, pretending to play the song while one of them, the conductor, gets hit over the head at the end of each verse.

Describing it doesn't make it sound funny - you have to see it. And even then, you have to share Ernie's sense of the absurd. More than anyone else in the 50s and 60s, he stressed, and played with, the vision part of television. He was the first special effects artist on TV - the first one to play, really play, with all these new-fangled cameras and videotapes and other toys.

But Ernie Kovacs was so, so much more than that, and a new boxed set from Shout! Factory called "The Ernie Kovacs Collection" makes that case superbly. If all Ernie did was push the medium of TV into new directions - with quickly edited blackout sketches that later were copied by "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," and with full-length music videos that predated MTV by more than 20 years -that would have been enough. But he had other amazing gifts as well.

As a sketch comic, his recurring characters were memorably, daringly original. He would put on silly costumes, and sillier accents, to play everyone from TV horror-film host Uncle Gruesome to movie star Rock Mississippi. And more than a generation before "In Living Color" gave us the openly gay movie critics of "Men in Film," Ernie Kovacs gave us TV's proudly prissy poet laureate, Percy Dovetonsils.

(Soundbite of "The Ernie Kovacs Show")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOVACS (as Percy Dovetonsils): It's so nice to blink pinky via the orthicon tube, as the expression goes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOVACS (as Percy Dovetonsils): Certainly, it is nice to join once again with you out there. I was reminiscing only this morning.

BIANCULLI: And Ernie Kovacs had a third great talent, perhaps his most underrated one. When he was himself, talking to the camera, he not only was a natural, he looked natural. He talked conversationally, not like an announcer. And he sat there, looking directly into the camera, and talked matter-of-factly about a lot of things, including television. In that way, he was doing in the 50s and 60s what Jon Stewart is doing now - looking around at the TV landscape and pointing out its failures and excesses by making fun of it.

Heres Ernie speaking from the TV control room as the director next to him calls out shots, setting up one of several sketches in a 1961 show about TV, sex and violence.

(Soundbite of "The Ernie Kovacs Show")

Mr. KOVACS: Actually, it isn't so much that theres an excess of sex and violence in these various medias. It's really that there isn't quite enough. Now if there were more we wouldn't notice it so much. Now let's take for instance the weather forecast.

BIANCULLI: And at this point, the camera cuts to Jolene Brand, one of the lovely ladies who was part Ernie's repertory company, reclining on a plush couch. She's wearing a sheer sexy nightgown, and as she talks, the camera pulls in closer and closer on her face. By the time she's finished all we see are her lips.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of "The Ernie Kovacs Show")

Ms. JOLENE BRAND (Actress): Hi, weather lovers. About that sunshine today, hmm? Crazy. I don't know how to tell you this. We might have a little rain tonight. Mm-hmm. Ole Pluvius is in there pitching. You see we have this low pressure area. And we have this high pressure area. It just dont make the scene. Cuckoo. There's 78 in California today, 74 in New Jersey. Twenty-one. Ooh. Twenty-one, 21 in Alaska and 108 in Georgia. Try to keep cool.

BIANCULLI: Ernie Kovacs started in TV in Philadelphia in 1950, and hosted an early-morning TV show, "3 to Get Ready," that was the first TV morning show anywhere - not just in Philly. From there, and for the next dozen years, he hopped all over the dial. Whenever one network let him go, another would just as eagerly grab him up, because absolutely no one was doing what Ernie did. This brilliant new Shout! Factory collection includes the earliest surviving work by Ernie Kovacs, most of his classics, and so much bonus material that it's absolutely invaluable.

"The Ernie Kovacs Collection" is a mandatory purchase for anyone who loves television and wants to experience some of its richest comedy roots. But as I see it, it's also almost a public service.

Sadly, there's nowhere to see Ernie Kovacs on television these days - not on TV Land, Nick at Nite, or any other network that ought to be proud to keep his legacy alive. We TV history teachers try to do our part - but now, thanks to Shout! Factory, you can have a graduate course on Ernie Kovacs in the privacy of your own home. And there's no final exam - just a ridiculous number of laughs.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com. He teaches TV and film history and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new DVD box set "The Ernie Kovacs Collection."

I'm Terry Gross.

Well close with a track featuring violinist Billy Bang from his album "Prayer for Peace." Bang died last Monday at the age of 63 of complications from lung cancer.

(Soundbite of music from album "Prayer for Peace)

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