Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams For Beginners
"Man, I used to watch him and wonder what the fuck he would do next," Joel recalled, "because he had this thing of doing anything he had to, to keep the show moving. He'd lip synch to weird records. Throw things at the camera. He always pulled things out of thin air. It was the hippest shit on TV up to then. Miles ahead of anything else, as great as other stuff was."
Other non-sitcom programming during that period was very formidable. Sid Caesar's Your Show Of Shows boasted a writing staff that included Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen. There was Ed Sullivan, whose guests included everyone from Elvis Presley to Lord Buckley. Dramatic shows presented new teleplays by no less than Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling. News was Edward R. Murrow. The early TV talent pool was glorious, fully an embarrassment of talent. And even among that crowd, Kovacs stood singular.
"Kovacs was a pioneer in hip comedy in general," says George Wendt (Norm from Cheers). "He really introduced hip humor-what is sometimes called sick humor-to TV. He's on a par with Lenny Bruce and the early days of Mad [Magazine]."
Kovacs was certainly funny on camera, but he was beyond comedy as a visual conceptualist. Aside from on his live morning shows, eschewed live audiences, feeling their reaction interrupted the organic timing of his style of comedy.
"Television was very often just ... filmed vaudeville," Edie Adams told me once, "and then Ernie came to it with things you could never do on stage. They were too slow or too small and intimate for a big live audience. Or they didn't have the usual comedic structure of a set-up and a punch line. Sometimes it was some little one-second blackout sketch. Sometimes it was an extended visual. He could stretch an idea like taffy. He could take the simplest object and do five minutes with it."
The Ernie Kovacs Collection Volume 2 (Shout! Factory, 2012) goes wider than did the first volume, which collected together his groundbreaking 1961 network TV specials. To television comedy aficionados, that was the DVD equivalent of a definitive Hot Five's and Seven's box. With that collection out of the way, the broader survey of his career can begin, and it's startling to see how much ground is covered in this three-DVD set. Kovacs was one of the most mercurial comic talents TV has produced to date. Two of the three DVD's are of the live NBC morning shows that influenced Letterman so, still fresh and unpredictable. Each of those two discs has bonus sketches of Kovacs' most enduring onscreen characters, including politically incorrect effeminate poet Percy Dovetonsils.
(The third disc-my favorite of the box-features three episodes of his surreal, cerebral, and short-lived panel game show, Take A Good Look, which is sort of like What's My Line? meets video Pictionary à la Kovacs. The rest is a miscellaneous collection, including Kovacs' only filmed solo interview, for CBC's show The Seven Lively Arts, which is to me as fascinating as his comedy.)
Dovetonsils was his most famous creation, save possibly for the Nairobi Trio. Kovacs created him in 1951 while still on local TV in Philadelphia, and the character endured. Dovestonsils lisped and wore glasses with heavy-lidded eyeballs painted on, sported a zebra-striped smoking jacket, and drank a martini with a daisy in it. He read original poems and minced and flirted with his crew. He even recorded a full LP of poems (in character), which was assumed lost.
No longer. Percy Dovetonsils... Thpeaks (Omnivore, 2012) is the album that was rumored to exist but nobody exactly knew where the tapes were (because they were mislabeled, as it turns out). While its release is not exactly as momentous as, say, the recent The Beach Boys' The Smile Sesssions (Capitol, 2011) box set, it's still hilarious. Although Kovacs himself disdained comedy albums, he cut a very good one here, and it's a shame he didn't get to finish the production of it himself. Pianist Ben Model-a serious Kovacs historian-put musical backgrounds to Kovacs' tapes, and it's really hard to think of anything he didn't do right. As is usual with Omnivore, there's some pertinent bonus material as well.