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HTF DVD Review: The Ernie Kovacs Collection **Highly Recommended**

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#1 of 13 Todd Erwin

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Posted April 22 2011 - 04:50 PM


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The Ernie Kovacs Collection


Studio:Shout! Factory
US DVD Release Date: April 19, 2011
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 780 minutes
Number of Discs: 6
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 full screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles: None


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Movie: 4.5 out of 5
Ernie Kovacs was a pioneer of television, although he never achieved the ratings or status of the likes of Milton Berle, Sid Ceasar, or Jack Benny, at least during his brief lifetime. I was first introduced to his style of comedy in 1977, when PBS ran a series of Kovacs’ TV specials. I was hooked by this odd-style of humor, and would not see anything remotely similar until the summer of 1980, when NBC gave David Letterman a morning talk show. Ernie Kovacs had a tremendous influence on television comedy, including Chevy Chase, Terry Gilliam, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Joel Hodgson, and the aforementioned David Letterman, to name but a few. Without Kovacs, we would not have Saturday Night Live, Laugh-In, and many of the late-night comedy talk shows.

Shout Factory! presents a good sampling of programs over six discs, each disc covering an era of his career.
 
 
Disc One: The Early Years
It’s Time For Ernie -  March 7, 1951 (8:37)
It’s Time For Ernie - June 1951 (8:42)
Ernie In Kovacsland - July 6, 1951 (15:12)
Ernie In Kovacsland - August 23, 1951 (20:00)
Kovacs On The Corner - January 1952 (16:55)
Kovacs Unlimited - May 28, 1952 (17:29)

Kovacs’ television career began at NBC affiliate WPTZ channel 3 (now known as KYW, and a CBS-owned station), with a local morning show, Three To Get Ready. The success of this show led NBC to pick up a 15-minute version that was broadcast nationally, called It’s Time For Ernie, that aired from May 14 through June 29, 1951. This set gives us a brief glimpse of the test runs of this show, as well as an excerpt from an actual broadcast. It is here that Kovacs uses the controls of a television set to distort his face, simulating the vertical and horizontal hold adjustment knobs us old-timers fondly remember.
 
 
Kovacs then moved into prime time a month later with a summer replacement series for Kukla, Fran and Ollie called Ernie in Kovacsland. This series was also broadcast by NBC from the WPTZ studios in Philadelphia, and Kovacs was still writing and performing Three To Get Ready as well as an afternoon cooking show for local television. Six months later, Kovacs would be back on the NBC network morning schedule with Kovacs On The Corner, a more kid-friendly show produced at WPTZ. Corner lasted for three months, until Kovacs moved his show to both CBS and New York, now called Kovacs Unlimited. The show would run for 21 months. All of these early shows are somewhat crude, but were produced on a very low budget for a medium that was still very much in its infancy. These three shows also featured Mrs. Ernie Kovacs herself, Edie Adams, as a member of the ensemble cast.
 
 
Disc Two: The NBC Morning Show
The Ernie Kovacs Show - December 19, 1955 (21:00)
The Ernie Kovacs Show - February 20, 1956 (24:48)
The Ernie Kovacs Show - March 15, 1956 (18:47)
The Ernie Kovacs Show - April 12, 1956 (18:13)
The Ernie Kovacs Show - June 12, 1956 (16:21)
 

December of 1955 is where Kovacs’ career really becomes interesting. After a brief late-night stint at the ill-fated DuMont Network, Kovacs moved back to NBC with a morning show performed in front of a live audience. In addition to Edie Adams, future David Letterman announcer Bill Wendel was also a valued member of the cast. This morning show, which ran from December 1955 thru July 1956, was Kovacs’ training ground, where he perfected one of his most famous characters, poet laureate Percy Dovetonsils.
 
 
The show featured other recurring sketches: The Kapusta Kid, an often funny spoof of televised puppet shows; Howard, The World’s Strongest Ant, voiced by Edie Adams and interviewed by Kovacs; Mr. Science, where Kovacs plays a bumbling science professor joined by Johnny, the kid next door; and The Nairobi Trio, with Kovacs, Adams, and a special guest star all dressed in gorilla suits performing Robert Maxwell’s Solfeggio.
 
 
Watching these excerpts, it is evident that David Letterman used this show as the basis for his own NBC morning program in 1980. The similarities are striking.
 
 
Disc Three: The NBC Evening Show
The Ernie Kovacs Show - July 2, 1956 (43:44)
The Ernie Kovacs Show - July 30, 1956 (42:41)
The Ernie Kovacs Show - September 2, 1956 (36:21)
 
 
When Sid Caesar’s variety show went on its summer hiatus in July of 1956, NBC turned the timeslot over to Kovacs and gave the comedian a larger studio, a larger budget, and a full orchestra to create his own variety show. The summer series gave Kovacs a chance to really experiment with television, using early keying effects to simulate flying, dancing ghosts, etc. Many of his famous characters would lend a hand to the show, most notably Percy Dovetonsils and the Nairobi Trio.
 
 
This was also the early days of color, and Kovacs used this as a gag since his show was broadcast in black and white by placing tags on every item of the set indicating what color the item was.
 
 
Disc Four: The Late 1950s
Saturday Color Carnival: The Ernie Kovacs Show - January 19, 1957 (25:32)
Kovacs On Music - May 22, 1959 (51:10)
Take A Good Look - July 21, 1960 (26:56)
 
 
In 1957, NBC gave Kovacs complete creative control, color cameras, and a 30-minute timeslot to experiment. The show was almost entirely without dialogue, and used interesting lighting effects for its title sequences. Unfortunately, the existing kinescopes of this series are of such poor quality that watching this one episode can be rather taxing. The real treat is being introduced to Eugene, a character that lives in a non-spoken world filled with visual and auditory gags.
 
 
When his 30-minute color experiment ended, Kovacs took time off to appear in a few movies, but returned in 1959 with his last one-hour (“it only seems longer”) special for NBC, Kovacs On Music. As the title suggests, music was the key element to this program, with many of the sketches set to music or about music, including a gorilla ballet.
 
 
In October of 1959, Kovacs moved to ABC with his take on the celebrity panel game show, Take A Good Look. Kovacs hosted the show, and the celebrities had to guess (usually incorrectly) the identity of each week’s mystery guest based on three clues Kovacs created prior to taping (many included Percy Dovetonsils). The show aired for two seasons.
 
 
Disc Five: The ABC Specials
Kovacs Special - September 21, 1961 (26:50)
Kovacs Special - October 28, 1961 (26:54)
Kovacs Special - November 24, 1961 (28:48)
Kovacs Special - December 21, 1961 (26:37)
Kovacs Special - January 23, 1962 (28:24)
 
 
Ernie Kovacs continued his relationship with ABC with monthly specials that began in April of 1961 until shortly after his tragic death in a car accident in January of 1962. These were the basis of the PBS specials that aired in 1977, and contain some of his best work. Most of the shows featured musical montages of recurring tidbits of sketches (some lasting less than a minute), with an oscilloscope showing the wave patterns of the music linking each sketch. Kovacs even dedicated a large portion of one 30-minute special to his Eugene character, which more people talked about after it aired than the Jerry Lewis special that preceded it. These are some of the most involved and technical of Kovacs’ work, and according to the enclosed booklet, each special was taped in one very long day.
 
 
Disc Six: Classic Pieces
More sketches from Ernie Kovacs’ NBC shows, 11 from the morning show and 8 from the evening show.
 
 
Percy Dovetonsils Reads “Roughing It” - January 27, 1956 (5:43)
Ferrante & Teicher Perform “Oh Susannah” - February 2, 1956 (3:10)
Mr. Question Man - January 25, 1956 (6:27)
Drawing With John Magee - April 11, 1956 (815)
Leena, Queen of the Jungle in “Deadly Danger of the Devil Demons” - April 26, 1956 (11:20)
News Report with Leroy L. Leroy - May 8, 1956 (7:23)
A Series of Magazine Ads - June 5, 1956 (2:40)
Tales From Uncle Gruesome - April 23, 1956 (9:02)
Crossed Skillets - February 13, 1956 (6:33)
Leonard and Lola - June 20, 1956 (10:27)
Percy Dovetonsils Almost Reads An Ode - July 12, 1956 (6:14)
The Late, Late, Late, Late Hungarian Movie - July 9, 1956 (3:48)
Mr. Science - July 9, 1956 (6:08)
Nairobi Trio - July 16, 1956 (3:16)
Let’s Take A Visit - August 6, 1956 (6:38)
Howdy Deedy - August 15, 1956 (7:03)
TV Backstage - August 27, 1956 (6:12)
Trapizza - August 27, 1956 (11:40)
Vas You Dere? - September 10, 1956 (9:00)
 
Video: 3 out of 5
The source material presented on this 6-disc set came from either 16mm kinescopes (a crude process used to archive live video before the invention of videotape) or black and white videotape, all circa 1950s and early 1960s. The producers of this set have obviously tried their best to make the shows and segments look as good as they possibly could. That being said, much of the material will likely never look as good as it did when it originally aired. Many of the kinescopes have built-in dirt and scratches, not to mention occasional skewing errors and electrical interference. The only color program on Disc 4 suffers the most, almost appearing like a bootleg. The videotapes also exhibit occasional skewing errors and electrical interference. However, detail is still quite good overall when taking all of this into consideration, and compression artifacts are minimal if not non-existent. Some younger viewers may balk at the video quality of this release, expecting pristine and crisp transfers of these classic television programs. Television owes a debt of gratitude to Ernie Kovac’s widow, the late Edie Adams, who purchased as many of these programs outright from NBC, CBS, and ABC before the networks destroyed them to either make room in their vaults or to recycle videotape. Otherwise, much of this material would have been lost forever.

Audio: 3 out of 5
The audio, which is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, suffers mostly due to the source material. There is some hiss, with some pops and other anomalies that are audible, but it is obvious that the soundtracks have been cleaned up as best they could. Fidelity is limited, but these shows were never meant to be heard on a multi-channel sound system. Instead, they were meant to be listened to through a single speaker.

 
Special Features: 4 out of 5
Shout! Factory’s set includes a wealth of bonus material:

First off is a 44-page color booklet including photos, press releases, program notes, and essays by Joshua Mills, Jonathan Lethem, and TV critic David Kronke. This is a very good read.

Disc One:
1987 Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame Induction (11:01): Carl Reiner, Jack Lemmon, and Edie Adams reminisce about Ernie Kovacs’ career in this excerpt from the 1987 ceremony.

Remembering Ernie With George Schlatter & Jolene Brand (20:58): Jolene Brand and George Schlatter discuss working with and knowing Ernie Kovacs in recent interviews produced for this set.

Baseball Film (4:09): Kovacs would occasionally make short films for his shows, and often played multiple roles, as he does here, playing not only every position on both teams including umpires, but also members of the crowd. He would re-use these films often, and two narratives are provided, one from July 1951 and one from July 1956.

Making of Baseball Film (3:14): Film historian Ben Model narrates these 8mm color home movies shot by Kovacs’ production assistant Andy McKay during production of the Baseball Film.

The Mysterious Knockwurst (8:05): This short film is Kovacs’ homage to the silent era comedies, with Ernie playing the heavy with handlebar moustache, who is smuggling messages stuffed inside a knockwurst.

Andy McKay Home Movies (6:50): More home movies from Andy McKay, narrated by Ben Model, shot during production of both Three To Get Ready and Kovacs On The Corner.

Disc Two:
Five more sketches from Ernie Kovacs’ NBC morning program.
Percy Dovetonsils: Ode To Stanley’s Pussycat (5:25)
Martin Krutch, Public Eye (14:24)
Rock Mississippi in: Fingers Under Weskit (11:44)
Howard, The World’s Strongest Ant (3:14)
J. Burlington Gearshift (10:16)

Disc Three:
Superclod Test (2:39): Kovacs was a perfectionist, as seen here in this kinescope test footage for the flying sequence from the Superclod sketch from the July 2, 1956 episode.

Disc Four:
Take A Good Look Clues (19:46): Four more sets of clues (less the panel questions) from the series.

Take A Good Look Sales Film (3:36): A sales pitch to sponsors and programming executives. There is some controversy if this was a legitimate sales film or not, as Kovacs talks about the series having been broadcast for two seasons, trying to sell it for a third.

Silents Please (8:35): The wraparounds for a 30-minute program of abridged versions of silent classics, hosted by Ernie Kovacs.

Our Man In Havana Behind The Scenes Footage (3:21): On location footage from the Cuban sets of Our Man In Havana with Alec Guiness and Ernie Kovacs, including an early test of the underwater smoking gag.

Disc Five:
Dutch Masters Cigars Commercials (11:54): Dutch Masters was a major sponsor of Ernie Kovacs’ shows on the ABC Network, and 12 commercials are featured here from Take A Good Look.

Disc Six:
Trailer for Operation Mad Ball (4:28): Ernie Kovacs was allowed to create his own trailer for his first film role, which contains little to no actual footage from the movie itself.

It Happened To Ernie (5:07): Another promotional trailer created by Kovacs for the film It Happened To Jane, documenting how he changed his appearance for the film.

Muriel Cigars commercials (7:06): Edie Adams was also known as the spokesperson for Muriel Cigars, and 9 of those television spots are presented here.

Overall: 4.5 out of 5
The genius of Ernie Kovacs is captured and presented very nicely in this six-disc DVD set from Shout! Factory. If you are unfamiliar with his work, I recommend viewing this set starting with the Hall of Fame presentation on Disc One to familiarize yourself with the time period these shows were produced, then watch Discs 3, 5, 6, 2, 1, and 4 in that order. Discs 1 and 4 are for the most ardent fans. Highly recommended!!


#2 of 13 Adam Gregorich

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Posted April 22 2011 - 05:14 PM

Thanks for the great review Todd.  I appreciate the recommended viewing order.  Here are some video clips about the set I found for those not familar with Ernie Kovacs:















#3 of 13 The Obsolete Man

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Posted April 22 2011 - 05:35 PM



And if you pre-ordered through Shout and got the bonus disc, the airdates would pretty much put those between discs 3 and 4 in viewing order.


#4 of 13 Gary OS

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Posted April 23 2011 - 01:22 AM

Are any of the episodes, perhaps those that originally aired in December, Christmas-themed?



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#5 of 13 Todd Erwin

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Posted April 23 2011 - 05:23 AM

There is one sketch, I think it was from the December ABC special, where Santa got stuck in a chimney and Ernie climbed up on the roof and made sure he got his Dutch Masters cigars. That was the only holiday-themed sketch, though.



#6 of 13 SeanAx

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Posted April 23 2011 - 06:09 AM

A thorough accounting of a superb release; this is easily the release to beat as the Best of 2011 for TV on DVD.


I wrote a review of the set and of the genius of Ernie Kovacs on TV for Parallax View, located here:


The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Ode to TV’s Comic Genius


Sean Axmaker
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#7 of 13 Gary OS

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Posted April 23 2011 - 08:48 AM

     Quote:

Originally Posted by Toddwrtr 

There is one sketch, I think it was from the December ABC special, where Santa got stuck in a chimney and Ernie climbed up on the roof and made sure he got his Dutch Masters cigars. That was the only holiday-themed sketch, though.


Thanks, Todd.  I appreciate that info.


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#8 of 13 Richard Gallagher

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Posted June 05 2011 - 02:56 PM

I'll have to pick this one up. I've always been a fan of Ernie Kovacs.


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#9 of 13 DeWilson

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Posted June 06 2011 - 06:30 AM

I wonder if it sold well enough for the possibility of a second set - this was only the tip of the ice burg of existing material.


#10 of 13 Albert71292

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Posted June 07 2011 - 06:11 AM



Originally Posted by DeWilson 

I wonder if it sold well enough for the possibility of a second set - this was only the tip of the ice burg of existing material.



I hope so. Ordered the first set directly from Shout to get the bonus disc. Wanted as much Kovacs as I can get! Also have the old White Star DVD set of the PBS airings.



#11 of 13 Charles Ellis

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Posted June 07 2011 - 07:04 AM

Just what is on the bonus disc?


Bring "The continuing story of PEYTON PLACE" home on DVD: the one that started it all- from Dallas and Dynasty to Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl!!! Starting this May, see the legendary saga starring Mia Farrow, Ryan O'Neal, Barbara Parkins, and Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone on DVD thru...

#12 of 13 Executive

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Posted June 07 2011 - 03:52 PM

Ernie was the best!  I used to laugh at his old ABC TV specials on my local PBS station when I was a kid in 1977. Posted Image


Jolene Brand was one of the most beautiful women on TV in the early 1960s, and her girl in the bathrub bits

were as much fun to watch as her parody of "The Perils of Pauline" when she was tied to a railroad track and menaced

by a villianout Ernie. After her association with Kovacs ,Jolene never had much of a career since.  I think she retired early on.



#13 of 13 Albert71292

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Posted June 08 2011 - 08:04 AM



Originally Posted by Charles Ellis 

Just what is on the bonus disc?



Two partial episodes of "Tonight!" from October 22, 1956 and December 11, 1956, hosted by Ernie.


Episode of "Tonight! America After Dark" from July 26, 1957.


An hour of clips from "The Ernie Kovacs Show", summer replacement series on NBC from July 2-September 10, 1956.







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