DVD Review: Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials

Back in February I heralded the release by Shout! Factory of the single disc DVD Ernie Kovacs: ABC Specials so you didn’t have to pony up for the big Kovacs boxset to experience his comic magic.

Now out, this DVD collects the last 5 out of the 8 TV specials that Kovacs did for that network. These monthly specials ran Sept. 1961 through Jan. 1962, with the last show actually aired 10 days after his untimely death from a car accident.

The shows are unlike anything you will see made today, although his influence continues on shows like Saturday Night Live, Second City TV, Kids In the Hall and any number of other anarchic comedies. One thing that made Kovacs such a comic visionary was the way he brought high and low culture together in his humor. In a skit in the first episode, an escape artist disappears underwater while the soundtrack plays a German version of “The Tennessee Waltz,” while in the second episode he stages a poker game to Mahler’s #5 Symphony.

Kovacs’ love of music is obvious by watching his show and he continually contrasts the musical soundtrack to the visual images. The things he did with playing the medium of television – optical illusions, musical cues, sound effects – were revolutionary at its time and still come off today as wildly innovative.

What you will see watching these shows also is that Kovacs is not a setup-punchline joke-teller (except maybe in the closing credits). Rather, he was a unique comic mind who saw things differently than most people do. In one of the many running gags that run through his shows, a man loses a microscopic motorcycle in the opening skit and he appears throughout the episodes following this too-small-to-be-seen motorcycle in various sets.

Kovacs’ playful way with the television medium is evident in the ads on the shows – both the real and the fake ones. One faux ad touts the virtues of a cork to use with carbonated beverage bottles. It’s the type of straight-faced mock commercials that Saturday Night Live has become well known for.

These shows also were sponsored by Dutch Master Cigars – the cigars that Kovacs smoked on and off screen. Each program has several Dutch Master commercials that blur the line between ad and skit (like the imperiled mountain climber who grabs a Dutch Master cigar instead of a rescuer’s hand and consequently falls to his presumed death).

Kovacs’ comic sensibility comes off as a mix of European and American, old world and post-modern. He did one of these episodes without dialogue. Featuring one of his popular characters, the everyman Eugene, it is a wonderful example of the way Kovacs explored the outer boundaries of television with experimental special effects, sight gigs and other types of visual humor. Kovacs made exceptional use of small budgets and technical limitations, which today’s viewers will have to keep in mind.

One can only imagine just how risqué some of Kovac’s humor was during his time. One famous running gag, for example, had a woman taking a bubble bath and encountering things like a periscope and someone else’s foot, with it culminating in several people climbing out of the tub. While in another he considers what television and literature would be like with more sex and violence in them.

With this set of ABC special obviously can’t include all of Kovacs’ best work. His famous character, the martini-sipping poet Percy Dovetonsils doesn’t make an appearance and the legendary Nairobi Trio only show up as a postscript to his posthumous final show. Still, there are more than enough examples on this nearly 150 minutes DVD that provide a great glimpse into this comic visionary’s work.

About Michael Berick

I am a longtime writer, and lover, of music and pop culture. I have written for Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Cleveland Scene and more places (that I wouldn't take up more of your time mentioning now).
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