The Ernie Kovacs Collection

He was an innovating TV comedian and the least successful success in the business

DVD Watch

The Ernie Kovacs Collection

Shout! Factory, $69.97

The face looks like Clark Gable's after a calamitous run-in with a wad of Silly Putty – a bit too broad and squat, the nose flattened and bulbous, the suave pencil mustache gone thick and cartoonish – and it looks to have taken on the rubbery quality of the kids' toy, too. Each cover of the seven discs in Shout! Factory's unprecedented assemblage of material by Ernie Kovacs shows the comedian's features contorted into a different cockamamie expression – evidence of the malleability of Kovacs' mug but also of the innate trickster's spirit that drove him to play with, lampoon, and subvert any and all conventions of television in ways that influenced generations of TV programs from Laugh-In to Sesame Street to every program David Letterman has done.

If Kovacs' name isn't familiar, it's because his time on the tube was long ago and relatively brief (from 1951 until his untimely death in a car accident in 1962), and he was the least successful success in the business, hopscotching from network to network, covering time slots in the morning, afternoon, prime time, and late night (occasionally two or more at the same time) with series that typically lasted only a matter of months. But he was also rarely off the air more than a few months at a time. Networks kept giving Kovacs fresh chances to experiment and bite the hands that fed him – television itself being the favorite target of his ingenious irreverence. He took an early lead among tube comedians at mocking the medium's relentless hucksterism, and the collection includes his satiric takes on such Fifties TV fare as Howdy Doody, Mr. Wizard, You Are There, and The Adventures of Superman.

But TV was also the source of Kovacs' inspiration and – I don't use the word cavalierly – his genius. To this static domestic medium in its infancy he brought a cinematic sensibility that sent it careering in new directions like a crazed cartoon cat. Using effects like extreme close-ups and superimposed images, acknowledging the camera, taking it backstage and onto the street, chatting up the crew, ad-libbing, taking a sledgehammer to the fourth wall – Kovacs did it all, and usually before anyone else on TV. The blessing of this boxed set is that it preserves his restless innovation and the mad humor that was ahead of its time for a culture that has absorbed the former and can truly appreciate the latter. He may have been no Gable, but when it came to television's rules, he was just as quick to say, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

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The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Shout! Factory

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