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The Absurdist Genius of Ernie Kovacs

The work of comedian Kovacs, a true innovator of early television who died at age 42, has largely disappeared from history—but a fascinating new DVD set, out Tuesday, changes that.

04.15.11 9:28 PM ET

When offering a portion of the ballet Swan Lake to a prime-time television audience, it's important to consider every element of presentation. The music should be stately, sophisticated—bold enough to assert its power yet delicate enough to revel in its ethereality. The staging should be simple but also dramatic and grand, so as to allow the dancers room to communicate the finer points of gesture. On the matter of costuming, the artist has many options with which to accentuate the traditional tutu, including one chosen by Ernie Kovacs for a network special from television's early years: gorilla suits!

That's entertainment. And that, strange as it remains presented in deadpan style with no real explanation, wasn't even the most striking or wild bit on Kovacs on Music, a prime-time special broadcast by NBC in 1959. Another segment from the same show included a group of men jumping on the keys of an oversize piano and dancing with gigantic paperclips. Another featured an orchestral percussionist banging on a timpani drum filled with white goop. Yet another revealed the mustachioed show host signing off at the end while taking a puff of his signature cigar, underwater. All of this was presented under the rubric of "comedy," but—as with everything that Kovacs conceived—it plays as much, much more.

Before he died in a car crash at the age of 42, Kovacs made a flurry of television shows and specials in the 1950s and early '60s that situated him as a sort of surrealist successor to Groucho Marx and a forefather to Monty Python, Andy Kaufman, the casts of Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Mr. Show, Jimmy Fallon—pretty much everyone affiliated with a brand of wry and artful comedy that we like to consider the province of a more modern, urbane age. It's worth taking a moment to consider—upon the release of Shout! Factory’s new six-DVD set The Ernie Kovacs Collection—just how hokey and ham-handed the early years of television are thought to have been. That was the era of airy elegance and feeble clown shows, of yuck-yuck punchlines and toothy performers saying "Gee whiz!" But then along comes a figure like Kovacs, racing back from the past, to scramble what issues down to us as history.

Kovacs made meta-TV almost from the start. While others from the era flailed to fill the small screen with scenarios staged as though they were theatrical vaudeville acts or on Broadway, Kovacs approached television as a new medium in and of itself. ("It's appropriate that television is considered a medium," he once said, "since it's rare if it's ever well done.") In one of the first instances of his work collected on the new DVD set, from a morning show produced in 1951, Kovacs addresses the television directly, outfitting himself with a set of tuning knobs and showing viewers how to adjust their horizontal and vertical hold by stretching his face into distorted shapes.

In other instances from the same early series, he jumps up from his desk to wipe down the lens of the camera, jostles with members of the crew, and explains to those watching at home what it means to "overshoot" the set. It's all very madcap and zany, anarchic in a way familiar to any contemporary viewer of late-night TV made decades later. But then there all also moments like one when Kovacs, for a drawn-out 30 seconds (a disquietingly long time when watching), gets up, wanders down a long hall, helps himself to a drink of water from a fountain, and slowly, methodically, walks back. It's all filmed in a static shot, with no words spoken, and more than comedy it plays like something from film noir, or maybe a painting by de Chirico. It's slightly eerie and all more than a little bit… strange.

Pioneering and important as it was, Kovacs' work hasn't been especially well-celebrated, or even much seen, since he died in 1962.

Bits of the sort make it hard to differentiate between Kovacs the Comedic Ham and Kovacs the Experimental Visionary. He was both. Segments of his early shows would be given over to goofy conversations with one of those miniature turtles sold by vendors in Chinatown. Then would come a spoof on an advice columnist, dubbed Mr. Question Man, in which Kovacs would reel off little zingers that double as disarming existential koans.

The lingering effect of Kovacs' otherwise seemingly fleeting comedy compounded as he progressed. He was one of the first television figures to make use of pre-taped bits (as opposed to material shot live, in front of a studio audience), and he pioneered different modes of post-production including "green screen" overlays and all manner of gags playing with the conventions of sight and sound. In one storied special from 1957, known as "The Silent Show," he orchestrated wordless gags on gravity with a special sideways set built on a subtly disorienting 15-degree tilt. In the same special, he plays with language and sound, as in a bit when he picks up shelved copies of War and Peace and The Old Man and the Sea that stoke sensations well beyond the purview of the written word.

Pioneering and important as it was, Kovacs' work hasn't been especially well-celebrated, or even much seen, since he died in 1962. The samples of his work that survive owe their preservation to his wife and close collaborator Edie Adams, who rescued tapes from networks that had taken to recording over old reels or else just dumping them to save on storage. And though he's no secret to those who have been initiated—the new DVD set includes testimonials from Mel Brooks and Chevy Chase, as well as an essay by Jonathan Lethem—it's a wonder what Kovacs' legacy would have been had he lived past 42. He was a significant figure in his time, friendly with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon. (The night he died, he was driving home from a party in Beverly Hills thrown by Billy Wilder.) But still, so much of what Kovacs started to do would only come to be realized by others in the years after his passing. His use of post-production effects, as in a musical sequence in 1959 that creates a visual echo of a cellist bowing, is strikingly psychedelic before the '60s even started. And his capacity for weirdness would be hard to replicate, even now.

To wit, an extended bit from one of his later shows, in 1961, cinches together a series of bizarre vignettes with a framing device we can go ahead and call unusual: the image of a sound-wave on an oscilloscope singing Mack the Knife in German. There's no lead-in, no context established before or after. No spoken words address or explain it in any way. But then, it does raise the question: What, worth saying, isn't already covered by an oscilloscope in the midst of a song?

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Andy Battaglia is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the National, Bookforum, SPIN, and The Onion's A.V. Club, among other publications. He can be found at www.andybattaglia.com.