The Best of Ernie Kovacs is a revealing, sympathetic close-up of one of America's greatest comedians. From the hustling days of radio in Trenton, to the premiers in New York, and on to the extravaganzas in Hollywood, Kovacs' career and lifestyle are explored in a way that brings his memory back to life.
For anyone interested in the history of television comedy, The Best of Ernie Kovacs
is indispensable. This five-part series, originally broadcast on PBS, is a six-hour guided tour through Kovacsland, and a more surreal or cockeyed landscape has never been broadcast over "the orthicon tube." The best cigar-mustache combo since Groucho, Kovacs, who perished in a car wreck in 1962, was one of the fledgling medium's pioneers. He turned staid television convention on its ear and satirized the medium itself (David Letterman is a kindred spirit). The Best of Ernie Kovacs
offers a generous sampling of more than 100 blackouts, musical diversions (including a simian version of "Swan Lake"), sketches, and technological dalliances. The macabre game show "Whom Dunnit," in which a panel must determine the identity of the mystery guest who has wounded an unfortunate studio audience member, would not be out of place on "Saturday Night Live." Another highlight is "Eugene," a 1961 broadcast in which not a word is uttered. And let's not forget the musical gorilla-costumed Nairobi Trio, one of Kovacs's signature creations. The DVD edition has a few noteworthy additions, including a clip from Kovacs's 1959 quiz show, Take a Good Look
. In another memorable clip, Edie Adams, Kovacs's wife, performs her definitive impersonation of Marilyn Monroe (singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett"). Though this footage dates back to television's early days, this is no antiquated museum piece. Some of it is dated, but much of what Kovacs unleashed on an unsuspecting public is fresher, funnier, and more original than most of what passes for prime-time programming. Boy, do we need him now. --Donald Liebenson