YONKERS - Ernie Kovacs is the patron saint of innovative TV comedies. His impact can be felt on everything from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Saturday Night Live. Shout! Factory’s The Ernie Kovacs Collection gives a survey of his short yet stellar career that ended in 1962 with his death. Over the course of six DVDs, you realize this guy truly revolutionized what you could do on TV.
The boxset doesn’t have any of the episodes from his original Three to Get Ready show that aired on Philly TV. But we get a healthy helping of his other shows that allowed him to bounce between NBC, CBS, ABC and even the legendary DuMont. Along with creating comedy shows, he hosted talkshows, gameshows and even variety shows. He even contributed to Mad Magazine. His famous mustache and cigar popped up all over the dial.
I could type a rambling and praising review of The Ernie Kovacs Collection as the must buy for fans of classic TV and cutting edge comedy. Some of the visual gags might seem familiar, but mostly that’s because they’ve been stolen over the years by comics claiming to pay tribute. I’d toss in a memory of discovering him when PBS ran a series back in the day. But I’d rather talk to Josh Mills about this invaluable retrospective. Mills served as an executive producer. He’s also the son of Ernie’s widow Edie Adams. My first question turns into gushing praise about how amazing it is to finally see these shows on the boxset.
“I hope that your enthusiasm is translated to many others,” Mills said. “I hear a lot of that stuff so that’s always nice to hear.”
For those confused, Ernie Kovacs was married to the singer/ actress and Muriel cigar spokeswoman Edie Adams. Josh never met Ernie, but quickly learned about the comic. “Ernie passed away in January ‘62 and I was born in ‘68,” Mills explained. “My mom remarried to my father, the photographer Martin Mills. I did live in the Beaumont house where Ernie and my mom lived for years. I was aware of him from a very early age. In the ’70s there was the PBS special and an Ernie Kovacs album. Before I was ten I knew who he was and saw all the stuff.”
He knew about his mother’s amazing archive of Ernie’s work. He’s still collecting material about his mom and Ernie for the archive.
“The strange thing about being the son of my mom is there’s always not only visual photograph reminders, but moving images,” Mills said. “I saw clips of my mom when she was in her 20s when I was in my 40s. It’s always kinda weird to see that stuff, but it’s great too. The other day I get a Google alert that there’s a photo being sold on eBay of my mom and dad’s wedding. We ended up buying it because it was so cool. I had never seen it before. It’s just so weird that your private life is your public life sometimes.”
After film school, Josh Mills found himself working with his mom and Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on what to do with Ernie’s archive. “Before Comedy Central, it was called Comedy Channel,” Mills reminded. “They were competing with another comedy channel called Ha! Ha! was doing things like Rhoda reruns. Comedy Channel licensed the Kovacs stuff and that’s when we found out Joel Hodgson. We met at this weird Comedy Channel party in Los Angeles. My mom was like, ‘Who is this guy Joel? He’s amazing.’ Years go by and there was thing called the Ernie Kovacs award given at the Dallas Video Festival. Joel received it and we became pretty close. At some point we all got together and said, could we or should we figure out how to make this work. When I was in my mid-twenties, every Thursday night I was meeting with my mom and Joel Hodgson trying to figure out what to do with this Kovacs stuff. Trying to figure out from my mom’s being their perspective of what he was trying to accomplish, how he was trying to get it out there. What his mindset was.”
The transfers on the boxset aren’t quite as sharp as episodes of I Love Lucy since most of Ernie’s shows were broadcast live instead of being shot on film. This was a time before high resolution videotape mastering. Many of his shows exist only on kinescopes. A simple way to describe the kinescope process is during the show, they point a 16mm camera at a TV monitor. Kovac’s archive has been properly maintained over the years.
“At various times it’s been transferred so it’s not like everything is on kinescope and it’s going to go away,” Mills assured. “We did a little test when we first started looking into the stuff with Shout! Factory. We randomly pulled kinescopes, one inch, two inch and I think we actually pulled a Beta. We went to CBS tape vault and ran everything. The thing that looked the best was the kinescopes. It just happens to be way more expensive to transfers.”
The fact that there was any of Kovacs’ shows to transfer is a case of love overcoming bean counters.
“Ernie was beloved by his crew,” Mills said. “He was a taskmaster in a good sense. He would say, “I want this to happen.” They’d say, ‘You can’t do that.’ And he’d say, ‘You can do that. Try to make it happen.’ Creatively they’d be pushed. He also filmed in 24 hour cycles which would drive ABC crazy. He was going into golden and triple time. The crew was getting ridiculous money. When Ernie passed away, some of those crew guys said, ‘Edie, the network is using Ernie’s masters to tape game shows, weather reports and PSAs.’ This was ‘63 - ‘64. My mom said that can’t happen. She took some money that was in a life insurance policy and went to ABC, NBC and CBS with a lawyer and said, do you have any Kovacs stuff? And miraculously, they were like yes. She said, can I buy it? And they said yes. We’re going to make money on stuff that’s just sitting. That’s where this archive came from. She went around to everybody and bought this back.”
She didn’t buy Ernie’s old shows with a vision of making a fortune off syndication.
“My mom just realized it was special and different and it had to be around. She didn’t think, there’s going to be VCRs, DVD players, or HDTV. She had no clue about that, nobody did. If you look at what happened to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in New York, they just dumped (the tapes and film) in the Hudson River.” Indeed there are numerous stories of short sighted TV executives who viewed old shows as worthless. Most of Paul Lynde’s greatest moments on Hollywood Squares were taped over. It’s such a beautiful story that Edie refused to let Ernie’s legacy rest in the hand of network morons.
“Ernie was always butting heads with NBC, CBS and ABC,” Mills said. “He was always calling out (William) Paley or somebody by saying what boobs they were.”
Ironically the launch the boxset was at the Paley Center for Media. They hosted a night of Kovacs with Joel Hodgson as part of the panel with Robert Smigel (TV Funhouse), George Schlatter (Laugh-In) and Keith Olbermann (baseball card fanatic). Our conversation came back to Hodgson and his mother.
“The whole aesthetic of Mystery Science Theater when it first started was that it was very low budget. How do we make something creative out of something where there was no money? And that was what Ernie did. My mom recognized that in Joel really early. She said, this guy is as creative, innovative, funny and bizarre as Ernie. She was a huge fan of Joel. She loved him.”
She enjoyed working with him on Ernie’s archives, although the shows compiled by the channel weren’t the quality that the trio desired.
“When we did the Comedy Channel deal, they put a lot of those things together. It’s difficult to find a half an hour you can cut up and do the they way you want it. At the same time they choose things that wasn’t particularly great. My mom was always saying, there’s a ton of stuff that we have that’s ten times better than what anybody say. And that’s the morning stuff.”
Ernie was a pioneer in sunrise TV back at a time when a majority of the day dedicated to a test pattern instead of programming.
“Nobody thought that anyone was going to watch any morning so there consequentially wasn’t very much. In Philly they decided to do this “Three to Get Ready show. Ernie would come up with ridiculous gags like send us the count of the number of balls in the gumball machine. Send homemade items for these characters. They were getting so much mail that somebody at the station just went, there’s a lot of people watching this early.” That’s when Sigourney Weaver’s dad at NBC corporate in New York started The Today Show. “Ernie was the precursor of The Today Show,” Mills said.
While Ernie mocked his bosses, he loved his main sponsor: Dutch Masters cigars. The company backed so much of his work including the strangest gameshow ever. Take a Good Look is pure dada. A panel tries to identify a mystery guest with a sketch that makes so little sense. This is beyond Match Game on a weirdness scale.
“It never got amazing good ratings, but Dutch Masters people were really happy because sales went through the roof,” he said. “They were happy to keep the show on the air and sponsor it and let him do what he wanted because sales had gone crazy. You don’t have that system anymore.”
One of the odd things about the boxset is that it contains the last five of the eight episodes Ernie made for ABC in what would be his final series. These haven’t been lost to a network garbage pile. “We still have them. Those are the three that are owned by his one remaining daughter.” Mills still has 150 half hours of Ernie in the vault so there’s plenty more to see. ” We’d love to do a Volume 2,” he said.
Fans can get an extra helping of Ernie if they order directly from Shout! Factory. They’re including a bonus DVD. “It’s got Tonight which was an early version of The Tonight Show and two episodes of America After Dark that haven’t been seen since they were originally broadcast.”
A few of the episodes had to have their singing acts clipped. “There were times when the music clearances were so expensive that we had to take out some of the music. Some of the stuff I would have loved to have had in. Other things are the boy singer of the time singing a popular hit of the ’50s. Really not that great. We wouldn’t have missed it. But purely for aesthetics and historical sake, I would have loved to have included it,” he said. Once more a DVD suffers because music publishers wouldn’t budge on their licensing price.
We joked how in the ’50s Ernie was the second most famous man on TV with a cigar and mustache. Turns out the family were tight with the host of You Bet Your Life - Groucho Marx.
“My mom and Groucho were great friends,” Mills said. “I still have an autographed picture of him that said, ‘Dear Edie, I love you.’”
Once more Joel Hodgson’s name comes up. Mills remembers the MST3K genius pondering, “What I don’t understand is how did Ernie know that this would work. It wasn’t like vaudeville. It wasn’t like he took a theater sketch and put it on television. It wasn’t like he had tried this in movies before. It wasn’t like television had been around for 30 years and people knew it. He just had a clear idea of what he wanted to do and he knew it would work. If you think about it, no one else has done it or could do it like him. That was the genius of Ernie. He had these ideas and it worked.”
The Ernie Kovacs Collection shows a man who understood what he wanted to do on television. He figured out how to do an entire 30 minute show without uttering a single word. He knew how to make cars fall through parking lots and phones dial themselves. Ernie Kovacs was constantly pushing humor and technology on his TV shows. He was a rare performer.
“He was just naturally a little bit off. In the 1950s there weren’t that many people who were that weird,” Mills said.
How come Bristol Palin isn’t hosting the History Channel’s Mounted in Alaska? That seems to be the event that launched her to stardom.
As stores shrink their DVD sections, many of the distributors are turning to manufacture on demand DVD-Rs to get collectors and fanatics films they desire without worrying about warehousing. The latest dip into the MGM vault being offered through Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment MOD program has six fun titles that drip with cheesy goodness. The thing with the MODs is that they’re meant to be seen on player only DVDs so there might be issues playing them on your computer’s DVD drive. Some of the film presented in anamorphic transfers. You can order the through Amazon.
Body Slam is a gem of ’80s weirdness. At the height of the Rock and Wrestling meager comes a film that brings it all together under the direction of Hal Needham ( Smokey and the Bandit). Dirk Benedict (The A-Team) is a record executive who owes way too many people around Hollywood. Through a twist of weirdness, he ends up managing Roddy Pipper thinking the guy is a musician. This is how Dirk gets drawn into the world of pro wrestling. He brings the rock music to the squared circle to beef up his clients’ profiles. The stars include Tanya Roberts (”Las Vegas calling!”), Captain Lou Albano, Billy Barty, John Astin (Addam’s Family) and The Samoans. It’s got Charles Nelson Reilly as a talkshow host! That’s more stars than an episode of The Love Boat. Dirk appears to be mining Vince McMahon for his character. The movie is pure ’80s cheese and ought to be played at strange hours on cable. If you’re a fan of the ’80s wrestling genre, this must be the prize of your collection. This is so much better than Hulk Hogan’s movies from the era. They still wants us to think pro wrestling is real. Ric Flair has a cameo. How come this isn’t coming out on Blu-ray?
Queen of Blood is another classic American International Sci-Fi cheat film. Why is it a cheat? Seems that AIP bought the rights to several huge budget Sci-Fi films and stripped the effects from the storyline. They’d hire English speaking actors for low budget connecting scenes to link the expensive shots. It’s an efficient way to get quality for minimal cash. It wasn’t like people were begging to see Soviet sci-fi movies during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The cast in Queen of Blood includes stars Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) and John Saxon (Enter the Dragon). They’re sent on a mission to meet up with an alien lifeform that’s contacted Earth. Things get complicated when they discover the alien ambassador is not only a green woman, but she’s got issues. The guys on the crew can’t resist her outrageous demands. It’s like Alien with a hot green girl.
The Black Sleep hypes the cast featuring five icons of horror in Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man), John Carradine (House of Dracula) Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) and Akim Tamiroff (Black Magic). But they skip the biggest star on the screen: Tor Johnson (Plan 9 From Outer Space)! Basil plays a semi-mad scientist who is putting death row inmates into comas so they can be spared the noose yet delivered to his lab. He’s using them as guinea pigs to figure out how to remove a brain tumor from his wife. He’s got a lot of near misses lurking in his dungeon lab. What’s extra interesting is that Basil’s latest claim off death row is Gordon Ramsay. Is the TV chef using his real name or is it a stage name tribute to this film? The film is perfect for late night black and white horror action from the ’50s. This was Bela’s last role if you don’t count his barely there moment in Plan 9 From Outer Space. Worth ordering if you’re a fan of the Universal Horror series.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Buried Alive mixes the writing icon’s short stories with a girl’s correctional facility. What more can a late night viewer want in tawdry scares? How about the acting trio of Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence and John Carradine? And amongst the bad girls being corrected are Nia Long and Ginger Lynn Allen. What’s happening at the Ravenscroft Institute that’s causing the inmates to vanish? Hard to tell, but it involves black cats, ants and being buried alive. A great kill involves what can go wrong when a girl styles her hair using a blender. Do women really use home appliances to get a body in their locks? Must be the same people who dry their poodles in microwaves. A toilet nightmare is bound to shock anyone toilet training. This film is a major hit in Raleigh where Ravenscroft is the name of the posh kid high school. Vaughn deserves an award for his work in proving the ascot makes the man. A group showering scene with the female inmates gets goofy. Edgar would have enjoyed watching this after polishing off a few fuzzy nipples.
The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday lets Oliver Reed star in a Western. He and Lee Marvin have to team up and go after the dirty dog Robert Culp (Greatest American Hero) to retrieve their gold. Culp does his best to avoid them so they kidnap Culp’s wife (Elizabeth Ashley). Things get confusing since she used to be with Lee Marvin. How does a woman dump Lee Marvin for Robert Culp? Guess that’s why this is a movie. Marvin and Reed get help from a local hooker (Kay Lenz) named Thursday. The brothel she works at has girls for every day of the week. This must be a good promotion for people who want a week long stay. Anytime you can mix gold and hookers in a Western, the action is bound to be entertaining.
Daughters of Satan for some reason doesn’t advertise its biggest star on the box: Tom Selleck (Magnum P.I.). This is a witchcraft creep out made in the Philippines. Tom finds a painting of burning witches in a Manila antiques store. He swears one of the burning witches looks like his wife (Mother, Jugs and Speed’s Barra Grant). Turns out the painting is evil and turns the wife into a witch. She also gets two friends to help in sacrificing Selleck. Tom doesn’t hate this film since when it came out on home video back in the ’80s, he promoted it on Letterman’s show. Amazing how Tom’s hair and mustache don’t suffer from the heat and humidity. This is like a long episode of Night Gallery.
The Lucy Show: The Official Fourth Season transforms the series. Lucy moves from New York to Los Angeles. Gone is Vivian Vance and most of their children. “Lucy at Marineland” has the little son gleeful want to get into a military boarding school. Lucy takes the kid to Marineland to suck up to the head of the school. They meet up with baseball star Jimmy Piersall whose life would be the basis for Fear Strikes Out. Without Vivian, the episodes are mostly about escapades with Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon) at his bank. There’s a big emphasis on Dean Martin and Bob Crane guest star. That’s enough for me to declare this the best season of Lucy without William Frawley. “Lucy Dates Dean Martin” sets up the redhead with Dino’s stunt double for a date. Because of a last minute scheduling glitch, the stunt double can’t go. Luckily Dino is free to take Lucy to a dance. Will she ever catch on that she’s with the real crooner? Is she that oblivious? “Lucy and Bob Crane” brings the swinging star of Hogan’s Heroes into the bank. During his setting up a new account, Crane somehow gets Lucy and Mr. Mooney onto the set of his latest World War I film. Lucy plays a stuntman who destroys the set. There’s a fun cameo from one of Bob’s pals from the stalag. “Lucy Meets Clint Walker” brings us the star of Killdozer, the movie. It might be a whole new show, but Lucy is up for the change.
Chawz is a Korean film that scares us from high on the hog. Finally a movie that warns us what can happen if Babe goes out of control. A small country town hides the nasty truth that there’s a hogzilla loose in the woods. The beastly film goes from grotesque to black comedy as a local cop attempts to figure out the mystery. It’s rather artsy in its approach to what would be a SyFy original film if it was in English. It’s not vivid in showing the huge beast munching on people. There’s a witty magazine reveal of one victim. You’re not going to be as grossed out as you’d imagine from a Korean film about Porky Pig’s evil cousin on the loose. You might want to chomp a plate of BBQ afterwards just to remind yourself that it’s just a movie and there’s one less hog out there to eat you.
Muay Thai Giant shows what former WWE wrestler Nathan Jones has been doing over the last few years. He’s a thespian! The seven foot giant went to Thailand to make a comical action flick that comes off as a twist between The Jerk and My Giant. Nathan is a bit clueless. He gets severally rolled by a hooker at a nightclub. Two kids save him from the horror of the streets. They make the mistake of giving the guy a rather hot piece of food and discover he’s not a gentle giant. He’s a one man wrecking crew and his destruction leads to bigger problems. He’s like Curly of the Three Stooges when he hears “Pop Goes the Weasel.” But the movie is more Little Rascals than Stooges since the kids dominate the action. Nathan works better with these kids in action scenes than he did during his time on Monday Night Raw. It’s another exciting martial arts production from the folks behind Ong Bak.
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Volume 1 Heroes Assemble! and Volume 2 Captain America Reborn! compiles the first 13 episodes of the new animated series on two DVD releases. This is a good primer for people curious about the upcoming Avengers all-star film along with the upcoming Thor and Captain America solo flicks. For those who don’t completely follow the comic books and don’t want to ask the geeks at the store for a backstory, these DVDs will get you in tune. Volume 1 Heroes Assemble! explains what brings Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Ant-Man and Wasp together as a fighting unit. Turns out they all have equal disgust for Nick Fury and Hydra. They have to unit to go after five major villains that have busted out of various prisons. Volume 2 Captain America Reborn! keeps up the uneasy alliance when these solo superstars must join together. Most of them have an issue with Tony Stark’s calling the shots. Black Panther brings them over to Africa to help him regain control over his place. The show is good and aimed for the non-hardcore fanatic fanboy. Interesting that the producers decided to make World War II between the Allies and Hydra when Captain America takes down the Red Skull in a flashback scene. No need to complicate things with the Nazis. Eric Loomis’ Iron Man voice sounds like Jack Black impersonating Robert Downey Jr. Noted super geek Wally Wingert gets big and small as Hank Pym, the man whose both Giant-Man and Ant-Man. It’s good to get a little bit of a head start on what will happen when the Avengers unit in live action.
Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure is Ashley Tisdale going solo after all her work on High School Musical. Her character from HSM goes to Manhattan to conquer the Great White Way. Is she really ready for the legit stage after dealing with dancing baseball players? The film has elements of Coyote Ugly with the hideous apartment scene and Legally Blonde. She has to fight to get the lead role from another stuck up actress. It’s a fight to see whose name shall end up in lights. Sharpay isn’t going down without a fight. There’s a lot of cute dog scenes. This is a fine little feature for kids who are still intrigued by where do you go after dominating your high school drama club.
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