The name Ernie Kovacs may not be widely recognizable, but his brand of television humor instantly is: Fake commercials, blackout gags, bogus talk shows and satire. Even when viewed through grainy black and white, the gonzo trail he blazed for “Laugh-In,” Monty Python, “Saturday Night Live” and Johnny Carson and all his wannabes — especially NBC-era David Letterman — is plain to see. Born January 23, 1919, his death at age 42 preserved his largely unrealized genius in amber, leaving TV historians to gather the crumbs.


Nine DVDs may not count as crumbs; in late 2018, Shout! Factory combined two Kovacs sets released earlier in the decade into one massive set to observe the 2019 Kovacs centennial. And kudos to them — his comedy palate was so varied, and his visuals remain so innovative, too much is never enough. Even the bits that fail to land offer more imagination than pretty much anything else airing on TV at the time, or, well, ever.

Kovacs was the “Mad” magazine of the boob tube. His fourth-wall breaking showed TV’s “folks at home” the Potemkin village behind the facade of TV, which was akin at the time to pointing out the seams in America’s postwar dream as a whole. His handsomeness, genial demeanor and smooth emcee patter from his radio beginnings left audiences off-guard for his deep weirdness. Kovacs was a TV disrupter when disruption definitely wasn’t cool. How could someone so wholly understand the potential of such a new medium?

David Malley’s 1975 biography “The Ernie Kovacs Phile” helped spread the image of Kovacs as a poker-playing, cigar-chomping, ill-rehearsed, budget-busting savant burning the candle at both ends. 1990’s “Kovacsland” by Diana Rico did little to balance the scales. That image has overshadowed the precision, wit and innovation behind the best Kovacs gags. (But call us if you have a copy of the 1984 TV movie starring Jeff Goldblum as Kovacs, “Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter” — even though it only focuses on the decidedly unfunny chapter in his life when his ex-wife kidnapped their children and Kovacs searched the country for them.)

One of his best-remembered recurring bits was the Nairobi Trio, an ostensible musical group whose silent disagreements play out passively aggressively, like Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards meets Metallica. But Kovacs wasn’t all gorilla masks and bowler hats; he went beyond commercial parodies and prankster twist characters like Percy Dovetonsils and Uncle Gruesome. Transcending language through music as Kovacs so often did, his “kitchen symphony” is gorgeous and elegant. And it’s still laugh-out-loud funny.

His “Eugene” character, meanwhile, transcended language through his silence and sight gags. Kovacs combined the best of the silent era and early radio for Eugene, who never spoke. For the most legendary Eugene sketch, Kovacs had a 45 degree-angle set built, then tilted the camera so as to make the scene appear level. Trying to eat lunch quietly, Kovacs as Eugene watches in wonder as his olives and oranges roll off the seemingly straight table to the sound of loud drum rolls — there’s even a version in color on the box set. Both examples are achievements made even more remarkable by the primitive technical conditions and notoriously low budgets Kovacs and his team navigated.

Another anecdote often presented as Kovacs-in-a-nutshell tells of a sight gag for one of his specials — a used car salesman pounds on a car’s fender for emphasis as he shoots a commercial. No, the fender doesn’t hilariously fall off; the whole car disappears into a sinkhole. The gag, which lasted mere seconds, exhausted the budget for the entire show.

Budget considerations aside, Kovacs shone brightest on the small screen when he was given free rein. His movie career (not part of this box set) is largely a bore. In film, he was usually wasted as the good-looking, possibly quirky — but never weird – sidekick: “Bell, Book & Candle” (1958) with Jimmy Stewart, “Our Man In Havana” (1959) with Alec Guinness and “North to Alaska” (1960) with John Wayne. Kovacs was never given the chance to even try to approximate the innovations he’d done in television on the big screen. And having to pay private detectives as he searched for his kidnapped children while trying to keep the IRS at bay meant he couldn’t be choosy about accepting roles.

Speaking of not being choosy, included on the final disc in the set is a tantalizingly-cast TV pilot of Kovacs as an Old West-era medicine oil huckster with Buster Keaton in redface called “Medicine Man.” Kovacs spent his last day alive, Jan. 13, 1962, finishing this pilot, called “A Pony For Chris.” Predictable, bland and laugh-tracked is not the way Kovacs (or Keaton) should have gone out.

Displaying his star power, Kovacs’ pallbearers included Jack Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, Billy Wilder and Dean Martin. They were all regular poker players together — but all had deeper pockets than Kovacs, and he struggled to keep up when the cards didn’t fall his way.

His second wife, Edie Adams, was known for being among the earliest and sharpest of Marilyn Monroe impersonators. But Adams was a deeply talented singer, actress — and a talented mimic beyond her cutting-edge Marilyn. Adams and Kovacs were nominated for an Emmy in 1957.

Following his death, she preserved and promoted her late husband’s legacy. Adams also refused proposed benefit shows for the family’s massive debt, which, again, was mostly due to Ernie’s refusal to pay income taxes. Whether singing, doing gags on his specials or appearing on Kovacs-hosted game shows like “Take A Good Look,” scenes between the two sparkle. She starred on Broadway in the 1950s and in such iconic early 1960s films as Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Often unmentioned in the Kovacs story is that Adams was poised to have been a bigger star, alongside and separate from Kovacs, before the tragedy.

Episodes from local and national morning shows from his early days, surviving bonus sketches of his many recurring characters and his inventive Dutch Masters cigars commercials are included, as is the only existing filmed solo interview with Kovacs. But the meat and potatoes here are the color version of “Eugene,” his five ABC evening specials and episodes of his NBC show, “Kovacs On Music.”

It’s all a fitting tribute for Kovacs, but it’s funny that nine DVDs can still leave one wanting. It’s a quandary fit for a Percy Dovetonsils poem — Ernie Kovacs somehow gave us so much, but left us with so little.