It's time for our home-video feature: Bob Mondello's viewing tips for those who prefer to skip the crowds at the cineplex. This week, he's championing a boxed that spotlights a TV pioneer: 'The Ernie Kovacs Collection.'
In 1951, almost no one had a TV yet, but anyone who did would've been surprised by what Ernie Kovacs was doing on it. Giving instructions, for instance, on how to tune a TV.
On one early show, Kovacs hangs a wooden board with four knobs on a string around his neck, and starts making faces. As he turns the knob labeled "Horizontal," he twists his upper lip up to the right, and his lower lip down to the left, managing a pretty close imitation of a '50s TV on the fritz.
Weird, right? In the button-down 1950s, Kovacs played with the new medium of TV while everyone else was still trying to figure out how it worked. He did blackout sketches years before Laugh-In, and mock commercials decades before Saturday Night Live. He once spent $12,000 on a six-second gag, pounding on the hood of a used car to send it crashing through the studio floor.
Another time, he said something about a child asking a mother for a drink of water, realized he was thirsty, and left the set to go down a nearby hallway to a drinking fountain. The camera wasn't wired to follow him, so it just watched from the studio, the technicians trying to keep him in focus until he returned — some 90 seconds later — to where the microphones could pick him up again. Often, although this was national TV, he appeared to be working not with a script, but with a box of props, just riffing.
Even planned sketches got upended, as in a bit where he was supposed to swallow the contents of a martini glass in one gulp. When he did, he was clearly surprised that what he'd thought was water was in fact straight gin.
Kovacs was never as big a hit with audiences as he was with the pros — everyone from David Letterman to Monty Python — who later used techniques he invented. Because his routines were hit-and-miss, his national ratings were less than stellar. When he died in a car crash in the early '60s, NBC started taping over his show's tapes, using them to dub game shows. None at all would have survived if Mrs. Kovacs — better known as singing star Edie Adams — hadn't bought them up.
Happily, she did, so The Ernie Kovacs Collection has 13 and a half hours of vintage only-on-TV comedy — not always funny, but even 60 years later, intriguingly strange. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.