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Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials DVD Review

Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials (1961-62)
Specials & DVD Details

Writer/Producer: Ernie Kovacs / Directors: Ernie Kovacs, Maury Orr, Joe Behar / Associate Producer: Milt Hoffman,

Cast: Ernie Kovacs, Jolene Brand, Bobby Lauher, Joe Mikolas, Maggi Brown, Frances McHale, Bob Warren, Alice Novice, Spyros Tyro, Lester Newcomer, Sam Superb, Steve Blauner, Charles Parlato

Running Time: 134 Minutes (5 specials) / Rating: Not Rated
Originally Aired September 21, 1961 to January 23, 1962
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Captioned
DVD Release Date: April 17, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $14.97
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9) / Clear Keepcase
Also available in The Ernie Kovacs Collection ($69.97 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

Buy Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials on DVD from Amazon.com / Buy The Ernie Kovacs Collection

For most of the 1940s, Ernie Kovacs was a disc jockey in Trenton, New Jersey. In 1950s Philadelphia, he became one of television's first early morning personalities on a daily program that paved the way for NBC's "The Today Show." This led to various hosting opportunities, from game shows to his own series to filling in for Steve Allen on "The Tonight Show" twice a week.

In the late 1950s, the Hungarian-American comic began making television specials, starting with a half-hour time slot left vacant by Dean Martin. That 1957 NBC special, "The Silent Show",
network TV's first all-pantomime program, scored Kovacs movie offers, a Life magazine cover story, and heightened attention. In the early 1960s, Kovacs returned to the thirty-minute TV special, making a series of five such programs to air monthly on ABC. Kovacs would die in an auto accident nine days before the final ABC special would air, rendering these works the crowning achievement of his career.

In life, Kovacs had a niche audience. And though many have since acknowledged his innovative comedy as an inspiration to them, including original "Saturday Night Live" star Chevy Chase, Kovacs is an even smaller niche today, his work either lost or long missing from circulation. Shout! Factory served that niche with last year's DVD release of The Ernie Kovacs Collection, a 6-disc, 13-hour set preserving efforts from his many different outlets, including episodes of his local and national morning shows and all five ABC specials. A year later to the very week, Shout! is revisiting the icon in a single-disc DVD titled Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials.

Ernie Kovacs address his audience in what would become his posthumous final ABC television special. Ernie Kovacs apparently wowed audiences with this angled set trick of errant pours.

As you can guess, this new release compiles all five of those black & white half-hour specials that the alphabet network aired from the fall of 1961 to January 1962, the month of his passing. Obviously, with its $15 list price, this disc is aimed at those who like Kovacs or are interested in discovering him but not enough to spend over $40 on a big box set. It works out for me, because a 145-minute disc isn't too hard to squeeze into a schedule
of more familiar and widely appealing requested review subjects.

These specials, which Kovacs co-directed and alone wrote and produced, are strange but imaginative. A curious blend of high and low brow material, his sketch comedy is free-form, random, and Avant-garde. Rarely is there a thread to connect one bit to the next. In the first episode alone, a turkey dances, a lukewarm dial provides an alternative to the usual faucet choices, and a banana peels itself.

It's tough to imagine these programs getting primetime play in the days of three networks. They are more like the kind of thing you might find claiming a 15-minute time slot on Adult Swim nowadays. That isn't to say they are edgy, hip, or youth-friendly. They're just different; certainly old-fashioned but not in the wholesome fashion of the sitcoms from the early '60s. I can think of no obvious target audience back then and now the only conceivable market is vintage television junkies.

Kovacs' specials are big on sight gags, recurring scenarios, and surreal imagery. There aren't many laughs, but the design makes it easy to stay invested in each short segment, easier than it is to keep interested in an old sitcom that hasn't aged particularly well. Recurring bits create and shatter illusions. One of the staples of this series is a montage that alternates between sound wave animation and quick visual jokes, each set to the German song that became "Mack the Knife" (popularized by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin). Written jokes and more gag clips extend and spice up the closing credits. There is also a surprising volume of still impressive special effects, which do their part to establish Kovacs as a visionary and artist.

As on the box set, Shout! presents these specials in an uncut form, complete with Kovacs' creative commercials for the programs' sponsor Dutch Masters cigars.

A bathing lady (Jolene Brand) finds a periscope popping out of her bathwater. Movie studios try to liven up the Western with this through-the-hat shot.

1. Kovacs Special #4 (26:49) (Originally aired September 21, 1961)
The centerpiece of this special is a grooming ballet contrasting the sexes' preparation methods. We also get a fake commercial for corked bottles and recurring bits involving magician The Great Submergo and a doomed race shotgun launch.

2. Kovacs Special #5 (26:53) (Originally aired October 28, 1961)
The recurring gag in this special finds odd things befalling a flexible bathing lady (Jolene Brand). The funniest sketch on the disc finds Kovacs playing an interviewer who repeatedly has to help his forgetful subject (Joe Mikolas) tell his story. In addition, a doctor gathering isn't as it seems and we get sexed-up versions of books and a weather forecast as well as a violent bread commercial.

3. Kovacs Special #6 (28:46) (Originally aired November 24, 1961)
In this remake of Kovacs' breakthrough show, this half-hour is entirely void of spoken words, even the commercials. As Eugene, Kovacs slushes around and uses his imagination to create things.
He also checks out animated books, a loopy table, and other oddities to the disturbance of a reading man (Mikolas).

4. Kovacs Special #7 (26:35) (Originally aired December 12, 1961)
Kovacs interviews a scientist who has invented a tiny, invisible motorcycle. Then, we're shown ways in which movie studios have thought to bring innovation to the climaxes of westerns. Finally, there is excitement over coffee.

5. Kovacs Special #8 (28:22) (Originally aired January 23, 1962)
A pompous poet discusses his works. The sun rises and sets over a big city. Presented with minimal commercial interruption, this finale closes with what is said to be one of Kovacs' favorite clips, a performance by a band of monkey clowns.

Made over per the relaxing content rules of the era, even a dictionary reading can become sexy and salacious in Ernie Kovacs' world. An interviewer helps a forgetful man (Joe Mikolas) retell his story.


The specials are presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen and 2.0 monaural Dolby sound. Picture and sound quality varies from show to show. The final special is quite presentable, but the earlier ones are a lot rougher and plagued by static and artifacts. Edges are rounded and these resemble kinescopes, which may well be what they are. There is a good deal of distortion to the audio, along with crackles and some dropouts. Shout! usually offers satisfactory picture and sound, so I would guess that they were limited here by the source materials and the modest profit potential of such a release. The specials wouldn't even survive like this had they not been acquired at considerable cost by Kovacs' wife, actress Edie Adams. Sadly but ordinarily, the studio goes without both subtitles and closed captions here.

Did Ernie Kovacs really smoke his cigar underwater in this Dutch Masters commercial? Actually, he just held onto milk and then spit it out. Ernie Kovacs looks down at his newly-painted sound wave and the first menu page's listings.


The only bonus feature included here is a reel of Kovacs' Dutch Master commercials (11:54). These are in the same vein as his ads in these specials, most of them casting the comedian in silent roles, but were eviddently created for something else.

The disc's contents are divided between two menu pages which loop a silent clip and music. Demonstrating that the platter has simply been lifted from the 6-disc box set, the menu still calls this Disc 5. A "Play All" option is conspicuously missing. Though the specials are unfortunately not given scene selection menus, they are divided into an appropriate number of chapter stops for quick sketch access (should you have some idea of what you're looking for).

The clear keepcase uses its inside to display faint, dark artwork of Kovacs.

Written gags like this one extend and enliven the closing credits. The final moments of Ernie Kovacs' final ABC special are devoted to one of his favorite sketches, this band of violent, musical monkeys.


Ernie Kovacs' ABC specials may be considered landmark television comedy, but that doesn't make them especially funny or fun to watch now.
It's much easier to appreciate Kovacs' innovation and distinct voice than it is to actually enjoy the programs in the usual way, although those with rosy 50-year-old memories are likely to disagree.

Shout! Factory's new DVD offers fans a reasonably-priced alternative to their big Kovacs collection. The limited picture and sound quality is probably almost as good as modern technology allows and the bonus Dutch Masters commercials are fitting company. While I can't recommend this disc, I can recognize there being an audience for it.

Buy Ernie Kovacs from Amazon.com: ABC Specials DVD / Collection / Instant Video

Buy from Amazon.com

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Reviewed April 11, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1961-62 E & EK Enterprises, ABC Television Network and 2012 Shout! Factory, Edi Ad. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.