New reissues bring the comedy maven back to the forefront.
“It’s been 50 years since Ernie Kovacs died,” explains Josh Mills, executor of the comedian’s estate. “What I’m doing now is making sure he’s included in the conversation.” The conversation that Mills, the son of Kovacs’s second wife (and TV sidekick), Edie Adams, is concerned with is one about the past and future of television comedy.
Today, Kovacs (who died in a car accident at age 42) is best known for a series of surreal, experimental specials he did in 1957 (his pantomime Silent Show), 1961 and 1962, which Chicago’s WTTW PBS station revived in 1977 as The Best of Ernie Kovacs. Though Kovacs has long been acknowledged as a genius by comedy icons like Johnny Carson, Chevy Chase and Robert Klein (and the ’70s revival influenced a new generation including Bob Odenkirk, Jeff Garlin and Jimmy Kimmel), Mills hopes a recent discovery will introduce modern audiences to the work of Adams and Kovacs.
In 1952, Adams, a classically trained vocalist, was making an uncomfortable transition to pop, singing on her husband’s TV show Kovacs Unlimited, and she wanted to study her performances. She personally paid for audio air checks (fragile, oversized records) to be made of more than 100 episodes. Since his mother’s death in 2008, Mills has been exploring this treasure trove of lost comedy and music. He recently struck a deal with Omnivore Records to release some of the highlights.
The archival efforts have produced two releases this year (to go along with two 2012 DVD releases, Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials and the nine-hour box set, The Ernie Kovacs Collection Volume 2, both available on Shout! Factory). Percy Dovetonsils…thpeaks packages an unreleased LP recorded in 1960 featuring Kovacs’s signature effete poet character with lengthy excerpts from Kovacs Unlimited in which the character recites poems, jokes with the crew and consistently breaks chracter. The second release, The Edie Adams Christmas Album, features holiday songs sung by Adams on the show, and is mostly non-comedic, though Kovacs’s duets with Adams (especially on a blues number) demonstrate an inability to keep things serious, and Adams at one point seems to stuff her mouth with marshmallows while singing “It’s A Marshmallow World.”
Although Kovacs’s work is usually celebrated either for absurd goofiness (he once staged an all-gorilla ballet) or for experimental genius, the Kovacs Unlimited audio reveals a different element of his comedy. The poems are the centerpieces of the Dovetonsils bits, but the excerpts feature as much improvised and inside joking as scripted material. The loose comic consistently seems more concerned with amusing himself and his crew than delivering a traditional comedy routine to his viewers. “My mom always said Ernie hated having an audience,” Mills recalls. “He was really trying to reach the people in their living rooms and trying to crack up his crew.”
Mills is still debating further releases. The surprise success of the first Kovacs DVD set in 2011 led to the second volume, and its sales will determine future releases. Mills is now preparing to reissue Kovacs’s 1957 comic novel Zoomar, and Omnivore is weighing what to do next with the Kovacs Unlimited recordings (a Dovetonsils Record Store Day release, more Adams music LPs and entire episodes on iTunes are on the table). “It’s really more a matter of when than if we release this,” Mills explains. “I think people can really get a lot out of these.”
Mills marvels at Kovacs’s legacy. “There’s never been anyone more relaxed on television,” he says. “For any comedian getting into the high-pressure works of TV today, where things can be canceled before they even air, it’s incredible to watch a guy who seems almost like he’s just killing time. It’s amazing how free he was.”
Percy Dovetonsils…thpeaks and The Edie Adams Christmas Album are available now.