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Saluting TV’s kooky innovator

Shout Factory gears up for 'Kovacs' release

It’s high time for an Ernie Kovacs revival.

Shout Factory is doing its best to introduce a new generation to TV’s original comedy genius with the April 19 release of “The Ernie Kovacs Collection,” a DVD box set featuring 13 hours of Kovacs-ana, much of which hasn’t been seen in more than 50 years.

Keith Olbermann is hosting a retrospective sesh tied to the box set’s release on April 12 at the Paley Center for Media in Gotham, where Robert Smigel, George Schlatter and others will chime in on Kovacs’ profound and enduring influence.

As demonstrated on the discs, Kovacs was preternaturally attuned to what made television tick as a medium (so called, as he famously put it, because “it’s neither rare nor well done”).

From his earliest days in local Philadelphia TV, Kovacs experimented with crafting visual sight gags and harnessing the intimacy of performing for the home screen. He wasn’t afraid to ad-lib, and he never broke a sweat when props collapsed or a visual effect fizzled.

Variety was quick to praise Kovacs’ unique talents, or what one reviewer called “harum-scarum informality” of his show. Another notice from July 1951 observed that “the uninhibited Kovacs attacked a mailbox and one of the two studio cameras with a fire ax.” In later years, Kovas impressed with artistically ambitious efforts such as his dialogue-free ABC special “Eugene.”

But Kovacs didn’t do it alone. His wife and frequent co-star, Edie Adams, was his equal in derring-do and quick wit. And her Juilliard-trained voice was put to good use in musical numbers and song slots.

Moreover, Adams had the foresight to preserve the Kovacs canon after his untimely death in a car accident in January 1962 at age 42. With the help of industry friends and Kovacs’ loyal crew members, Adams spent years acquiring every master tape and kinescope she could find.

Josh Mills, Adams’ son (from a later marriage), has been the caretaker of the Kovacs estate since Adams’ death in 2008. (He’s also a publicist and manager in the music biz through his It’s Alive Media banner.) The process of assembling the DVD set with historian Ben Model proved to be an education on his family history and that of TV itself. (Loads of fascinating material is also housed at ErnieKovacs.com and EdieAdams.com.)

“The reason people were fanatical about Ernie is that he could be crazy and wild but still make people feel like he was talking to them one on one,” Mills says. “And my mom was right there with him at every step.”

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