He’s been gone a long time, but one of television’s most original talents is having a renaissance month. Ernie Kovacs is celebrating his 100th birthday year with the release today of The Ernie Kovacs Album: Centennial Edition by Omnivore Recordings, a prelude to the grand opening of the Ernie Kovacs Centennial Exhibit at the National Comedy Center on August 7.
The Ernie Kovacs Album Centennial Edition, Grammy nominated in 1977, was long-out-of-print. It’s now been remastered from the original sources and will be reissued on CD and digital formats for the first time. The new collection has been expanded to feature six never-heard-since-broadcast bonus tracks, liner notes, new photos and the original album artwork. One is previewed below:
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The National Comedy Center will celebrate the centennial year of Kovacs with the acquisition and display of never-before-seen material and rare artifacts courtesy of the comedian’s estate.
Laura LaPlaca, director of archives at the National Comedy Center, said Kovacs was “the first to understand television as a creative medium, as something more than “radio with pictures.” LaPlaca notes he is among the only artists in TV history to take control of every aspect of production, including writing and directing to sound design and set decoration. The result was such groundbreaking work as his “Silent Show (a half-hour with no dialogue) and “Kovacs on Music,” a mashup of image and sound.
Josh Mills, the son of Edie Adams and her husband after Kovacs, Martin Mills, runs the Kovacs estate when not handling duties for his It’s Alive! Media & Management firm. His mother was instrumental in rescuing tons of Kovacs materials that would otherwise have been destroyed.
After his death in 1962, Adams bought all existing Kovacs materials, including the masters that the television networks were planning to destroy because of the cost of storage.
“My mom always said she saved the Kovacs shows ‘because they were special,’” Mills said. “She worked on his TV shows when she was hired for his local Philadelphia show onward (about 1952-1958) to his network shows in New York. She knew how good he was and how different she was. Plus, she did a lot of television during those years, and while she loved working on variety shows, game shows, theater and movies, they were not groundbreaking, like Kovacs was. Kovacs was different.”
Not everyone knows the massive Kovacs legacy. He was on four TV networks, had a radio show, and was on mornings, afternoon, evenings, and late night. Still, it’s been a long time since he was in the public eye, and even institutions devoted to television don’t get it. One such academy has a statue of Kovacs outside its office, yet turned down the opportunity to work with the estate on a 100th anniversary tribute.
“I’ve reached out to many comedians and musicians to take part in Kovacs events this year for his centennial celebrations, and I get everything from “Thanks for asking, but who?” to impassioned pleas from those wanting to take part,” Mills said. “On a whim, I reached out to Blondie’s Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, and lo and behold, they are massive fans. Same thing with Gerald Casale from Devo. That blows my mind – the number of musicians he connected with. But it’s always gratifying to get someone like Mystery Science Theater’s Joel Hodgson, or members of a famous British comedy troupe who are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, come back and not only say they are big fans, but want to take part in events you are planning.”
Despite the estate and Edie Adams’s efforts, there remains some Kovacs material that’s still missing.
“We have very little of the CBS Kovacs Unlimited or the Dumont Network shows from the early 1950s, and are always hoping someone will discover them in a barn or an attic,” Mills said. “But likely the Dumont stuff is gone forever – dumped in the bottom of the Hudson River by a penny pinching network exec who said, “I know what to do with them.”
Things still turn up. Recently, Mills said, “We acquired the very last – and lost – episode of Kovacs game show Take a Good Look, which was a revelation. We now have the complete set. “
The Ernie Kovacs Collection at the National Comedy Center is comprised of creative material that includes notes and sketches in Kovacs’ own hand, annotated scripts, candid backstage photography, screen-used props and wardrobe, personal effects, and rare production documents that chronicle the Kovacs career. Most of it had been packed away since Kovacs’ untimely 1962 death in an accident at age 42.
Despite the uptick in interest, the great unanswered question of comedy is how much further Kovacs could have taken things had he lived.
“I think Kovacs would love the state of comedy today,” Mills said. “But perhaps not the state of network television comedy. Kovacs broke rules, he challenged, he pushed, and he hated network interference. I don’t know if anything on television is really doing any of that today. I think he’d be streaming his work on Netflix or Amazon Prime, or likely doing something online in the vein of Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkingt on’s On Cinema. And I’m sure he’d be doing a podcast….but only if it paid well.”