Some 57 years after his tragic death in an automobile accident at the age of 42, Ernie Kovacs remains one of America's most influential comedians. The pride of Trenton, New Jersey, Kovacs pioneered an experimental, largely improvised, zany style of comedy on television, the ripple effect of which has been felt on programs from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In through Saturday Night Live. While far too much of Kovacs' oeuvre hasn't survived, a remarkable amount has, thanks to the herculean efforts of his widow, the late Edie Adams, and her family. 2019 marks the Kovacs centennial, and a number of special events and releases have seen that Kovacs is far from forgotten. Adams' son Josh Mills is one of the producers of the essential new CD/digital title from Omnivore Recordings, a reissue of 1976's posthumous The Ernie Kovacs Album (OVCD-322). The Centennial Edition of this Grammy-nominated album (originally issued on Columbia Records) captures Kovacs in all of his off-the-wall splendor.
Though Kovacs naturally began his career in radio, he's remembered as a leading light of early television, and it's from these programs that the original LP was derived. This time capsule opens with a rollicking piano theme and the announcement of "The Ernie Kovacs Show" before launching into the dryly-narrated tale of "Tom Swift" and his game of "feetsball" played with the convicts from the Kilkenny State Institute ("or KSI, as Tom and the parole officers fondly called it"). With period references to the likes of the automat, The Ernie Kovacs Album transports listeners back to an era which seems even further removed than it is.
Other selections include the pithy "Man's Best Friend" about John C. Flick and his collie, Rex (a scenario lovingly called back by Mel Brooks in his 2001 Broadway musical The Producers), and skits like "Strangely Believe Its" and "Oddities in the News." Ernie offers breathless instructions on how to play the Christmas game called "Droongo"; the absurd and labyrinthine instructions were previously relayed by Kovacs in the pages of the soon-to-be late, lamented Mad Magazine.
No Kovacs release would be complete without an appearance from perhaps his most famous character, the lisping, flamboyant, martini-swilling poet Percy Dovetonsils, whose exploits have been previously chronicled by Omnivore on a full "solo" CD. Dovetonsils recites a quartet of poems in his rather politically incorrect style, but it's hard to be offended by Kovacs' portrayal. The biggest detriment of the Dovetonsils tracks is that one can't see him in his thick glasses with glued-on eyeballs, or in his stylish, zebra-patterned smoking jacket. There are moments throughout The Ernie Kovacs Album in which even the most imaginative listener will likely feel as if something is missing - the visual aspect of Kovacs' innovative, singular comedy.
The lack of visuals might impede full enjoyment of the skit featuring "Mack the Knife" in its original German, only to be interrupted by explosions ("Turn off the set, Mother - he's on again!"). The live audience's laughter is heard throughout; these "blackout" sketches with "Mack the Knife" are among Kovacs' most famous.
Indeed, the album has the feel of a sonic collage as it zips through the world of Kovacs; some of the transitions and quick cuts can be jarring. He takes on the character of heavy-accented French storyteller Pierre Ragout with a decidedly unconventional take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Ragout's cast of characters includes the Wicked Queen Zsa Zsa (who rules over the peasants with an "iron feest"), her magic mirror, the Captain of the Guards (named Herman Feldman, natch), the seven dwarfs (Doc, Sneezy, Happy, Grumpy, Patty, Laverne and Maxene - or were those last three Edgar, Allan, and Poe?), and the Prince with the bad breath. There's also a spoof on audience Q&A sessions with "Mr. Question Man," and an extended sketch about Uncle Buddy and his precocious "little friends" Ricky and Mary Margaret as they take a visit to Staten Island and laughter ensues.
Producers Mills, Cheryl Pawelski, and Lee Lodyga have added six bonus tracks to the original LP sequence. Faux commercials were a specialty of Kovacs, of which three have been culled from his June 1955 ABC Radio broadcasts. There's one for Hot Nudniks cereal ("Hot Nudniks actually snarl when cream is poured in the bowl") in the off-the-wall spirit of "Droongo." Just as deliciously satirical are "Your Own Crime Syndicate" and "Little Kapusta Cyclotron Kit" ("For the first 100 who call, there will be the bonus offer of a large plastic balloon filled with fallout"). The comedian also took sharp aim at consumerism with the 1953 Kovacs Unlimited story of the "Choco-Spin Factory."
The expanded album closes with a couple of songs: Frank Loesser's "The Inch Worm" from the film Hans Christian Andersen and an enjoyable, light ballad based on his signoff "It's Been Real." Singing wasn't Kovacs' strongest suit, but it's a pleasant diversion to hear him tackle these songs in a relatively straightforward manner.
A 12-page booklet includes a heartfelt appreciation by Diane Werts as well as Mort Goode's original liner notes for the Columbia LP; one wishes, however, that a more in-depth essay had provided further context about Kovacs' career, characters, and the programs from which these excerpts have been drawn. Michael Graves has remastered these original mono recordings to sound better than ever.
The Ernie Kovacs Album: Centennial Edition may not an ideal introduction to Kovacs' remarkable comic artistry, but longtime fans will certainly cherish its long-overdue appearance on CD. Those unfamiliar with his work should first check out the authorized DVD collections now available from Shout! Factory including 2018's 9-disc set also entitled Centennial Edition, two volumes of The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Take a Good Look: The Definitive Collection (spotlighting his offbeat quiz show), and The ABC Specials. In the meantime, The Ernie Kovacs Album: Centennial Edition is a fine and loving tribute to the groundbreaking writer, comedian, and satirist.