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Screens & Tech

TV/comedy innovator Ernie Kovacs introduced to a new generation

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Ahead of his time: Ernie Kovacs and best friend.

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Ernie Kovacs died in a car crash when he was only 42 years old. This tragic loss robbed television of arguably its one authentic genius during the early days of the "vast wasteland." Even worse, it ended the career of a man who was doing work so hugely ahead of his time that it induces shivers to contemplate the greatness he might have been capable of had he lived.

The son of Hungarian immigrants, his education came from watching movies at cheap matinees. When he worked his way up through the ranks of local programming in his native Philadelphia to become one of television's most innovative entertainers, it was this background in movies that became the basis of much of his work. Some of the best gags in his career involved the unexpected inversion of typical and predictable scenes from movies and television, but he was also a gifted improviser — one of the first and best of the young medium — and a brilliant comic whose talents ranged all across the board, from visual gags and deadpan absurdity to straight-up slapstick.

Kovacs influenced everyone from Martin Scorsese to Monty Python, but if he had only been a talented comedian, he wouldn't have such a great impact. What elevated him from greatness to utter genius was that he not only understood television comedy — he understood television. He was as hard a worker behind the camera as he was in front of it, teaching himself to become an insightful director, a clever composer of shots, a self-motivated creator of special effects (he developed a number of techniques that would be used for decades), and an authentic pioneer in the use of television technology. He was also a knowledgeable student of music, and became one of television's early masters of enhancing comic scenes with perfectly chosen scores, from the sublime to the ridiculous, setting extended comedic bits to songs from The Threepenny Opera, a operatic version of "The Tennessee Waltz," or jazz exotica by the Mexican bandleader Esquivel.

Another unfortunate consequence of Kovacs' early death was that he was gone too soon for many fans of brilliant comedy to have known about him. Even worse, for many years much of his best television material was unavailable to the public. That changed with the release by Shout Factory of a six-disc collection of his television work in 2011, along with a recent disc of his TV specials and a previously unreleased comedy album. No hype is needed to sell what a splendid collection this is of the man with the outsized cigar, hangdog look and omnipresent mustache: five minutes into any of his shows and the viewer will understand that he's dealing with the kind of rare talent that only comes around once a generation. •

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