My Attempts At The Best of Ernie Kovacs

I’ve assembled a few different Ernie Kovacs compilation programs for events this year celebrating his centennial. It hasn’t been easy, because there’s such a wealth of material to cull from. You want to show fans everything, of course, and that’s impossible. 

I’ve been able to draw on my experience programming silent film shorts programs, but it’s still a challenge. Each venue doing a Kovacs program needs a slightly different total running time, and each has a different audience. It’s the interest or working knowledge of Kovacs’ television work that the audience may have that I’ve learned to use as a guide. Keeping this in mind helps shape the program of selected sketches and sometimes helps make my final decisions.

The 20-minute overview compilation I assembled for the event in Ernie’s hometown of Trenton NJ, which will also be shown at an event at the Grammy Museum later this month, had to work for a novice audience, had to keep moving, and had to include at least one iconic Kovacs bit. Not easy to do without doing excerpts — as most Kovacs sketches run 5-7 minutes. Sometimes the set-up is 3-4 minutes, and with Kovacs it’s usually the idea behind the whole sketch that’s what’s funny, as his wasn’t a joke-joke-joke style.

Ernie Kovacs Centennial DVD box
9 discs, 22 hours, just about everything Kovacs from 1951-1962

There’s a 1-hour “best-of” show that I put together which ran in May at the Library of Congress, last week at the Cinemapolis in Ithaca and will run next week at the Cinema Arts Center. There’s also a 45-minute compilation that’s weighted more toward the surreal, music-oriented and “video art” stuff that will screen — with a panel discussion — next week at the Anthology Film Archives.

I try to make each a mix of material that’s easily graspable — “Mr. Question Man”, for example, or the oscilloscope blackouts — and obscure things that show off the range of Kovacs’ visual imagination that I myself want people to know about. Some things fit, like “Magazine Ads” where Ernie, Edie and Bill Wendell act out a spoof of panel-cartoon ads for Charles Atlas, striking poses for each panel while dialog balloons are superimposed over them. 4 minutes. I’d rather run “Crossed Skillets” where Ernie tries to follow a recipe being given out by TV-host Edie. 6 or 7 minutes, and an excerpt doesn’t work.

The thing I’ve learned from doing silent film shows is that in doing live accompaniment I can really sense an audience’s attention and focus, and can gauge when a program’s turned out to be too long. There is something to be said for understanding pacing and variety, and to know the number of stories an audience can take in vs. the program’s running time. I’ve written about this here. I’ve had a few opportunities to view the Kovacs compilations together with an audience, as a way to evaluate them (including one near-surreal one at the Egyptian Theatre sitting with Emo Philips, who’s a big. Kovacs fan).

The thing I remind myself after these are done and sent off to a theatre is the old show biz adage of “always leave them wanting more”. That this show isn’t the exposure to Kovacs the audience can have. With Ernie Kovacs, if they want more there’s an entire retrospective in a DVD box set they can buy.

Here’s hoping that happens in September when Terry Gilliam introduces English audiences to Ernie Kovacs at a program that’s part of a month-long “It’s…Monty Python at 50” series at the BFI Southbank.

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And like all the great comedians -and this moment I’m thinking Buster, Stan & Ollie, Jack Benny even think of it Johnny Carson – the biggest laugh comes from not the punch line…..but from the reaction, the reaction “take,” and that adds a depth and humanity that lasts forever, stays with you forever. And often, if you’re not so steeped in the study of film or you’re able to leave your super-analytical in the checkroom, the reaction becomes part of the deal, part of the gestalt, and you’ll remember the greatness of joke, the gag, and not the reaction take.… Read more »