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Under the Radar DVD of the Week: 'The Ernie Kovacs Collection'

Dennis King Published: April 18, 2011

This week, the oddest DVD to appear on release lists is:

“The Ernie Kovacs Collection”

Before the improvisational, skit-based antics of David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Pee-wee Herman and “Saturday Night Live,” there was Ernie Kovacs, the cigar-chomping genius who in the 1950s saw the potential of a great new medium and set a high standard for what great TV comedy could be.

“The Ernie Kovacs Collection,” due out on DVD Tuesday, harks back to the infancy of television and shows one of its greatest programming innovators working at the top of his game. The collection fills six discs with more than 15 hours of Kovacs’ daring experimentation and wild innovations that still influence comics working today.

Drawing from his earliest local morning programs in Philadelphia through his primetime NBC show and ABC specials, the discs highlight his most offbeat creations – from the effete poet Percy Dovetonsils and gorilla jazz musicians The Nairobi Trio on through Wolfgang von Saurbraten, Miklos Molnar, The Question Man and more.

Before his tragic death in a car crash in 1962, Kovacs was hard at work creating an amazing body of work – every bit the equal of his contemporary TV innovators such as Red Skelton, Sid Caesar, George Burns and Milton Berle – that survives today thanks largely to the persistent efforts of his wife and co-star, the late Edie Adams. As one critic noted, “He was an abstract comic artist in a baroque era.”

Along with episodes of his local and national shows, the collection includes a segment called Kovacs on Music, the color version of his legendary silent show, “Eugene,” his award-winning commercials for Dutch Masters Cigars, several short films and tributes, plus a 44-page booklet featuring rare photos, program notes and an essay by Jonathan Lethem (author of “Motherless Brooklyn”) and TV critic David Kronke.

“The Ernie Kovacs Collection” is not rated and runs 780 minutes on six discs. It’s being released by Shout! Factory.

- Dennis King