Video Drone: Keaton and Kovacs | Bleader

Video Drone: Keaton and Kovacs

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For many years the best work of TV comedy pioneer Ernie Kovacs was hard to find, but since last year it's become hard to ignore. In April 2011 the Shout! Factory label released a handsome six-disc set, The Ernie Kovacs Collection, that spanned the comedian's career on national TV, from 1951 to 1962, when he was killed in an auto accident. This year the label has released Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials, an indispensable single DVD of the brilliantly surreal half-hour shows he created in the last year of his life, and the CD Percy Dovetonsils . . . Thpeaks, a long-lost comedy album starring his most reliably funny character, the lisping, martini-sipping, chronically delighted poet laureate.

The latest—and, one might reasonably guess, the last—release in this retrospective campaign is The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2, a three-DVD set totaling about nine hours of material. Strictly for completists, the set includes eight additional episodes of his NBC morning show, which were broadcast from January to June 1956, and three additional episodes of his bizarre early-60s game show Take a Good Look, on which celebrity contestants had to guess a person's identity based on a series of hopelessly obscure drawings.

There are also 18 bonus sketches drawn from the morning show, many of them featuring characters or gags already generously represented in the first collection. (Though I was glad to hear Percy's "Ode to Electricity": "Everyone uses you, from Mr. Gimbel to Mr. Macy / You're so versatile, DC, sometimes AC . . ."). And for the hard-core fan, there are some intriguing rarities: a TV interview, shot for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, in which Kovacs discusses "Eugene," the movie starring Alec Guinness that Kovacs would never live to make, and a 2011 panel discussion at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, staged to promote the release of the first collection, featuring Harry Shearer, Jeff Garlin, Bob Odenkirk, and Merrill Markoe (who details how heavily Kovacs influenced her writing for Late Night With David Letterman).

By far the most tantalizing item offered on the new set is "A Pony for Chris," the pilot episode of a half-hour sitcom called Medicine Man that paired Kovacs with 66-year-old Buster Keaton. The two men were kindred spirits from different eras and media: the surreal sight gags Keaton created for his silent two-reel comedies in the early 20s would find their closest broadcast equivalent in the elaborate visuals Kovacs created for his ABC specials. In their respective primes, both men would go to any length to perfect a gag: for The General (1925), Keaton staged a spectacular scene of a bridge collapsing beneath a locomotive, which plunged into the river below, and Kovacs once spent $12,000 on a shot of a car salesman slapping the hood of an auto and the floor collapsing beneath it.

"A Pony for Chris" hardly lives up to one's expectations. Kovacs stars as Doc, a western medicine man selling bottles of Mother McGreevy's Wizard Juice to unsuspecting hicks, and Keaton is Junior, his Native American sidekick. From the first scene, you can tell this is no Steamboat Bill, Jr.: as the pair try to escape from their hotel room without paying, Keaton lowers himself out the window on a rope and—the scene fades to a commercial. Several more stunts occur off camera, most notably one in which a horse collapses on top of three men. A little over 20 minutes long, the pilot was shot in three days, whereas the production schedule for one of Keaton's two-reelers, about the same length, was five or six weeks. If you've ever dreamed about what Keaton and Kovacs might have done together, be advised that the dream is a lot better than the reality.

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