THE BEST OF Ernie Kovacs," a series of 10 weeks half-hour programs beginning Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 26, does more than illustrate how Kovacs first used television technology for comedic effect.
The series also demonstrates how little has been done with television technology since Kovacs' tragic death in a car crash in 1962.
Kovacs created such characters as Percy Dovetonsils, the near-sighted poet whose martini olives were attached to a daisy; Matzoh Heppelwhite, drunken itinerant magician; Wolfgang Sauerbraten, wacky German disc jockey; and the Nairobi trio, three apes with derby hats playing music. All would have been funny even without the technological innovations Kovacs used in his television shows.
But his genius lay in his ability to go beyond the traditional stand-up comedian, doing on television what he or she had done on radio or before a proscenium arch in a threater. Kovacs had the vision to let the medium itself become part of the performance.
In the second show, there is ample evidence of the directions he took the medium in his efforts to produce laughter. A man is watching a couple on television, in a canoe. A man watching takes a hand-drill and drills a hole through the top of the television set and into the bottom of the canoe, which sinks.
There is also a marvelous scene in an office, devoid of people, that illustrates how Kovacs used music and television for effect. A typewriter's keys move to the beat of the music, a fountain pen on a desk shoots ink, phone receivers dance, drawers move in and out, the level of water in a water machine moves up and down, the handle on a pencil sharpener moves around and around.
The material, a great deal of it taken from eight specials Kovacs did for Consolidated Cigars on ABC in 1961-62, is in black and white. No adjustment of your set will be necessary. The only adjustment will be in your mind as you marvel at the freshness of the material, whether you are old enough to have seen it in the original version or young enough never to have seen it before.
There hasn't been much like it since that time. George Schlatter, Kovacs' friend and unabashed admirer, picked up where Kovacs left off in the production of "Laugh-In." (The lady in the bathtub in the first show is Jolene Brand, Schlatter's wife.) Monty Python came next. And in the current issue of TV Guide, Chevy Chase credits Kovacs with having a major influence on his writing and his brand of humor.
That about rounds out the list. Apart from the above, I cannot think of any major comedic efforts on television that have sought to capitalize on what Kovacs started to do more than 20 years ago.
The same is true of noncomedic productions in television. Besides the instant replay and the use of the split screen in sporting events, there has been little use of television technology to enhance the story television is trying to tell us.
News is the worst. Despite all the much-vaunted proclamations that news executives sound about their new equipment (usually at network affiliates' conventions), television news has been notably backward in its development and use of available technology.
There is a reason. Despite their fascination with their technological toys, most people in television news are still the psychological prisoners of print. How else can one explain their propensity to call anything outside the format of the evening news a "magazine"?
Kovacs never made that mistake. He loved words and used them well. But he understood from the beginning that the medium he was using was not merely another extension of the graphics revolution of the last century. He understood that he was working with electronic pictures, and he used those pictures, not as facts but as symbols. That is why he is missed.