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Shout! Factory's Kovacs Collection celebrates the mondo bizarro that became the norm

Ernie Kovacs never got the credit he deserved. No one believed this more fiercely than his wife and on-screen partner, Edie Adams, who spent much of the last 46 years of her life promoting and preserving him.

Adams died in 2008 at the age of 81, living nearly twice as long as Kovacs. His life ended at age 42 in 1962, when he was killed in a single-car crash on a rain-slicked Beverly Hills Blvd. Her dedication to saving as much of his TV work as possible-- ABC, NBC and CBS otherwise would have erased it -- finally comes to full life in The Ernie Kovacs Collection, a newly released, six-disc collection from Shout! Factory.

Much of its 13 hours of content hasn't been available for more than a half-century. It dates to a March, 1951 segment from NBC's It's Time For Ernie, an early morning romp that originated from Philadelphia's WPTZ-TV. As always, Kovacs is mostly messing around, whether contorting his face to show how horizontal/vertical TV knobs work or strolling down a hallway to get a drink of water while the show was in progress.

David Letterman basically has copied Kovacs time and time again by leaving his studio in this fashion. And in an accompanying 42-page commemorative booklet, (co-written by TV critic colleague David Kronke), Letterman re-pays the debt with this quote: "Ernie Kovacs knew exactly what to do with television before television knew what to do with itself. It's 60 years later, and we still haven't caught up."

Kovacs may not have been the very best at anything he did.

Groucho Marx smoked a cigar with more aplomb and was a quicker quipper on his vintage quiz show You Bet Your Life.

Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows had funnier writing and sketches.

Steve Allen's mid-1950s Tonight Show (on which Kovacs became a part-time host) soared on the strength of its sight gags, stunts and oddball second bananas.

Still, Kovacs was the real deal, a pioneering free spirit whose free-form experiments with music, apes (The Nairobi Trio), visuals and sound effects virtually assured him of no more than a cult audience on a variety of short-lived shows. His tombstone reads "Nothing In Moderation." And as Adams said at his 1987 induction into the Television Hall of Fame (presented on Disc 1), "He was an unusual man. He lived most of his life on a manic high."

As detailed in a November 2008 post on unclebarky.com, Bart Weiss's trailblazing Dallas Video Festival had an annual Kovacs Award until 2002, when it became too difficult for Adams to travel. Recipients ranged from Martin Mull to Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens to D-FW's own Bill Camfield, the man behind KTVT-TV's (Channel 11) Slam Bang Theater and its madcap star, Icky Twerp.

"Ernie Kovacs epitomized what television could be," Weiss said at the time. "He was an artist who defined and was defined by his medium, who did not stand up and tell jokes but worked with what TV could do."

The Kovacs Collection, available at a discount price of $50.99 on amazon.com, is as good a look as we'll have of the master at work -- including some of his hand-made commercials for Dutch Masters cigars. Not everything holds up. The passage of time can do that to you. But through and through you'll see the seeds he planted in times when TV was one big fertile field.

A good deal of the harvesting has come after Kovacs' death. There's no better testament to his influence than this off-kilter laud from Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame.

"The Ernie Kovacs Show knocked me sideways into a world where the bizarre and the daft and the preposterous all lived happily alongside wisdom, wit and perception," he says in the accompanying booklet for Kovacs Collection. "I had never experienced anything so visually absurd and inventive. It was sublime. It hurt. I was 11 years old -- was this some new form of child abuse? If it was, it was one of the most momentous things that ever happened to me. Ernie Kovacs scarred me for life. Thankfully, I've never recovered."

The name "Uncle Barky" just might be an offshoot, too. If so, thanks a lot.