Among the much celebrated ''geniuses'' of television's Golden Age, Ernie Kovacs was the only one who seemed born to the medium. It wasn't just his inspired wit; it was also his visionary way of using TV technology as an integral part of his humor. Not content to do stage routines on film or ''radio with pictures,'' Kovacs employed odd camera angles, sleight-of-hand editing, and funny sound effects to create a new kind of comic medium. Cutting-edge TV has been taking its cues from him ever since.
The Best of Ernie Kovacs, compiled from shows he did between 1950 and 1962, is as representative as such a small sampling can get. Released in five hour-long volumes that stitch together skits from throughout his career, this collection divvies up the highlights so evenly that it's difficult to single out a favorite. Taken together, the tapes chart the full range (and depth) of Kovacs' talent.
Each volume is a grab bag of sketches and sight gags that flit back and forth between the silly and the sublime. In Kovacs' running gags and rapid-fire blackouts we can detect the sock-it-to-'em delivery that would later define Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. In his spoofs of TV shows and commercials, we can see the genesis of a whole genre of Saturday Night Live and SCTV parodies. Then there was the stuff that was simply too great to be imitated: the deceptively simple pantomime of the ape-masked Nairobi Trio, the addled poetry readings of prissy Percy Dovetonsils, or the segments without dialogue devoted to the adventures of the silent ''Eugene.''
Almost three decades after his death in 1962, TV is still trying to catch up to Kovacs. All tapes: A