'The Ernie Kovacs Collection'

Shout Factory

A boxed set honors the first comedian to turn TV on its head.

Forty-nine years after his fatal car crash, why do people still care so much about TV comedy pioneer Ernie Kovacs that New York's Paley Center just had a Keith Olbermann-hosted tribute and Shout Factory released this six-DVD, 13-hour Kovacs boxed set?

Because, like the Corvair he was driving, Kovacs was unsafe at any speed: His tombstone reads, "Nothing in Moderation." Kovacs went out on a limb and sawed it off -- literally -- in one sketch. When his Philadelphia show was canceled in 1952, he smashed up the set with a hammer on-camera, moved the show to New York and wound up a TV and minor movie star in L.A. He staged gorilla ballets, tilted an entire set so a poured drink flowed sideways and created the twin-spit-curled poet Percy Dovetonsils, who lisped his "Ode to Stanley's Cat": "Thtanley's putthycat became a drunk/He thtole to purchase liquor/When my putthycat drank cream and milk/Thtanley's would hiccup and thnicker." As host of a dozen shows in all kinds of formats, Kovacs snickeringly turned TV's lens on itself, breaking the fourth wall.

He left his widow, Edie Adams, with $500,000 in IRS debt. She repaid it, then bought back Kovacs' historic kinescopes before the studios could dump them in the Hudson. Considering the influence of Kovacs' anarchic irony, we owe Edie 500,000 laughs.

In the glossy 44-page booklet that comes with the set, Jonathan Lethem, an arbiter of Gotham hipness, calls him the missing link between Groucho Marx and Letterman and the forebear of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Laugh-In (whose creators concur). Conan could not be "Coco" without Kovacs' brass cojones having blazed the trail. He was the real deal, and so is this collection.

Shout Factory, $69.97 (Buy from ShoutFactory Store.com and get the two-hour bonus DVD Buried Treasures.)