Two massive new comedy box sets reveal the three joys of archive-plundering
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Assembling new products from pop culture’s past often requires the use of hyperbole. The curatorial impulse behind a creating a compilation album usually requires its tracks to be the “greatest.” Paring down a TV series’ run to a two-DVD set makes room only for the “best.” The latter quality is ascribed to countless volumes of fiction and nonfiction, ensuring future readers might come across a short story, poem, comic, or piece of criticism because it was ascribed an essentialness where others of its kind were not.
You know what superlative never appears in big, bold letters on the covers of such collections? “Most.” No home-video collection of a television show claims to contain the largest amount of that show available, save for collectors’ editions that squeeze an entire series’ run into a single box or digital package. That big-tent approach is reserved for bargain-basement collections of public-domain films or lesser-known recordings of classic songs. And why shouldn’t this impression persist? After all, it requires a certain mercenary verve to package together 50 classic horror films, slap Lon Chaney, Sr. on the cover, and ply that bundle at big-box stores for a suggested retail price slightly higher than that of the average movie ticket.
So what’s to be made of a compilation whose cup runneth over, but whose cup was also lovingly designed and festooned with vital information about the making of its contents? The type of pop-culture product that shoots for “encyclopedic,” in terms of bulk as well as the potential to illuminate?
Recently, a pair of Shout! Factory releases that exist within that middle ground crossed my desk: the newly released second volume of The Ernie Kovacs Collection and the forthcoming The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy. There’s plenty of overlap between the collections in terms of substance—deriving their senses of humor from a similarly vaudevillian prankishness, Kovacs’ comedic work during the Golden Age Of Television displayed a disregard for the rules and a willingness to break down the fourth wall, qualities shared by Brooks’ work as a stage comedian, television writer, and eventually, filmmaker. However, the three-disc Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2 and the five-DVD, one-CD Incredible Mel Brooks find their deepest connection in presentation and function. The track lists on each collection are overwhelming, and in spite of each set’s obvious, retrospective through-line, each seems a little scattershot at first. The Kovacs Collection is a neater gathering of its subject’s NBC morning show, and the absurdist ABC panel quiz Take A Good Look, interspersed with sketches starring a colorful array of characters like pickled “poet laureate” Percy Dovetonsils and howling German disc jockey Wolfgang Von Sauerbraten. (Kovacs’ love of broooad comedic characterizations is only outdone by Brooks’ affection for them.) The Incredible Mel Brooks, meanwhile, is all over the map, slotting Brooks’ television debut alongside a guest shot on Mad About You, segments from The Electric Company, and a pair of UK TV specials—and that’s only on disc four.
Yet neither set should be criticized for its overabundance. Rather, both are members of a subset of ridiculously generous compilations that justify their plentiful contents because they satisfy three basic functions: preservation, edification, and immersion. In not seeking to reduce the work of prolific artists to their “best,” these and other compilations like them acknowledge the highs as well as the lows, providing a fuller picture of their subject than any greatest-hits package ever could.
Preservation: This is The Ernie Kovacs Collection and The Incredible Mel Brooks’ most basic purpose. Preservation has driven the narrative of Kovacs’ television output since his death in 1962: ABC, for instance, held the tapes of Kovacs specials as a lien on debts their spendthrift star owed the network at the time of his death. Had his widow, Edie Adams, not purchased the surviving tapes—which helped in part to form The Ernie Kovacs Collection’s two volumes—they might’ve met the fate of other Kovacs videotapes and kinescopes that were, legend has it, dubbed over or dumped into the Upper New York Bay in fits of financial revenge.
Due to live broadcasts, so much of the so-called Golden Age of Television was lost in a much less intentional manner, so what remains ought to be handsomely repackaged and made commercially available. A similar impulse caused Harry Smith to reach into his record collection and pull out The Anthology Of American Folk Music in the 1950s. Yet the likes of Shout! Factory or Hip-O Select needn’t take Smith’s obsessively curatorial tack to produce such a fascinating collection from their archives: Witness the scattered track lists of the Kovacs Collection or Incredible Mel Brooks—or a compilation album like Manhattan Research Inc., a two-disc collection of audio odds and ends produced by composer and inventor Raymond Scott in the 1950s and ’60s. The album is as cluttered as the musical laboratory from which it takes its name, but the assorted jingles, soundtrack excerpts, and experiments—all written and performed electronically on synthesizers and sequencers of Scott’s own design—provide a look at the deepest roots of electronic music. They’re ancient texts that would be moldering away on a shelf somewhere if they weren’t put to disc.
Such comprehensiveness might seem to return these artifacts to the ephemeral realm—but it also lets viewers, listeners, or readers in on the curatorial process. I’ve only listened to Manhattan Research Inc. end to end a few times—after those initial listens, I cherry-picked my favorite bleeps and blooms and dropped them into a playlist. In effect, offering such a generous selection gives fans the chance to be their own curators—all while helping extend the lives of these works for another few years. You might never watch all of The Incredible Mel Brooks, but you can make a good afternoon or two out of combing through its offerings.
Edification: The closest The Incredible Mel Brooks has to a focal point is the five-part documentary Mel And His Movies, a retrospective of Brooks’ filmography that, for the obsessives most inclined to pick up the set, won’t provide a lot of insight. A better overview of Brooks’ long, diffuse, hit-or-miss career is provided by the rare clips pulled together for the DVD/CD set. It’s a grab bag that allows the ill-advised “Hitler Rap” video (produced to promote the 1983 remake of To Be Or Not To Be, and starring the frequently Nazi-mocking Brooks as a hip-hoppin’ führer) to rub elbows with highlights from Brooks’ regular appearances on the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show. It’s through the material that’s faded into obscurity—like an episode of the Renaissance Faire sitcom When Things Were Rotten, a forgotten bridge between Get Smart and Robin Hood: Men In Tights—where The Incredible Mel Brooks demonstrates its subject’s willingness to try anything for a laugh. The set shares Brooks’ aversion to self-control, illustrating a defining facet of the man and his work.
The way The Incredible Mel Brooks turns up stones like When Things Were Rotten is a service that ought to be performed for other artists with such prodigious output. Shout! Factory is already doing the same for Kovacs; earlier this year, the company’s Steve Martin: The Television Stuff revived six one-off TV presentations from the wild-and-crazy days of Martin’s 1970s and ’80s peak. If the proper distributor could be found, I’d love to see someone provide the same service for the hours and hours of content within the Jim Henson Company’s archives. The Henson Company’s YouTube does a great job of corralling bits of non-Muppet Henson arcana like The Cube or the IBM industrial film “The Paperwork Explosion,” but material like this is crying out to be bundled into a Blu-ray or DVD release, a home-video counterpart to the new book Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal. The Internet is a good place for this video to live, but to truly shine a light on a period of Henson’s career that’s unknown to many fans of The Muppet Show or Fraggle Rock, that material deserves—like the components of The Incredible Mel Brooks, The Ernie Kovacs Collection, and Steve Martin: The Television Stuff—to provide that illumination from the place most of it originated: the TV screen.
Immersion: The total running time on The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2 is nine hours; that’s two hours less than The Incredible Mel Brooks. Even taking modern viewers’ binge-viewing habits into account, neither compilation is intended to be watched in a single sitting. And yet, with The Incredible Mel Brooks especially, a single disc contains such a variety of content that even an hour spent with it counts as an immersive experience.
And really, isn’t that the best argument for not holding back, for allowing these and other pop-culture products to burst forth from the archives? Sure, it can seem like a task to get through it all, but if there wasn’t something of worth in the deluge, no one would be putting up the money to distribute it. That certainly isn’t the case with every compilation of such heft, but the more time spent with The Ernie Kovacs Collection and The Incredible Mel Brooks, the more that heft starts to make sense. Patterns emerge. Themes recur. The importance of drumming to Brooks’ showbiz career is stated on one disc, then restated and reinforced on another. The picture begins broad and blurry, but after a while, it comes into focus. The generosity of content within these compilations demands time, but rewards it, as well. To me, that makes them worthy of being considered the “best.”