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Chris Elliott accepts Kovacs Award under needlessly trying circumstances


From left: Josh Mills, son of the late Edie Adams (who was the late Ernie Kovacs’ wife/collaborator), Dallas VideoFest artistic director Bart Weiss, Kovacs Award recipient Chris Elliott. Photo: Ed Bark

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Sunday’s presentation of the latest Kovacs Award didn’t end up being entirely bungled. But it sure could have gone much better.

The honor, given in memory of trailblazing television comedian Ernie Kovacs, has become the centerpiece of the annual Dallas VideoFest, which just wrapped its 28th year. As such, it merited far more organization and preparation than was apparent late Sunday afternoon and early evening at the Angelika Film Center.

Chris Elliott, who flew in Sunday, was this year’s recipient along with his 92-year-old father, Bob, who was supposed to appear via Skype from his home. That never happened -- for two reasons.

No. 1, organizers waited until virtually the last minute to hook up with Bob. They had a host of problems before finally establishing both video and audio contact. By that time the scheduled 4:30 p.m. presentation already had been delayed for about a half-hour, with attendees left to wait outside the Angelika’s Theater 3. Unfortunately, organizers then decided they’d call Bob back after his son was introduced.

Then came the worst -- namely a “performance artist” who bills himself as Professor R. Mutt. While Chris sat in a front row seat, Mutt went on for a seeming eternity -- actually about 15 minutes -- with what he calls his Duchampaphon. Basically it’s two spinning bicycle wheels producing sounds that “range from serene to cacophanus.” While this went on, Mutt also talked, mostly unintelligibly, through a microphone with flashing lights. It was akin to warming up the audience with readings from a furnace repair manual.

The crowd grew restive as time further slipped away. Finally came the video introduction of Bob (part of the vintage Bob and Ray comedy team) and Chris. This turned out to be very nicely done, but should have been done immediately. Chris then finally took the stage while his father apparently gave up and couldn’t be reached even when his son dialed his personal home phone. So the opportunity was lost to hear stories from the man who greatly admired Kovacs and likewise had a free-form TV show during the medium’s formative years in the early 1950s.

“This came out of the blue,” Chris said of sharing the Kovacs Award with his father. “I just never ever expected to be honored with something like this . . . I’m not worthy of this. My dad is worthy of it.” Sharing is meant literally. Only one award (pictured above) was made for the two of them.

When efforts to re-establish contact with Bob failed miserably, VideoFest artistic director Bart Weiss asked Chris, “Can you talk like your father?”

“You know, Bart, I’m not your performing monkey,” Chris shot back in a way that was more good-humored than it may look in print. Noting that he sat through “a lot of shit” before finally being asked to the stage, he referenced “the bicycle thing” as exactly what he meant. Earlier in the presentation, Chris said, “I feel like my teeth were drilled for two hours.” Pause, one-two. “That’s a good thing.”

He remained amiable under duress, telling amusing stories about both the problematic making of Cabin Boy (on a budget lopped from $30 million to $9 million when original director Tim Burton decided to make Ed Wood instead) and the dawn of his decidedly offbeat characters on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman.

Letterman let him do anything he wanted during the course of eventually promoting him from a Late Night gofer to a staff writer, Chris said. “That’s why a lot of it is just awful.” Actually it’s mostly anything but, even if Chris now says he has no memory at all of playing one of his recurring drop-in characters, The Laid Back Guy.

Chris repeatedly expressed both his appreciation of the Kovacs Award and his disappointment that his father ended up not being a part of it. It was his first visit to Dallas, he said. “When does the next flight leave?” he joked (more or less) after noting how the city had made him feel at home -- if only for four hours.

Reached Monday, Weiss said via email that “I made a bad choice (in Mutt) and he played way too long given that we were late. I clearly made a mistake.”

Mistakes happen, and the two previous Kovacs Award presentations (to Laugh-In creator George Schlatter and comedian Harry Shearer of This Is Spinal Tap fame) were both pretty much on time, well-run and very entertaining. The Chris without Bob Elliott ceremony also had its moments -- except that too many of them were unfortunate. The Dallas VideoFest can and must do much better the next time.

Note to readers: Your friendly content provider is on the Kovacs Award selection committee.

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