The Ernie Kovacs Collection
Six Discs (Shout! Factory)
So, why would you want to take a chance on some guy who was on TV before you were born? Well, for one thing, the surrealistic, medium-bending humor we take for granted today didn’t start with Scrubs (2001-2010) or David Letterman (1980) or Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974) or even Green Acres (1965-1971). Ernie Kovacs was stretching, subverting and mocking at the conventions of television in 1951... take a moment to think on that: 1951. TV was so young it barely had conventions to mock, subvert or undermine, but Kovacs had an unerring eye for fledgling clichés and lampooned them mercilessly.
You can see Kovacs in Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live (Chevy Chase thanked him in his 1976 Emmy acceptance speech), and in the self-referential patter of Steve Allen, George Carlin and Craig Ferguson. Try not to think about SNL's fake commercials ("puppy uppers and doggie downers," anyone?) or Second City TV's Joe Flaherty as Count Floyd while watching Kovacs play the shameless host of a late-night Hungarian movie show (Kovacs' family was Hungarian) shilling for 'Molnar’s Budapest Krisplies.' "They’re 100% junk!" he says gleefully. They "don’t pop snap or crackle… who wants all that noise from spoon?" To serve: Combine cereal, two cups of sugar and a bottle of cheap Hungarian wine in a punch bowl, then discard cereal.
Before you dismiss Kovacs’ effete poet Percy Dovetonsils as a retro gay stereotype, listen closely to “Roughing It,” his guide to hunting bear like a man’s man, which starts with a shopping spree at Abercrombie and Francine. If that isn’t a joke that plays better 50 years down the line than when it was new, I don’t know what is.
And then there’s the Nairobio Trio, which consisted of Kovacs, Edie Adams – his wife, muse and partner in crime, the rare bombshell willing to go goofy for a laugh – and various third wheels performing classical-light composer Robert Maxwell’s novelty number "Solfeggio" dressed as mechanical apes in bowlers. Their legacy includes a New Zealand jazz quartet who appropriated the name, Harry Nilsson's video for his novelty hit Coconut and columnist Jim Knipfel's Quitting the Nairobi Trio: A Memoir, his sardonic account of spending six months in Minneapolis mental institution after a botched suicide attempt.
None of Kovacs' routines sound anywhere near as funny as they are, even the word-based ones: They’re too intricately time, distinctively delivered and just plain loopy to translate. Which is where The Ernie Kovacs Collection comes in and I step out: There may be someone out there who could watch the entire set without cracking a smile, but when it comes to comedy I’m a notoriously tough audience and Kovacs makes me laugh.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Monday, June 6, 2011
He looked at it intently for a moment and then said, "Would you mind
Thursday, June 2, 2011
Musician, poet and social activist Gil Scott-Heron died on May 27th, and while reading his obit I got hit with one of those "how'd I get that so wrong" broadsides.
I always took the signature line from Scott-Heron's 1970 spoken-word screed (contrary to what every over-stressed, culturally under-educated online writer seems to have taken at face value because someone once wrote it somewhere, Scott-Heron's legacy isn't rap -- it's the apparently spontaneous but meticulously-crafted verse of poetry slams)"The Revolution Will Not be Televised” as a defiant warning that when the poor, alienated and disenfranchised finally get up off their asses to fight the power, the carnage will be overwhelming, up against the wall motherfucker real, not some happy news kicker or an intensely manipulated, reality-tv style spectacle. Talk about prescient.
Interestingly, my husband's take was the complete opposite: He interpreted it to mean that the ruling class would suppress real reporting and spin the whole thing into insignificance… also prescient.
But I'd never listened to or read the full piece (shame on me) and it was a revelation. Yes, Scott-Heron addresses racism, police brutality, addiction and entrenched social injustice. But this excerpt sums up what really burned his ass:
“The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions…
"The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theater and will not star Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle as Julia.
"The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
"The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
"The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, brother."
Damn – that is more prescient than I ever imagined.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (University of Minnesota Press) one of the best non-fiction books of 2010.