Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In Praise of Ernie Kovacs

The Ernie Kovacs Collection
Six Discs (Shout! Factory)

Not my usual beat and no, I don’t think horror and humor are two sides of the same coin, but petty consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, so I'm going to sing the praises of Ernie Kovacs, the television pioneer who died shockingly young -- 42 -- in a 1963 car crash but left a rich legacy of innovative television... a legacy handed down for decades within the comedy community but largely unknown to outsiders because the stuff was so damned hard to see. The Ernie Kovacs Collection takes care of that.

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 clich├ęs 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.