[26 June 2012]
When I was eight or nine, our local independent channel started showing old Ernie Kovacs episodes late at night. My father, a huge Kovacs nut, would let me stay up to watch them with him. Even then, I realized two things: A) Yes, Kovacs was some kind of crazy genius of early TV, and B) A lot of the humor that left my dad wheezing with laughter on the living room floor just didn’t mean much to me… even the Nairobi Trio, who were supposed to be apes playing jazz music and hitting each other on the head. That should have been a slam dunk for a nine-year-old boy, but it just seemed kind of creepy.
In recent years, there have been plenty of re-issues of Ernie Kovacs’ work. I am now able to appreciate his deconstruction of the new medium of television, and some of the jokes seem funnier. But some of them just fall flat even now…and one of them is Kovacs’ most famous character. Percy Dovetonsils was a poet who was among the earliest examples of homosexual stereotyping on TV. He lisped, minced around, and talked to his off-camera assistant Bruce. Percy would periodically pop up lisping his new poem, which was always in Ogden Nash-like doggerel couplets, and then giggle in a self-satisfied way. It doesn’t seem particularly mean, necessarily, and that was a different time, blah blah blah. But this is how my father and a lot of people of his generation still act when they are making fun of gay men. I wonder to this day how influential the character of Percy Dovetonsils was.
This CD contains the material Kovacs recorded in the early 1960s for an album that never saw the light of day. I thought that maybe the audio medium of Percy Dovetonsils…thpeaks could help me chill out about the stereotyping issue and just listen to the hilarious poetry.
Sadly, the record just isn’t that funny. Percy’s poems were supposed to be bad; even as a longtime appreciator of bad poetry, that joke gets old pretty quickly. Some poems, like “Some Pertinent Thoughts of Julius Caesar While He Was Being Assassinated”, still stand up; Caesar starts bragging about how he has provided “two chariots in every garage… and free orgies at the Acropolis”, and then calling out everyone who is “thtabbing” him over and over. And the class satire of “The Night Before Christmas on New York’s Fashionable East Side” is still pretty funny.
But most of the other stuff here just isn’t based on everything. “Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat” is just a series of jokes about psychoanalysis, which might have been pretty topical back then but seems corny now. Many of the pieces are under one minute long, which means they are one joke long, which is pretty bad when the joke doesn’t work.The best stuff here is appended at the end at the disc; Edie Adams, Kovacs’ co-star and widow, helped to rescue old kinescopes from the “Kovacs Unlimited” archives. Here, Kovacs is younger and edgier, and mostly improvising, so the character is actually in context…and a lot funnier. But by then, one’s patience has been worn to a nub.
A lot of comedy records from back then still stand up today: Bill Cosby’s best records, Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar’s “2000 Year Old Man”, and more. Those records have something at their core. This, however, does not; it’s just a series of jokes based on a character that—thankfully—no longer resonates to the average American.