Monkey Business

In the first of a series, The Lost Signal presents a discussion on one of the greatest issues of televisiual importance, past or present. The focus this month will be on one of the most critically acclaimed performers in the history of television. He is often called a pioneer, a man who understood the medium and its comic possibilities better than almost anyone else of his era. He was an innovator and an inventor, an artist who pushed the boundaries of the boob tube to challenge the audience and champion his own idiosyncrasies. Practically unknown to today’s reality-show satiated viewers, Ernie Kovacs gave TV it’s irreverent spirit, it’s drive to distance itself from the magic of motion pictures and the reliability of radio.

His was a typical entertainment story. Kovacs got his start in the fledgling medium the way many of his forbearers had: by hosting local programming for major network affiliates. In this case, Kovacs helmed three shows on NBC’s WPTZ in Philadelphia. With names like Deadline for Dinner and Pick Your Ideal, these minor informational efforts didn’t allow Kovacs the room to adlib and improvise — talents he honed while working in radio. Yet in November of ’50, he starred in the 90-minute morning program 3 to Get Ready and suddenly, Kovacs was getting attention. Unlike his fellow performers who used television as a mere extension of their stage act, Kovacs explored the technical abilities of the equipment. Mixed with his zany, off the wall brand of humor, it was a highly creative combination.

NBC took notice and gave Kovacs his first network show in 1951, entitled It’s Time for Ernie. When nighttime stalwarts Kukla, Fran and Ollie went on summer hiatus, Kovacs was called up, and his Kovacsland replaced the puppet parade that season. Soon, he was back down to daytime, where Kovacs on the Corner offered a kiddie show fashioned around the comedian’s arcane antics. In 1952, Kovacs moved to WCBS in New York. His first foray for the station, Kovacs Unlimited, was a Saturday Night Live style variety hour, with skits, guests, and spoofs of other TV fare. After 21 months on the air, Kovacs got his shot at the big time. He created The Ernie Kovacs Show, using what he called a “hallucinatory world” that allowed his imagination an incredibly wide berth.

With no studio audience to hamper the production, Kovacs relied on a more conceptual style of wit to garner his laughs. He offered recurring characters (poet, Percy Dovetonsils), anthropomorphic objects (talking toasters, paintings that ‘came to life’), and razor sharp lampoons of known cinematic formulas (the operetta) and pop culture icons (crooners and greasy band leaders). Perhaps his most innovative effort appeared in 1957. Often called the “Silent Show”, Kovacs appeared as a character named Eugene. All the action was pantomimed, with just special effects, music, and other sound cues used to drive the comedy. It was a perfect example of this innovator’s uncompromising style. Kovacs wanted audiences drawn into the worlds that television could create. He wasn’t simply satisfied with the medium recreating stage and screen experiences.

Out of an overflowing catalog of creative bits, none has received more unfettered praise, and caused more perplexed confusion, than “The Nairobi Trio”. Consisting of Kovacs and two co-stars (one of whom was usually wife and performing partner Edie Adams) dressed up in gorillas suits, the simian threesome would sit on a small stage decked out in top coats, gloves and bowlers. Like a wind-up mechanical toy, they would play along to a recording of “Solfeggio” by Robert Maxwell. During a specific point in the song, the xylophone player would swivel from its position, and using its mallets, strike the center ape (always played by Kovacs) on its head. Hilarity ensued…or at least, that’s the legend.

That’s exactly what we’ve come here today to debate. For many fans, Kovacs is much more than a primate pantomime. But for those who can barely recall his contributions to the medium, this trio of childish chimps is his performance apex. So, without further ado, we present both sides of “The Nairobi Trio” issue, giving each position ample opportunity — or in this case, a few paragraphs — to state their comedy cases. In the end, it will be up to you, the reader, to decide if Ernie Kovacs’ best-remembered skit, “The Nairobi Trio” is funny, or not funny? More so, is if fair to condense an entire career into a three minute nonsense skit? First up, the negative.

Not Funny: Kovacs Has Done Better
While biographies list Kovacs’ middle name as Edward, is might as well have been Entertainment, what with the amount of witty, intelligent, and imaginative comedy this television treasure created. Not restricted to one style of humor, Kovacs incorporated slapstick and the sophisticated, the conceptual, and the cornball into his risible repertoire, the better to split the sides and slap the knees of those lucky enough to witness his witty wonders. Granted, he could be somewhat hit-and-miss, using improvisation and experimentation for their novelty value alone. Yet beyond the standard sight gags and the crazy character studies, and in spite of the technology’s newness and the audience’s reluctance to embrace anything different, Kovacs fostered modern television comedy. He’s the forefather to every barrier busting show, the guiding light for any performer (David Letterman) or collective of actors (SCTV, Saturday Night Live) who wanted to expand the realm of possibilities for their creativity. While no artist is perfect, Kovacs came mighty close to being a flawless visionary of the boob tube’s basics.

That’s why it’s so sad that those lame monkey mannequins of “The Nairobi Trio” remain his most remembered, beloved, and oft-referenced bit. More so than the wicked wordplay of prissy poet Percy Dovetonsils, or the sly stupidity of horror host Auntie Gruesome, this collection of clichés offered up as ingenuity remains his sadly lamentable legacy. There is no such uniform love for his “silent” pantomimes as Eugene, or the superb shtick of the “World’s Most Horrible Singer”, real life vocalist Leona Anderson. No, people see these pretend primates, frozen monkey mask faces delivering deadpan expressions, waistcoats giving them a kind of cosmopolitan campiness, and proceed to bust a gut. But there is nothing inherently witty about such a set up, or what happens once the action starts. As soon as the “Solfeggio” kicks in, and the middling mechanical pantomime begins, the repetition of actions (xylophone mallets to the head, hound dog expression on the lead ape’s face) grows dull instead of delightful; the punch line payoff plays cheap and uninteresting. While it may look crazy, and tap into some minor childhood memory of tin toys with wind up keys, “The Nairobi Trio”‘s few minutes of foolishness is vapid, insipid and routine. It is not funny, and not befitting of Kovacs legitimate legacy.

From a personal standpoint, I think people remember it because, like anything before the advent of home video, it was the lasting symbol of Kovacs contribution to the television art form. There is a lot of history here — too much to go into now. Kovacs died young, in a car crash. He left behind huge debts that wife Edie Adams swore she would pay off. She managed to eradicate the arrears and regain the rights to Kovacs TV work. She kept it under wraps until the very earliest incarnation of Comedy Central came looking for content. Kovacs’ shows were repackaged and rebroadcast during the mid ’80s only to disappear again once the network went the stand-up route. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. Without a home video or DVD release to illustrate other aspects of his humor, this is what we are left with.

Funny: Don’t Hate the Ape
Look, let’s face it — monkeys are funny! They’re funny! Be it chimps decked out in human clothing or fake gorillas chasing damsels in distress down long dark alleys, anything simian is a surefire snicker maker. All the greats have gravitated toward man’s evolutionary cousin when it comes to comedy; from the Three Stooges to Clint Eastwood, and last time anyone checked, these performers are considered masters of their respective craft. Now, it is true that the basis for the “Nairobi Trio” skit is very simplistic: three actors, a dapper looking wardrobe, and a collection of crappy primate masks. Add in the super silly scales song “Solfeggio” and you’ve got some rather superficial comedy fodder. In fact, it’s probably the most basic of Kovacs’ many comic set-ups. But the reason it works is not because of what it is, but because of what the ingenious actor does with it. By combining the right elements — the deadpan faces, the facile music, the robotic movements and the clear, concrete slapstick — Kovacs taps directly into the very foundations of humor, and the result is as rib tickling as it is outright ridiculous. Besides, we find chimps funny for purely biological reasons. We see our stupid selves in their chromosomal proximity.

In fact, this is what makes it so much fun. It’s absurd. It’s surreal. It’s friggin’ people in monkey suits hitting each other on the head. From Chaplin and Keaton on up through Python and Gervais, physical comedy has been one of the primary forms of funny. It’s part of our primordial make-up, a genetic reminder of the days when cavemen carried clubs and dinos feared the possible damage. When you add our Darwinian brethren into the mix, especially in cheap and cheesy costume form, you turn something inherent into something hilarious. Besides, Kovacs’ creative bent is precisely what makes it all work. His timing is impeccable, the use of the camera and music masterful and outstanding. Similar to the sight of Benny Hill being chased in sped-up footage as Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax” plays in the background, this throwback to silent cinema and the stage is overflowing with safe, simpleminded goodness. It is not meant to be a considered statement on the state of society, or a cynical view of what some people find funny. No, “The Nairobi Trio” intends to prove there is nothing more hilarious than a bunch of fake apes pretend playing to a nonsense song while one beats the other on the head. It’s the very core of comedy, and it is indeed very, very funny. Someone once said that we like to laugh at pain not occurring to us individually. It’s like a novel form of nervous laughter — we recognize how embarrassed we’d be passing wind in a public place, and giggle at the poor schmo who does it in our place.

Well, there you have it: two sides, two wildly divergent attitudes. Are actors in monkey masks really clever, or are people who laugh at such simian stupidity de-evolving before our eyes? One thing is for sure; some 50 years after first appearing on those fledgling airwaves, the work of Ernie Kovacs endures. And while these shows may or may not be the perfect example of his legacy, they represent something that few performers achieve: a lasting, iconic image of their work. In the end, maybe that’s all “The Nairobi Trio” really is: a symbol of creative longevity.

Ernie Kovack’s Nairobi Trio