Ernie Kovacs at 100

(Above source: Wikimedia)

Ernie Kovacs, the television comedy pioneer who specialized in surreal, visually avant-garde humor, would have turned 100 years old tomorrow, January 23.

Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident just 10 days short of his 43rd birthday in 1962, tragically ending his innovative career and relegating him to relative obscurity, at least when compared to some contemporaries.

Kovacs had sketch and talk shows on CBS, NBC, ABC and the defunct DuMont network in the 1950s and early 1960s. Throughout them all, music greatly influenced Kovacs’ comedy. A devotee of both classical and American pop (including jazz and ragtime), Kovacs’ creativity thrived on appropriating famous melodies to support bizarre – and sometimes wicked – bits.

He also had a thing for gorilla suits.

“Kovacs Unlimited,” his celebrated theme song, was the rinky-dink piano rag “Oriental Blues.” The tune was credited to Robert Maxwell but is based on George Gershwin’s “Rialto Ripples” (also known as the intro to “The Real American Folk Song Is a Rag,” from the 1930 Gershwin Broadway show, Crazy About You.)

Kovacs’ TV episodes were chock full of familiar, quirky ditties, inspiring hilarious sight gags and pantomimes. One particular song led to a recurring iconic sketch: the unforgettable, performing gorilla group known as The Nairobi Trio.

Inspired by Maxwell’s Latin-flavored “Solfeggio” (undoubtedly the most famous solfeggio song this side of “Do-Re-Mi” from Sound of Music), The Nairobi Trio was a satire of a child’s animatronic music box. Kovacs, with his trademark cigar, was the middle ape, conducting sometimes with a baton, sometimes a banana. The ape with the mallets was played by different guest actors including Frank Sinatra and friend Jack Lemmon. The keyboardist was also inhabited by rotating performers, including Kovacs’ wife, Edie Adams.

Lampooning Classical Music

Like cartoon animators Ubi Iwerks, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, Ernie Kovacs was at his most original and eccentric when lampooning the pretentiousness of classical music.

Consider the following excerpt, with introductory narration by Lemmon:

Marrying musical and comic timing with commonplace visuals, Kovacs choreographed unexpected associations with the closing section of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” This was followed by some Twilight Zone-type dramatics (without dialogue), set to Igor Stravinsky’s early foray into modern music, the “Firebird Suite.”

Then there was Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

Kovacs’ fondness for gorilla suits was further evidenced by this ignominious interpretation of the ballet, which also included incidental music from Franz Schubert’s “Rosamunde.” Showing that he didn’t entirely disdain convention and propriety, Kovacs’ lead ballerina gratefully accepts a bouquet of bananas at the end of the performance:

Finally, we have Kurt Weil and Bertol Brecht’s “Mack the Knife” from The Three Penny Opera. Presented in its original German (and done before Bobby Darin’s pop rendition), Kovacs used the tune to underscore a series of inventive sight gags that would have made iWerks, Avery, Jones – and certainly Buster Keaton – proud.

More on Ernie Kovacs

To learn more about Kovacs’ career, you can watch this 1998 episode of A&E’s Biography:

And here’s a best-of compilation:

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