We lost Ernie 50 years and one month ago
Monday marked the 50th anniversar y, plus one month, of the death of one of my mentors, assuming you can call anyone who did some of his best work wearing a rubber gorilla mask and waving a banana a mentor.
Ernie Kovacs died Jan. 13, 1962, when his car slammed into a utility pole in Los Angeles.
So you’ve got to be pretty old to even remember him, even though he has inf luenced generations of later comedians as varied as Chevy Chase, David Letterman, John Cleese and Conan O’Brien.
Who was he? Quite simply, a genius. That’s not my opinion. Critic William Henry wrote for a museum exhibit on Kovacs’ life: “In commercial terms, a genius is any entertainer... who finds a new way to make money. Kovacs never fit that description. Kovacs’ genius lay in the realm of art. There, a genius is someone who causes an audience to look at the world in a new way.” Well, yes. He took television and film apart and put them back together in a way that was his own.
The sound track oscilloscope would crackle on the bottom of the screen and quick sketches called blackouts unfurled while a scratchy German recording of “Mack the Knife” played.
He’d stand behind a pretty assistant and deliver a monologue but would somehow be visible through a hole in her head.
Tiny people would run up his arm and sit on his shoulder. He once parodied a game show—the 1950’s were infested with game shows—by having a guest shot before he came on stage. The panel had to guess his occupation before he succumbed.
And then there was music. Ah yes, Ernie’s music. This was the man who once opened a show: “I never understood classical music so I’d like to take this opportunity to explain it to you.”
Gorillas danced “Swan Lake.” The “1812 Overture” was portrayed as eggs dropping and breaking into a cast iron frying pan and gloved hands snapping celery stalks. Do you visualize timpani drums being played while filled with uncooked pizza dough? Ernie did.
And, appropriately, his theme song “Oriental Blues” was neither oriental nor blues.
Probably if you remember him it all it’s because one night a singer, preparing to go on, was warming up backstage with the up-and-down piece “Solfeggio,” whose lyrics consist solely of the “do re mi” vocal scale.
Ernie heard it and dreamed up three gorilla musicians in unbelievably fake-looking masks, one of whom would be himself, holding his trademark cigar. And so, the Nairobi Trio was born. I’ve shown them to people who simply sat there gaping for three minutes, mouth open, a glazed look in their eyes, not knowing if they were supposed to laugh or flee to the nearest exit.
His characters were, of course, unique, poet Percy Dovetonsils, disk jockey Wolfgang von Sauerbraten, “Hungarian chef” Miklos Molnar and squishy-shoed Eugene who never spoke.
Not every thing Ernie tried worked. I don’t think that bothered him in the least.
Frankly, there’s no reason for many of the things he did to be funny at all. Why should a man pouring milk, food and berries onto a tilted table, ending up in the lap of stuffed-shirt type at the end—while an obscure 1916 Victrola recording plays—be funny? But it is.
After the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis breakup, ABC television offered Lewis a 90-minute special to do anything he wanted.
Lewis said okay but he’d only take an hour. The network couldn’t find anyone to fill the other 30 minutes. Who wanted to follow Jerry Lewis.
Ernie said he’d do it. He crafted a completely silent show featuring his character Eugene. Jerry Lewis’s show was quickly forgotten. The Eugene show is in the Television Hall of Fame.
You hear about people who were ahead of their time. Ernie is often called that but I think he would have been ahead of any time he lived in.
Yes, even ours.
Do re mi.......Thanks, Ernie.