MADE BROOKLYN HIP
GIVES US A LOOK AT A
FORGOTTEN COMEDIAN WHO DEFINED COOL
FOR GENERATIONS OF
arning: There's a mystery at the heart of this inquiry, one we won't really be able to penetrate here, instead only hope to define the better to
in mind isn't what I like to call the Bob Hope-Lenny Bruce Perplex, though it does apply to Ernie Kovacs; i.e., why need we be given so many (predictable) life decades of the one, such scant (mercurial) years of the other? Why couldn't a few years, heck, even months, have been shifted from one to the other? For me Kovacs goes with Nathanael West and Buddy Holly in the greatest-potential-futures-unrealized column. (Cars and airplanes have a lot to answer for.) But the Hope-Bruce thing is merely a fannish way of
complaining about death's arbitrariness.
Anyway, cataloging Potential Unrealized—a mug's game, in truth— shouldn't stand in the way of lavishing appreciation for the thing that was given, of scrupulously cherishing said gift, of raising its provider onto a pedestal commensurate with the pleasure and wonder we've drawn from said gift and also of archiving the evidence left behind, for securing it in libraries and museums and in the annals of culture. Only, in Kovacs's case we've failed utterly. How many recent geniuses—not arcane, hermetic geniuses ensconced in some high modernist castle, I mean, but accessible, relevant, capricious, joyous, salt-of-the-earth, explosively generous and even utterly silly geniuses (are there any others who'd even rate all those adjectives besides Kovacs?)—how many of those are so utterly erased from their right place in cultural memory? In Ernie Kovacs's case, literally erased. Taped over, for crissakes.
This goes beyond any artist's worst fears of being out of print or of receding into mists of antiquity or even of being a victim of the chemical time bomb of nitrate prints that have devoured century-old silent films; this is more recent and irresponsible and lousy even than that. They taped over his work, the fuckers. Mere's Ernie Kovacs—the bridging figure, at the very least, between Groucho Marx and David Letterman, the immediate and proximate father, at the very least, of both Monty Python's Flying Circus and Nam June Paik, the uncle, at the very least, of Laugh-In and The Tonight Show and a thousand lesser television moments, the permissive next-door neighbor, at the very least, of Donald Barthelme and Frank Zappa—a man whose great work was accomplished in the 1950s and 1960s
and whose widow and collaborator was alive until two years ago as of this writing and who is, rather than a household name, a rumor, a subliminal notion, perhaps even a secret to which you and I have, until now, alone been privy.
Eh? What's that I hear you say? Who's Ernie Kovacs?
Friend, I'm deeply disappointed in you. I thought we were together in this. And no, I'm not going to sell Ernie Kovacs to you, for as luck would have it I (finally) don't need to. Thanks to Shout! Factory's expert new Ernie Kovacs Collection boxed set, amassing nearly all of the sublime remnants that still can be assembled—the original talk and variety shows, commercials, interviews, onetime specials on which Mr. Kovacs forged his revolutionary, surrealistic but totally unpretentious style of comedic video art—enough of which survive so that the secret needn't be a secret any longer. No, with what space remains here I'll pretend I didn't even hear that terrible question you asked and instead begin a personal accounting of a few of the peculiar things I love about Ernie Kovacs and how they came to me, and then I'll try to define that mystery I mentioned to begin with.
1. Ernie Kovacs was, along with the Beatles and the Monkees, Alfred
Hitchcock and Mel Brooks, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, one of the 10 or so cultural things I most plainly recall my mother deliberately introducing to me. It happened when PBS ran a sequence of the Kovacs specials in 1977. I was 13, and my mother simply sat me down in front of our family's television (on which everything, up to and including The Wizard of Oz, was broadcast in the same black-and-white as the Kovacs shows). She didn't need to do more than that. All of the Beatles and Monkees, Brooks, Bradbury, Asimov and Hitchcock were at that time alive, so Kovacs was my introduction to dying too young. Since my mother was about to do that herself, it's probably not surprising how personal this feels to me.
2. The Nairobi Trio is (and I've conducted tests on my own children, trust me) one of only two things in the entire universe with the power to wildly delight any human being, from a two-year-old to the most sophisticated (i.e., sullen, punk, tripping on drugs) teenager to adults of any age, and do so not only on first contact but repeated to infinity. I'm certain this effect would pertain across any imaginable cultural or linguistic boundary, and I'd even be willing to bet that there are certain animal species (guess) who'd likely be entertained by the trio. (The sole other thing containing this vast power is a Buster Keaton gag in a short called The Scarecrow, involving a dog chasing Keaton along the top walls of a roofless structure. One of the last things Ernie Kovacs filmed was a pilot for a television show called The Medicine Man, featuring himself and Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton, along with Jack Benny, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Stewart and many others, attended Kovacs's funeral.) So what's the Nairobi Trio? Three (concluded on page 122)
(continued from page 92) monkeys—and who doesn't like monkeys?— playing instruments—and who doesn't like monkeys playing instruments?—bonking one another on the head—and who doesn't like monkeys playing instruments and bonking one another on the head? But these monkeys, really men in monkey suits (one long rumored to be Jack Lemmon) and dressed in heavy overcoats, are also, in some uncanny conflation, windup figures in some sort of infernal device. That's to say, at some semiconscious level we register the Nairobi Trio as emblems of eternity, doomed to their slow-burn enactment until the solar system implodes.
3. Poets, a fierce and suspicious lot, don't like being made fun of. Yet every poet I know adores Percy Dovetonsils, Kovacs's affectionately devastating charade of a cocktail-sipping, loopily lisping connoisseur of doltish rhyme. One poet I know signs his correspondence Percy Dovetonsils.
The offhand danger contained in
Kovacs's work is that once his sensibility
has colonized a certain cultural matter, it
stands no chance of ever being retrieved
for serious purpose. I have had to take it
on faith my whole life that the song "Mack
the Knife" conveys some sultry essence of
decadence or menace; for me, thanks to
Kovacs's use of it as a complement to an
endless sequence of stupid sight gags (which
are in turn somehow exalted into a weird
aura of decadence or menace by the song) it
is like having my arms held behind my back
while I am tickled. Swan Lake was always
done in gorilla outfits, no? Who could ever
read Camille now without hearing a cough?
When I first learned that an important cin-
ematographer was named Laszlo Kovacs I
had trouble believing I wasn't being kidded,
that Laszlo whoever-he-was hadn't picked
the surname sheerly as a joke.
Not unrelated, Ernie Kovacs wrote for
Mad magazine. Of course he did.
Ernie Kovacs wrote a novel, he claimed,
in 13 days. The subject was the New York
television rat race; he turned it in just before moving to Los Angeles, and when his publisher asked when he'd do the copy edits, he quipped, "On the first rainy day." In fact, it was a sudden Los Angeles rain that likely caused Kovacs to crash his car the night he died. Either that or he was trying to light his cigar while driving in the rain.
Enough of my morbid and sentimental list, which could go on forever. Here's the mystery: Putting aside how Kovacs makes you laugh (and it should be said that much of his work is too conceptual and deliberate and even awkward to be smoothly seductive to the viewer's hilarity; it often presents itself as humorous while actually being both interesting and uncomfortably odd), his great claim, his great indisputable achievement is as an excavator of a new medium's possibilities. Kovacs is to videotaped television what D.W. Griffith and later Orson Welles are to narrative in projected celluloid, what McCartney-Lennon and George Martin are to eight-track tape recording in pop music, what Hank Shocklee is to digital sampling in hip-hop: one of those artists whose personal expressivity takes the form of a series of astonishing and playful demonstrations of what a medium's potential—and true nature—might be. If we take this as a given, and I think it's impossible not to on the evidence, then the mystery is how an artist defined by his place within a medium rightly characterized by media theorist Marshall McLuhan as "cool" and whose explorations seem in so many ways to prove McLuhan exactly right, moving as they do in the direction of postmodern fragmentation, of parody, of repetition, of irony, of disruption of convention without convention's replacement by new frameworks, instead by an increasingly rapid series of subsequent disruptions; and if we further agree that most of Ernie Kovacs's avowed inheritors—from Laugh-In and Monty Python to video art to Carson and Letterman and beyond—are unquestionably "cool" in temperature (elusive, ironical, uncommitted), the mystery is this: How is it that Kovacs, our human guide into this cool world, is himself such an almost unbearable figure of warmth? You feel you know this guy from somewhere else and that you'd like to be inside the television with him; that's what's odd. Watching, you feel his anger, his ambition, his joy, his nearly violent curiosity, his impatience, his terror of screwing up; all are worn right on the outermost surface of his being. Even self-amusement, usually the iciest part of a comic's persona and therefore either carefully hidden or brandished as a fuck-you (think Groucho and Letterman again), in Kovacs is an element drawing you nearer. There are a few moments in his work when he breaks down and laughs for a while at something invisible to the viewer either because it lies outside the frame or because it hides somewhere inside his head, and you kind of want them to go on forever. That's it, the whole mystery I want to outline and that I don't purport to solve: how it can be that Ernie Kovacs generates such an astounding degree oflove in the viewer that you'd almost rather see him laugh than laugh yourself.
the bridging figure
Marx and David
Letterman; the father
of Monty Python's