Saturday, February 13, 2010

Percy's Poetry Book And A New Book On Ernie

Rick Spector runs a company called ""Stairway To The Stars" which specializes in costumes, props, awards and historical artifacts from the golden age of film and television. One of the ways Rick obtains these items is through auction. He recently acquired Percy Dovetonsils' book of poetry at an auction held by the Hollywood Entertainment Museum.


Rick shared some pics with us. The color photo doesn't have to do with Percy or the auction item; Rick discovered some interesting color photos for auction on eBay and since you don't see a lot of these I thought I'd show it. The color pic dates from 1960. Thanks Rick:



Speaking of books we're excited to announce that a brand new one about Ernie is coming out in April, 2010. It's titled "Ernie Kovacs & Early TV Comedy: Nothing in Moderation" and comes to us from The University Of Texas Press. Author Andrew Horton, who is the The Jeanne H Smith Professor of Film And Video Studies at The University Of Oklahoma, took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us:

1. What inspired you to write a book about Ernie Kovacs?

I wrote this book because Ernie has always been a part of me since I was a child and I finally said, "It's time to take a closer look at what has kept me laughing so much all these years.

As I say in my intro: Kovacs was an indelible part of my own childhood. When I was growing up in the l950’s, no one made me laugh louder and more frequently than Ernie Kovacs. The sheer nutty brilliance of the man, his wife Edie Adams, and his comic co-conspirators such as writers including Rex Lardner, Deke Heyward, and Mike Marmer and actors such as Barbara Loden, Peter Hanley and Trigger Lund has come back to make me laugh again and again through the years, often at unexpected moments.

Let’s be more specific. As a child allowed to watch several hours of television a day, I became hooked not so much on "I Love Lucy" or even Disney’s "Mickey Mouse Club" shows, but on the various Ernie Kovacs shows that existed throughout this period.

I was too young to "analyze" what it was that I enjoyed so much about his humor, but in retrospect I was fully aware that Kovacs was much further "out there" as a comedian than anyone else in the biz including my other favorites, Sid Caesar and Steve Allen. In particular, I constantly entertained family and friends acting out The Nairobi Trio, those three apes who always mischievously acted out stunts on each other, particularly angering the middle ape, as the same tune, "Solfeggio" played every time they appeared. I too would hum the song and pretend to play the xylophone with my two little xylophone hammers while then turning like some kind of a robot and zapping the "ape" (be "she" my sister, mother, grandmother, or "he" my father, grandfather or a friend) over the head with my imaginary hammers (often substituting other objects).


2. Two major books have been written about Ernie: David Walley's "Nothing In Moderation: The Ernie Kovacs Story" first published in 1975 (reprinted in 1987 as "The Ernie Kovacs Phile") and Diana Rico's "Kovacsland: A Biography Of Ernie Kovacs" first published in 1990. They both do a great job of delving into the many facets of Ernie's career and art. I can tell you that every major EK fan I know, including me, has read both and is wondering how your book is different and what new information it brings to the table (or in Ernie's case the poker table).

These books are very good and useful and bring in a lot, especially Rico's, of his life/bio. Where I come in is taking first of all a wider look at COMEDY itself thus placing Kovacs, yes, with not necessarily INFLUENCES but SIMILARITIES to everyone from ARISTOPHANES in Ancient Greece to the MARX BROTHERS , CHAPLIN, KEATON and to suggest how he exemplifies elements of, for instance, COMMEDIA DELL' ARTE in Italy (the mixture of improv with set pieces, etc.) and SURREALISM as well.
 

As I say early in the book, Question: what do Monty Python, David Letterman, much of Saturday Night Live especially in its early years, Larry David, especially in "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on which he works without a script, "Flight of the Conchords", "Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In", "The Uncle Floyd Show", "Captain Kangaroo" and even "Sesame Street", to offer but a short list, have in common? One answer is quite simple: they all reflect--whether knowingly or not--the imaginative and wildly creative comic jokes, ludic characterizations, hilarious insights and zany experiments that Ernie Kovacs handed down in his years with early American television and late 1950’s Hollywood cinema. “Nothing in Moderation” was not only Kovacs’ wholehearted approach to comedy and life but is also the line on his tombstone in Los Angeles’ Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

Long story short, as you see from the list of chapters, I go into close detail examining the types of comedy he developed and the influences this has had:

Chapter 1: An Overview of the Post-War Era & The Ernie Kovacs Shows in the Context of American Television Comedy

Chapter 2: The Flow of the Philadelphia & New York Kovacs Shows: Comic Surrealism Verbal and Visual

Chapter 3: Silence Please! Ernie, California & Working With Music, Sound & Surrealistic Visuals on His Specials

Chapter 4: Ernie in the Movies: From Comic Director to Supporting Character Actor

Chapter 5: The Kovacs Legacy: “I Don’t Know: I Just Do It!”


3. I read the following comment on the University of Texas web site "In this book, Andrew Horton offers the first sustained look at Ernie Kovacs's wide-ranging and lasting contributions to the development of TV comedy". In what ways?

Again, I take a close look at shows and specific scenes/moments to "open up" Kovacs' comic genius of VERBAL AND VISUAL, individual and ensemble and suggest influences this has had long since his day. I watch and write not just as a FAN or as a MEDIA SCHOLAR but as a comic screenwriter myself having, for instance, published one book "LAUGHING OUT LOUD: WRITING THE COMEDY CENTERED SCREENPLAY" (U of California Press) which has been used effectively around the world, I'm happy to say! I would add one more perspective I bring which is I fully appreciate his "Hungarian Viewpoint" for I have worked in Europe including Hungary, Czech Republic, Yugoslavia and Greece and appreciate THEIR HUMOR AND CAN SEE HOW PARTIALLY ERNIE WAS PULLING FROM SOME OF THESE ROOTS TOO!

Finally, let me add this since I am writing this a few days before Mardi Gras and in the book I do look closely at the SPIRIT OF CARNIVAL THAT ERNIE REPRESENTS! LONG LIVE ERNIE AND CARNIVAL IN OUR HEARTS AND SOULS AND LAUGHTER:

Can we think of any more appropriate carnival!

Mikhail Bakhtin in writing about the nature of carnival in Europe but projecting to the spirit of the carnivalesque in any culture, commented that:

“Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the
people; they live in it, and everyone
participates because its very idea embraces
all the people. While carnival last, there is no other life outside it (7).”
Looking back on the nature of Ernie Kovacs’ original forms of comedy on early American television in the 1950’s up through into the 1960’s, it is certainly fair to say whenever and wherever Ernie was “working”, a carnival was in session and all of those around him had to understand that. Thus it seems accurate to say that Ernie Kovacs brought a spirit of carnival into the new medium of television, a spirit that has had lasting influences. Ernie’s comment that, “I don’t know. I just do it!” is absolutely “carnivalesque” in the sense we have been discussing.

Let’s be more specific. The carnival spirit can be seen as celebrating the three “F’s”: freedom, fantasy, and festivity (Horton. Laughing Out Loud: Writing the Comedy Centered Screenplay p4). Certainly Ernie felt the “freedom” to do just about anything he wanted to do (as long as no one was being hurt!), and he had endless amounts of “fantasy” that allowed him to dream up what to do. Finally the “festivity” was the SHARING of his comedy with others. If you do all of this by yourself for yourself, that is not the carnival spirit. Carnival is to be shared “in the streets” and, in this case, in the living rooms of America. And in my personal interviews with Edie Adams, she explained she enjoyed helping to edit at times because, as she put it,“ Ernie really needed someone to help edit because he was so into whatever he was doing that often he didn’t know if it was funny or not (personal interview).”


4. You're a screenwriter and have written books on the subject. Do you offer a critical analysis of Ernie's films in the book?

Yes! I have a whole chapter on his films. I NOTE, FOR INSTANCE, (SEE BELOW) HOW VERY FEW ACTORS EVER MAKE IT IN BOTH TV AND FILM, AND ERNIE WASN'T A BIG STAR YET, BUT HE WAS CLEARLY DEVELOPING IN THIS "OTHER MEDIUM" AS I NOTE BELOW IN THE CHAPTER:
In his five brief “cinematic years”, Ernie never became a famous lead actor. But he came through often as an impressive supporting character in both comedies and dramas and thus proved to be one of those rare actors who could move from television to film and back again successfully. To put this in a clearer context, it’s important to realize how small a group such actors are or have been. Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, is still funny in reruns of Seinfeld (1990-98), but he has not yet become a movie star and has actually not really tried to cross the bridge, since he has often commented how difficult such medium crossing can be. Similarly, while a few actors have been able to move between the two mediums such as James Garner, Bill Cosby and Lucille Ball, we cannot speak of distinguished feature film careers of most television comics such as Milton Berle, Johnny Carson, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore.
5. Who did you interview who worked with Ernie in those early days?

I was so lucky to be able to interview Edie Adams several times in her home and in Kansas when we were both invited to the Annual Buster Keaton Fesitval in Iola to celebrate Buster and Ernie given that even on the day Ernie died he had been working with Buster on a TV Pilot Show.

A number of my friends worked in TV in the early days and they were helpful and of Ernie's staff workers I was able to interview Robert Key.

(ED. NOTE: For a thorough discussion of the pilot Ernie and Buster worked on see this article by our friend Rob Foster.)


6. The book is available for pre-order on the University Of Texas web site and the Amazon and Barnes And Noble web sites. Will it also be available in retail outlets?

I assume so but U Texas will have to tell you this. Alas, the paperback version will not be out the first year.

Our thanks go out to Andy Horton for a very informative interview.   It's going to be a great new angle on Ernie's work and something I'm sure all EK fans will enjoy reading.

My Dad first exposed me to EK  by making me watch "The Best Of Ernie Kovacs" on PBS in 1978 and then a couple of years later my friends and I discovered "The Uncle Floyd Show" on cable TV. That's one connection I truly look forward to reading about!   Both are from New Jersey and I've always considered the similarities. 

Until next time Kovacsians: "It's Been Real!"

3 comments:

Diana Rico said...

Thanks so much for this excellent interview. I love what Andrew says about the "carnival aspects" of Ernie's work/life -- yes yes yes. Very much looking forward to reading this addition to our understanding of Ernie's brilliance!

Diana Rico
Author
"Kovacsland: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs"
http://www.dianarico.com

Al Quagliata said...

Diana,

Thanks for your comment. Great to hear from you!

I echo your sentiments.

Andrew said...

DIANA

THANK YOU AND YOUR BOOK IS SUCH AN INSPIRATION BRAVO FOR ALL YOU HAVE DONE
TO HELP ERNIE REACH THE WORLD!
ANDY