Ode to a Poet’th Poet: Ernie Kovacs, Percy Dovetonsils . . . thpeaks

Published on May 24th, 2012 in: Comedy, Current Faves, Radio, Reviews, TV |

By John Lane

kovacs percy dovetonsils

Let’s start the proceedings with a heartfelt ode to Omnivore Recordings for bringing to light a long-lost and rumored (but now real!) holy grail in comedy history. That grail is Ernie Kovacs: Percy Dovetonsils . . . thpeaks

The rush of palpable blank looks received, as you are reading this, requires some background. In the 1950s, Ernie Kovacs was the big innovator of experimentalism in television, so much so that even today much of his work still seems light years ahead of the pack. A Wikipedia entry notes, “Such iconic and diverse shows as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, The Uncle Floyd Show, Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and TV hosts such as David Letterman and Craig Ferguson have been influenced by Kovacs” and yet even that fair assessment does not convey how far left-of-center Kovacs’s TV presentations were.

Television was in its infancy when Kovacs arrived, and he created a concoction of humor (in all its forms, even poignant) and surrealism. An appropriate comparison could be drawn to the panel cartoons in Mad magazine, which was the print version of what Kovacs was about (and interestingly enough, when Mad took off in the same decade, they made sure to recruit Kovacs as a sometime-contributor). The Wiki reference to Sesame Street is apropos, particularly if one is talking about ’70s-era Sesame Street—short vignettes, little films that inject an element of randomness into the so-called narrative or arc of the program.

And so Kovacs created a series of recurring characters: The Nairobi Trio, three gorilla-masked musicians, donning bowler hats and overcoats, dolefully playing a jungle-like anthem until one of the “gorillas” pops his cork in typical, quick-to-anger fashion; Uncle Gruesome, the would-be-scary and comically ghoulish host of a fright-night “program”‘ who’s not frightening at all but just meanders as he talks in a commonplace way, thus undermining (purposefully) his own scary show; and then there’s Percy Dovetonsils, also played by Kovacs.

It’s difficult getting across Percy Dovetonsils in this day and age. The most remote parallel (and watered down) connection to Percy Dovetonsils would be the screamingly flamboyant “Hated it!” gay film critics from the ’90s comedy TV show In Living Color. Of course, there are some key fundamental differences here: One suspects Percy Dovetonsils is an exaggerated gay male, with his cheeky lisp and zebra-print robe, but in ’50s jargon he would be classified as a “confirmed bachelor.” Add to that, Percy Dovetonsils is lovable and the issue of his sexual orientation does not cloud the issue one way or another.

He’s a sweet, slightly egotistical, horrendous poet, who declaims his poems as if each one were written by the gods. The listener/viewer, of course, is in on the gag. What’s more, Percy delivers each poem with a gentleness that quickly betrays a dark humor on the edges, such as “Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat” which tells the tale of a cute little kitten that . . . develops a drinking problem. Yes, you read that right.

Therein lies the charm of Percy Dovetonsils: his unflagging belief in his own poetic “talent,” coupled with his self-satisfied, prissy reading which can lead to a quick implosion of his subject matter. Take the poem “Thoughts While Falling Off the Empire State Building”—the title alone should grab you. As the character in the poem breaks away from a tour group and somehow falls off the Empire State building, he catches himself wondering if he has the building’s levels right—101 or 102? And look at that sunset! And there’s someone I recognize! It’s deeply twisted stuff but put across in the sweetest of ways, which lends a gentle charm to this entire record. One can add Shel Silverstein to that list of (possible) folks that he influenced, given the use of the poem as vehicle for ridiculous set-ups.

In comedic terms, Percy Dovetonsils . . . thpeaks is like the long-lost release of The Beach Boys’ Smile—tapes that had languished in the so-called vaults for too long, tapes that had a purpose, to make the listener smile. So this is not merely the release of some arcane bit of American TV and radio history, it’s an event. One only wishes that Kovacs, (or Dovetonsils) were here to conjure up a poem to commemorate the occasion.

Percy Dovetonsils . . . thpeaks will be released through Ominivore Recordings and Ediad Productions on June 19. It will be available on CD, digital, and a limited edition pressing on lavender vinyl with future pressings to be made available on black vinyl. This album features the original 16 tracks plus an additional six bonus tracks of material from the television show Kovacs Unlimited from 1952-1954. These tracks are available for the first time since air.

To pre-order the album, please visit the Ominivore Recordings website.

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