Ernie Kovacs was a prolific, tax-evading, mustachioed entertainer of the highest order, influencing many future titans of comedy with his work in the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties, from David Letterman to Chevy Chase and Saturday Night Live to Jimmy Kimmel. He got his start as a Trenton, NJ radio DJ in 1941 and eventually worked his way up to national television, where he would make and spread his name through myriad programs and characters, the most popular of the latter arguably being the star of this previously unreleased studio album that found itself shelved for more than 40 years. But more on that in a minute. As for the comedian, though his The Ernie Kovacs Show was nominated four times, he would tragically meet his end in a 1962 car wreck just before he was posthumously awarded his first—and only—Emmy (for that of Outstanding Electronic Camera Work).
Percy Dovetonsils, meanwhile, was a lisping, probably-if-not-definitely gay, absurdist fictional character created by Kovacs while working at Philadelphia’s WPTZ studios in the early Fifties. Clad in gag glasses with eyeballs drawn on them—allegedly purchased for a dime by a Kovacs associate on a hunt for comedy props—and sporting curly, greased hair and an outrageous, zebra-print smoking jacket accented with a lavender scarf, Dovetonsils would be offensive—indeed, is still kinda offensive—by today’s more tolerant standards. But listening to the innocent silliness of his material and the confidence of the character, it’s not an impossible stretch to understand the context or even outright dismiss the faux pas of the past, much like an elderly person using the term “colored.” The times, they are a-changing, after all, and comedy remains one of the foremost tools of accurate cultural reflection.
Over gentle piano composed and performed by Kovacs archivist Ben Model and based on Kovacs audio that dictated how much music should play between each cut, Percy reads outsizedly absurd poems with such self-explanatory-and-thoroughly-ridiculous titles as “Some Pertinent Thoughts of Julius Caesar While He was Being Assassinated,” “Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat” and “The Night Before Christmas on New York’s Fashionable East Side.” The poems themselves range in length from 17 seconds to just over four minutes. Sometimes the humor derives from the lack of content, while at other times the gag stretches far longer than it should, the building tension a deliberately small but relentless joke in and of itself. For his part, Percy laughs at his own cheesy jokes (one of many humanizing aspects of his doofus persona) and, perhaps out of false modesty, occasionally chortles at the mere mention of own name. He’s a Character in the capital-C sense, and his shtick is laid on in a predictably heavy-handed fashion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, thpeaks serves its purpose less as a hilarious, long-playing album that will inspire frequent listens and more as a collectible relic of comedy history. (The first 1000 vinyl copies of the Omnivore Recordings release were even pressed on lavender vinyl.) Its very presence is a tribute to both Kovacs’s unwavering commitment to artistic expression, no matter how ludicrous, and his unquestionable influence, as evidenced by the silly characters who have populated several decades’ worth of television programs as well as many a stand-up bit.
Archivist Model dug this collection up after hearing about and having no luck finding it for years, not even through eBay’s vast reaches as the internet decidedly become the world’s finest source for collectible excavation. As a result, unearthing thpeaks sounds like nothing short of discovering the veritable chest of gold at the end of a rainbow. “Dissolve to me, sitting at a table at an archival storage facility in California, in October 2008…” Model writes in the album’s liner notes. “The 142-page inventory included some items that, according to my archivist-minded ‘spidey sense,” appeared to be mislabeled.” He eventually stumbled across a few cans of 1/4″ audio tape unmistakably bearing Percy’s name, and the rest, as they say, was conversion-to-digital history.
This long-lost album comes barely a year after the exhaustive six-disc/780-minute Ernie Kovacs Collection that Shout! Factory released last year on DVD, and right on the heels of April’s month-long Kovacs retrospective at Astoria, NY’s Museum of the Moving Image. At the latter, comedian Robert Klein spoke of Kovacs’s genius, particularly in terms of his ability to pull off ridiculous things (gorilla jazz trios and, um, gorilla ballets, for example) at a time when ridiculous notions weren’t exactly the TV norm. Or, as television journalist Jeff Greenfield said at the Astoria retrospective in April, “[Kovacs] led the deconstruction of the medium of TV the way Jon Stewart does today in politics, and really beat it to death.” That very image would probably shock Percy Dovetonsils to the core, despite he himself very much comprising a part of Kovacs’s subversive DNA still remaining in the modern medium’s genes.