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In Search of the Nairobi Trio

Mention Ernie Kovacs to anyone and the first thing they’ll come back with (when it isn’t “who?”) is The Nairobi Trio. Then maybe Percy Dovetonsils, and after that Ernie’s use of special effects. The Nairobi Trio is an iconic Kovacs gag or image to people, the way the photo of a Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock is for Lloyd. The similarity doesn’t end there, though.

Harold Lloyd actually made only one “thrill comedy” feature, and a few shorts with high and dizzy stuff on a building ledge or girders. But it’s the facet of Lloyd’s comedy that a lot of people think of first.

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923)

I’ve been trying to figure out how it is that so many people who saw Ernie Kovacs’ TV shows when they first aired vividly recall the Nairobi Trio. Because I’ve gone through all the surviving Kovacs shows over the last ten years, and there’s not a lot of the Trio to be found.

There are actually only four iterations that survive. 

The third in the series of weekly Monday night shows Ernie did for NBC in the summer of 1956 has the Trio on. Even though the routine had debuted two years earlier, it was popular enough at that point that Ernie knew people would tune in to see it. So he held off. The Trio are announced as guests at the top of the first week’s show, and at the end the audience is told they are stuck in traffic in Hightstown NJ and couldn’t make it. The same thing happens the following week, with the excuse that the apes are stuck in an elevator in the building.

The second instance that survives is the January 19, 1957 color Silent Show. Then the routine was taped as a clue for a December 1960 episode of Take A Good Look, Ernie’s in-joke panel quiz show. (The secret guest had hired chimpanzees to work in his factory.) And the last is the March 1961 Private Eye, Private Eye special. The edition most people have seen, from Ernie’s final ABC special, was a repurposing of the Take a Good Look iteration.

The Nairobi Trio routine was first performed in April 1954, when Ernie started his late night show for the DuMont network. There are only a few kinescopes of the Dumont show — the rest are at the bottom of the Hudson — but the Trio is not on any of those. Audio transcription discs of a bunch of the show’s broadcasts during its first four months survive. Was the Trio on a whole bunch of those episodes?

Photo of a pair of Nairobi Trio mallets that were up for auction in 2009, along with a lot of other Kovacs memorabilia, props and clothing. Image sourced from Heritage Auctions.

I’ve seen the seventy-five or so episodes of Ernie’s NBC morning show that survive, which is about half the total episodes. The Nairobi Trio routine is not performed on any of them.

Granted, it may turn out that listening to the 16” discs of the DuMont show that survive will have the Trio on it and give a clue to as to why the routine was so well-known. Maybe by sheer luck the NBC morning shows that are currently missing have all the instances of the Trio. We’ll never know until they turn up.

So, is it conflated memories, like the custard pie fights people think of from silent movies that were only in two comedy shorts in the entire silent era? In an age when there weren’t re-runs and if it appears Ernie didn’t do the routine all that often, how did this bit get so well known that it’s the one thing people who watched TV in the 1950s know about Ernie Kovacs?

Beats me!

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