The Nairobi Trio
|The Nairobi Trio|
People in gorilla suits have always been a comedy staple. The notion of well-known or predictable music pieces gone awry has long been practiced by artists as diverse as Stan Freberg, Spike Jones or P. D. Q. Bach. The "slow burn" of one character being annoyed by another, resulting in eventual retaliation, was not new. But the combination of all those ingredients, combined with impeccable timing, produced a unique and memorable result.
It was a live-action version of a child's animatronic wind-up music box, performed to the tune "Solfeggio" by Robert Maxwell. Allegedly, when Kovacs first heard a recording of the tune, he immediately came up with a mental image of what would become The Nairobi Trio: three persons in gorilla masks wearing derby hats and long overcoats mechanically miming to the music like wind-up toys. Barry Shear, Kovacs' director at DuMont Television Network, brought the tune to Kovacs' attention in 1954. In the middle sat the "head gorilla," always played by Kovacs (with a cigar), conducting with a baton or (sometimes) a banana. To the viewer's left another gorilla stood, holding two oversized timpani mallets. The identity of this ape varied, but among Kovacs' celebrity friends both Jack Lemmon and Frank Sinatra are known to have performed in the skit. Seated at screen right at a piano was a female simian (variously played by Barbara Loden, Jolene Brand and Kovacs' wife, Edie Adams), robotically thumping up and down on the keys.
Nearly all skits operated in the same general fashion, involving the gorilla with the mallets, who repeatedly uses the center gorilla's (Kovacs') head as a drum at the end of every phrase, punctuating a sharp "ba-da-BUM" bongo riff. Every repeat brings a slightly changed and escalated response from the victim, as he tries to anticipate the mallet assault and outwit the perpetrator. Ultimately staring him down, he is eventually distracted by the third gorilla for one final blow, moving him to smash a prop vase over the percussionist's head. Edie Adams said later that the skits were simple enough for any one of Kovacs' friends and associates to step into without any rehearsal needed and that the gorilla masks provided anonymity.
The bit was repeated several times over the course of Kovacs' career. The definitive version is likely the last, performed for one of Ernie's 1960s ABC specials shortly before his untimely death. The combination of a bigger budget, videotape, and the luxury of retakes helped him to perfect the timing of the sketch. But the Nairobi Trio wasn't always confined to silence with "Solfeggio"; they went into outer space and also became safe crackers on a US Steel special, "Private Eye, Private Eye", aired on CBS March 8, 1961.
The Nairobi Trio has entered popular culture beyond the television screen. A popular New Zealand jazz group adopted the name, and writer Jim Knipfel wrote an account of his six-month stay in a psychiatric ward entitled Quitting the Nairobi Trio, using a picture of Kovacs in simian drag on the cover. And a video for Harry Nilsson's novelty song "Coconut" features three gorillas playing as a trio.
- Wilson, Earl (23 March 1964). "Barbara Loden Shows Some Humility". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Retrieved 12 November 2010.
- Horton, Andrew, ed. (2010). Ernie Kovacs & Early TV Comedy: Nothing in Moderation. University of Texas. pp. 46–49. ISBN 9780292779624. Retrieved June 23, 2014.
- "Minstrel Show Raises $150,000". The Day. 1 May 1961. Retrieved 12 September 2010.
- "Ernie Kovacs' "Nairobi Trio" Timpani Mallets-Auction Description". Heritage Auction Galleries. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
- "Ernie Kovacs - The Nairobi Trio (sans one) in Space".
- "Private Eye-Private Eye Stars Kovacs Tonight". Eugene Register-Guard. 8 March 1961. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
- Reference to the "Nairobi Trio" in "Ernie Kovacs, U.S. Comedian" (profile)
- Ernie Kovacs Dot Net: A Tribute To Television's Original Genius