The Nairobi Trio: Behind the Masks

The best-known and most-seen version of Ernie Kovacs’ famous “Nairobi Trio” sketch is one shot on videotape. It was used in an episode of the 1977 series “The Best of Ernie Kovacs”, and it’s on YouTube. I’d always thought the trio members were Ernie, Jolene Brand (keys) and Bobby Lauher (mallets) on that ABC special. Turns out that’s not Lauher, and that it wasn’t taped for an ABC special.

In working on the DVD box set of Ernie’s bizarro panel quiz show “Take a Good Look” a few years ago, Josh Mills (Edie’s son) reminded me that his mom had always said that Ernie had an agenda for doing “TGL”. Aside from making much-needed money, Ernie had the idea that in doing the show he’d be able to shoot sketches and blackouts that he could then repurpose someday for another show so he wouldn’t have to do all the work on it.

I’d noticed that the videotape version of the Trio appears on the final ABC special, the one that aired after Ernie’s death. It was aired without commercials, and the Trio sketch is introduced by an announcer as something that Ernie was best known for. It does not appear on an earlier special, as did the Bartok “street scene” that’s on special #8. Ernie introduces the Bartok as being something that he’d gotten many letters about and was therefore repeating. This may have been publicist Kovacs spinning the fact that he was really stretched in terms of energy, budget and material for the show, and the 7-minute music piece helped pad out the show.

That videotaped version of the Nairobi Trio does not appear on any of the other ABC specials. So, where’d it come from?

Nairobi Trio Ernie Kovacs

There is an episode of “Take a Good Look” from season one, aired on December 8, 1960, where one of the secret guests is a man who’d been in the news because he’d gotten three chimpanzees to do some of the tasks in his furniture factory. Cesar Romero guessed his identity after the panel saw the second of three clues. Just the same, Ernie follows the reveal by showing the third clue to the panel and audience. After all, he’d gone to the trouble to shoot it. It’s that version of the Trio that we all know.

A panel event was held at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to promote the release of the first “Ernie Kovacs Collection” DVD box set from Shout Factory several years ago. The panel was videotaped, and excerpts from it are on the second DVD box set. The panel was moderated by Harry Shearer, and included Merrill Markoe, Bob Odenkirk, George Schlatter, his wife Jolene Brand (Kovacs cast member 1959-61), Jeff Garlin and me.

During the panel discussion or the Q&A, I can’t remember, the question came up about who was in that famous ABC-videotaped version of the Nairobi Trio. Jolene said that it was Ernie, her…and Jack Lemmon.

Mystery solved.

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