||THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR
American comedy and variety show hosted by the Smothers Brothers.
71 programmes 1967 - 1969
The most influential comedians have succeeded by pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable to a general audience, making audacious yet pointed remarks about ourselves and the world we live in. In the late 1960s, Tom and Dick Smothers made their mark as both comics and TV stars by dealing with topical issues–and presenting their own point of view to millions of viewers. The younger generation took the brothers to their hearts; their elders responded by switching the dial. But after three seasons, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was taken off the air by CBS–largely due to endless fights over content.
For the conservative CBS network, the Smothers diatribes against the Vietnam War and the nation’s leaders on a prime-time entertainment show proved too much to handle. Today, the Smothers Brothers enjoy respect for their efforts, even from the industry and the network they once angered.
Thomas Smothers was born February 2nd, 1937, on New York’s Governors Island; his younger brother Dick came along on November 20th, 1939. Their father, Thomas B. Smothers, was an Army Major stationed on Governors Island; he was later captured by the Japanese during World War II and died while being transported to a prison camp. Tom and Dick were raised by their mother and the family moved to California, where the brothers graduated from high school and later attended college. The pair became part of a folk music group called the Casual Quintet, but eventually left to strike out on their own. The Smothers Brothers made their first professional appearance in 1959 at San Francisco’s famed Purple Onion club (where such future comics as Phyllis Diller, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen performed). By 1961, the Smothers made their national television debut on Jack Paars Tonight Show. They also recorded several comedy albums, which found favour with record buyers.
In the mid-1960s, producer Aaron Spelling hired Tom and Dick as guest stars on his ABC series Burkes Law. Their appearance led Spelling to pitch a sitcom starting the brothers, and CBS snapped it up. The Smothers Brothers Show (co-produced by Spelling and the brothers) debuted in the fall of 1965. It was a fantasy sitcom, with Tom playing the role of an apprentice angel who died two years earlier, lost at sea, returning to earth to help his brother Dick–now a rising executive at a publishing firm. Problem was, Tom had to perform good deeds to become a full-fledged angel, but kept messing his assignments up, leaving Dick to clean the resulting mess. In a sign of things to come, Tommy Smothers fought with Spelling over the shows direction and the thin plots. Critics blasted the programme, and low ratings led CBS to cancel the sitcom in 1966. But the network felt the Smothers Brothers were naturals to host a musical variety hour and plans were made to launch the new show in the fall of 1967.
That timetable was accelerated after CBS axed another variety hour, The Gary Moore Show, in early 1967. The veteran entertainers return to series television ranked at the bottom of the charts against NBCs family Western drama Bonanza–a fate that befell such previous CBS efforts as The Judy Garland Show, the Bob Cummings/Julie Newmar sitcom My Living Doll (a fantasy about a sexy robot and her inventor)--and The Smothers Brothers Show itself. The network simply didnt have anything on the shelf to throw up against Bonanza, but executives wanted to get rid of the Gary Moore programme as soon as possible. CBS turned to the Smothers and asked them to get their show ready for a mid-season start.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour premiered February 5th 1967, and it was certainly different from most variety shows of the era: Tom and Dick were aiming at a younger, hipper audience than the folks watching Bonanza. The early episodes produced relatively little controversy, as Tom and Dick played their musical instruments, featured comedy skits, and sparred with each other:
TOM: “Mom liked you best!”
DICK: “Lower your voice.”
TOM Basso Profundo: “Mom liked you best!”
The pair wisely incorporated a mixture of veteran guest stars (Jack Benny, Bette Davis and Greer Garson, among them) along with more contemporary music artists and humour to the otherwise predictable mix. The show soon attracted a fair number of young viewers, knocking Bonanza out of the number one spot, while placing in the top 20–finally ending CBS ratings woes on Sundays at 9:00 PM. That performance earned the Comedy Hour quick renewal for a second season.
Some of the reasons for the shows success lay in its talented team of writers–among the best of any television variety show in history. Don Novello (later to find fame on Saturday Night Live); Steve Martin (who would go on to stand-up and film success); Rob Reiner (son of comic Carl and who became known for All In The Family and film directing); Pat Paulsen (whose mock 1968 presidential candidacy drove CBS crazy) and Bob Einstein (who also played “Officer Judy” on the Comedy Hour and would later create the character Super Dave Osborne) were on the shows writing staff. So was musician Mason Williams, who co-wrote the shows unique theme song with Nancy Ames, the former “TW3 Girl” who warbled the weekly theme to the American version of That Was The Week That Was. In 1968, Williams also had a tremendous record hit with the instrumental “Classical Gas,” whose orchestral arrangements were composed by a musician named Mike Post–who went on to write some of televisions best-known theme songs.
Another popular regular was an attractive actress named Leigh French, who wore hippie garb and played Goldie OKeefe, the host of a programme called “Share A Little Tea With Goldie.” Of course, the “tea” was a play on marijuana (“Goldie” and “”Keif” were slang words for pot). And when she told her viewers her next programme would explain “how to get rid of roaches,” those in the know were aware Goldie didnt mean insects.
The Smothers Brothers broke new ground with musical acts. Rock groups who seldom appeared on American prime time--Cream, Donovan, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Steppenwolf-- were among the shows guests; even George Harrison made an appearance of support. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour also showed several Beatles “video” performances, including the hits “Revolution” and “Hey Jude.” A few of the musical guests created some controversy of their own. In 1967, The Who was booked on an episode; the bands signature act of destroying their instruments went wrong when a stage hand–at the bands request–overloaded Keith Moons drum with explosives. The resulting explosion led to injuries for Moon–due to cymbal shrapnel. Some of Pete Townsend’s hair was singed, and the noise allegedly damaged the singers hearing.
Folk singer Pete Seeger–a talented crooner and songwriter whose left-wing political views werent welcomed by the American broadcast networks–appeared on the shows second-season premiere in 1967. Seeger performed a number of his familiar songs to the delight of the live audience. But one song–an anti-war number called “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy”–was censored by CBS. The song featured the verse “the big fool said to push on;” it was an unsubtle reference to President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam war policy. The Seeger tune was cut out. Tom and Dick Smothers quickly went public, accusing CBS of censoring free speech. . CBS backed down and Seeger was allowed to return to the show in February 1968. He again sang “Waist Deep”–this time, uncut and uncensored.
The third season premiere (which aired in September 1968) also proved to be controversial. Harry Belafonte sang the Calypso number “Lord, Don’t Stop The Carnival” in front of a video montage from the violent 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. CBS censors again did some editing, deleting the Belafonte number from broadcast (along with some lines from a comedy skit spoofing NBCs competing Bonanza).
These and other battles over content led CBS to institute new rules for the show: The brothers Smothers were now required to deliver a tape of each finished show to the network at least 10 days before its scheduled air date, so that the censors (officially known at CBS as Standards and Practices) had enough time to delete “unsuitable” content and language. In addition, every episode was shown via closed circuit to CBS affiliated stations several days before the scheduled broadcast; each station could then decide whether to air the episode or not. Strangely, while American viewers had to settle for a censored version of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Canadian viewers (and Americans living near Canada’s border) were able to watch the entire programme on that country’s commercial CTV network, including the scenes and language deleted by CBS censors.
Dick Smothers became more interested in auto racing and other personal pursuits, and less concerned about the show itself; he would show up for rehearsals and tapings while leaving the backstage battles to brother Tom. And Tommy Smothers stance with CBS censors and executives became increasingly contentious as the two sides drew their respective lines in the sand. Meanwhile at NBC, the fast-paced Rowan and Martins Laugh-In had become televisions most-watched series just months after its January 1968 debut. NBC censors also had their battles with the producers of Laugh-In, but the show managed to air a fair amount of political content, “questionable” language and sexual double-entendres, largely due to its joke-a-second format where all the quips and blackouts lasted for a short time before the next one came along. (The shows immense popularity didn’t hurt either.)
As 1969 began, events were conspiring to seal the fate of Tom and Dick Smothers weekly variety show. Richard Nixon–who had no use for the mainstream media because he thought it was biased against him and his policies–was sworn in as president after a very close election. The year before, he appeared on Laugh-In and uttered the line “Sock it to me?” But his appearance was the result of one of his key speech writers, who also wrote jokes for the show. The conservative Nixon saw the beating his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, suffered through television news and commentary.
And there was a new president of the CBS Television Network–a man named Bob Wood, who ran one of the networks owned and operated stations before assuming the post. Wood, a political conservative (he once editorialised that student protesters should be expelled from college), decided to make sure CBS wasn’t a target of the Nixon administration. His first order of business was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Wood ordered Tom Smothers to a meeting in March 1969–not long after he renewed the Smothers Brothers show for a fourth season. It was their first official face-to-face sit-down. Wood told Tom to make sure the shows were ready for preview by the affiliated stations no later than four days before their scheduled airings. Tom urged Wood to hire more progressive censors or simply let the CBS stations decide whether to air the uncensored episodes. The meeting ended in a stand-off, but Tom Smothers wasnt through, He decided to load the Comedy Hour then in production with plenty of hot-button topics, including an interracial sketch between Tom and musical guest Nancy Wilson; and a guest appearance by Laugh-Ins Dan Rowan, debating whether Rowans show should award its “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate” to anti-television violence critic and Rhode Island Senator John Pastore. On top of all that, Tom invited stand-up comic David Steinberg for a return visit. Earlier in the season, Steinberg conducted a religious “sermon” with lines that were cut by the censors. Despite warnings from CBS, Steinbergs latest “sermonette” featured this eye-opening (and censored) line: “And (the Gentiles) literally grab the Jews by the Old Testament.”
The endless battles could be justified as long as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was doing well in the ratings. But a growing number of CBS affiliates were pre-empting the show, and more older viewers were switching channels. The Smothers Brothers were still in televisions top 30, but the number of viewers were declining by the spring of 1969.
Meanwhile, the Nancy Wilson-Dan Rowan-David Steinberg show was set to air on April 6th as one of the final Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour episodes of the season. That meant Tom Smothers and company had to get the tape to CBS by April 2nd for affiliate and censor review. Tom chose that day to leave for San Francisco, claiming to have taken the show tape with him. (As it turned out, according to author David Bianculli, the tape was left with the shows producer, George Sunga.)
An angry Bob Wood quickly ordered a meeting with CBS lawyers–who told him because the network did not have the show tape in its possession, it could legally fire the Smothers Brothers. Wasting no time, Wood sent this telegram to Tom Smothers:
“As we have advised you on several occasions...your obligations to us require you to deliver an acceptable broadcast tape to us no later than the Wednesday preceding the scheduled broadcast date of each programme....We hearby notify you that by your reason of your failure to make such delivery (on April 2nd), we are forced to treat this failure of delivery of an acceptable programme as a substantial and material breach of your obligations to us....Therefore, we hearby notify you that the agreement between you and us is terminated.”
While the unedited episode would air in Canada without complaint on April 6th, CBS viewers had to settle for a repeat of a November episode. Tom and Dick Smothers quickly organized a news conference for television critics the following day, and showed them the controversial episode CBS did not air in the States–complete with a tirade against the networks policies. It was the final straw for the network; being criticized in public by the networks own performers was something the top brass would not tolerate. Wood quickly issued a news release announcing the cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour–not just for the following season, but effective immediately. (The controversial April 6th episode later aired in syndication on local U.S. stations.) Soon after, the Smothers filed a lawsuit against CBS, and won a nearly one million dollar settlement in a 1973 trial.
By that time, their heyday as television stars had peaked.
In the summer of 1970, ABC brought back the Smothers for a toned-down series that failed to win renewal. Five years later, NBC teamed the brothers with producer Joe Hamilton (the former husband of Carol Burnett and then-producer of her successful variety series) for yet another comedy-variety series try. But The Smothers Brothers Show was not a hit; even after Tom Smothers took over the production from Hamilton, ratings didn’t budge. In 1981, the pair appeared on a NBC sitcom called Fitz and Bones, about an investigative reporter and cameraman for a local television station; it lasted just five episodes. And a 1988 return to variety comedy on CBS was no more successful.
During the 1990s, television historians–and their peers–were finally giving the Smothers Brothers their due, honouring them for not only being entertaining but groundbreaking as well. Even CBS agreed, featuring the pair on a prime time special saluting the networks 75th anniversary, and a 2002 special marking the 50th anniversary of the networks Television City studios in Hollywood (where the Comedy Hour was taped).
The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences also gave Tom Smothers some respect as well. The writing staff of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series during its final season. But Tom Smothers, who was among the writers contributing that season, refused to have his name listed among the other nominated writers (which included Steve Martin, Bob Einstein and Mason Williams) because he felt he was too controversial and would hurt their chances with Academy voters. As a result, all the writers but Tom Smothers went home with an Emmy for the 1968-69 season. In September 2008, Martin presented Tom Smothers with a special Emmy during that years award telecast, setting the record straight once and for all.
It was yet another sign that Tom and Dick Smothers had finally earned the status of television pioneers–even if it came 40 years too late.
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