The LuLac Edition #159, Feb. 20, 2007
PICTURE INDEX: TOMMY AND DICK SMOTHERS.
THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR
It is worth noting that 40 years ago this month, CBS TV put on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The Smothers Brothers were, like Dick Van Dyke, an act in search of a TV show. The network had tried a Friday night vehicle for the brothers based loosely on the movie "It's A Wonderful Life". Dick Smothers played a swinging bachelor while Tommy played a guardian angel trainee that wrecked havoc on the proceedings. The show lasted half a year. CBS then decided to try a variety vehicle for the boys, with a strong lead in from Ed Sullivan on Sunday night but a deadly head to head competition with the long running "Bonanza". As a young 13 year old, I was expecting the same slapstick comedy the brothers provided over the years. So too did my parents and others adults in the CBS audience. They provided fun and jokes but also messages about the Vietnam War, Civil Rights and poverty in America. My parents, both Lyndon Johnson supporters, thank goodness had minds open enough to not censor the Smothers program in our house. In the rearview mirror of personal history, I'd like to think that! But maybe they just didn't get the jokes, liked the music or just weren't paying attention. As an adult, I have come to dread Sunday nights because as both my working class parents knew, Sunday evening led to Monday morning. The show's content featured irreverent digs at many dominant institutions such as organized religion and the presidency. It also included sketches celebrating the hippie drug culture and material opposing the war in Vietnam. These elements made The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour one of the most controversial television shows in the medium's history. Questions of taste and the Smothers' oppositional politics led to very public battles over censorship. As CBS attempted to dictate what was appropriate prime time entertainment fare, the Smothers tried to push the boundaries of acceptable speech on the medium. The recurring skirmishes between the brothers and the network culminated on 4 April 1969, one week before the end of the season, when CBS summarily threw the show off the air. Network president Robert D. Wood charged that the Smothers had not submitted a review tape of the upcoming show to the network in a timely manner. The Smothers accused CBS of infringing on their First Amendment rights. It would be twenty years before the Smothers Brothers again appeared on CBS.
Considering how contentious The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became, it is worth noting that, in form and style, the show was quite traditional, avoiding the kinds of experiments associated with variety show rival, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. The brothers typically opened the show with a few minutes of stand-up song and banter. The show's final segment usually involved a big production number, often a costumed spoof, featuring dancing, singing and comedy. Guest stars ran the gamut from countercultural icons like the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors to older generation, "Establishment" favourites like Kate Smith and Jimmy Durante. Nelson Riddle and his orchestra supplied musical accompaniment, and the show had its own resident dancers and singers who would have been as comfortable on the Lawrence Welk Show as on the Smothers' show.
The show was noteworthy for some of the new, young talent it brought to the medium. Its corral of writers, many of whom were also performers, provided much of the energy, and managed to offset some of the creakiness of the format and the older guest stars. Mason Williams, heading the writing staff, achieved fame not so much for his politically engaged writing, but for his instant guitar classic, "Classical Gas." Bob Einstein wrote for the show and also played the deadpan and very unamused cop, Officer Judy. He went on to greater fame as Super Dave. Finally, the as yet unknown Steve Martin cut his comedic teeth as a staff writer for the show.
What also raised The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour above the usual fare of comedy variety was the way the Smothers and their writers dealt with some of their material. Dan Rowan of Laugh-In noted that while his show used politics as a platform for comedy, the Smothers used comedy as a platform for politics. A recurring political sketch during the 1968 presidential year tracked regular cast member, the lugubrious Pat Paulsen, and his run for the nation's top office. Campaigners for Democratic contender Hubert Humphrey apparently worried that write-in votes for Paulsen would take needed votes away from their candidate.
Another Comedy Hour regular engaged in a different kind of subversive humour. Comedienne Leigh French created the recurring hippie character, Goldie O'Keefe, whose parody of afternoon advice shows for housewives, "Share a Little Tea with Goldie," was actually one long celebration of mind-altering drugs. "Tea" was a countercultural code word for marijuana, but the CBS censors seemed to be unaware of the connection. Goldie would open her sketches with salutations such as "Hi(gh)--and glad of it!" While Goldie's comedy was occasionally censored for its pro-drug messages, it never came in for the suppression that focused on other material. One of the most famous instances was the censoring of folk singer Pete Seeger. The song--about a gung-ho military officer during World War II who attempts to force his men to ford a raging river only to be drowned in the muddy currents--was a thinly veiled metaphor for President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam policies. The censoring of Seeger created a public outcry, causing the network to relent and allow Seeger to reappear on the Comedy Hour later in the season to perform the song.
Other guests who wanted to perform material with an anti-war message also found themselves censored. Harry Belafonte was scheduled to do a calypso song called "Don't Stop the Carnival" with images from the riotous 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention chromakeyed behind him. Joan Baez wanted to dedicate a song to her draft-resisting husband who was about to go to prison for his stance. In both cases, the network considered this material "political," thus not appropriate for an "entertainment" format. Dr. Benjamin Spock, noted baby doctor and anti-war activist, was prevented from appearing as a guest of the show because, according to the network, he was a "convicted felon."
Other material that offended the network's notions of good taste also suffered the blue pencil. Regular guest performer, comedian David Steinberg, found his satirical sermonettes censored for being "sacrilegious." Even skits lampooning censorship, such as one in which Tom and guest Elaine May played motion picture censors trying to find a more palatable substitution for unacceptable dialogue, ended up being censored.
The significance of all this censoring and battling between the Smothers and CBS is what Bert Spector has called a "clash of cultures." The political and taste values of two generations were colliding with each other over The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The show, appearing at a pivotal moment of social and cultural change in the late 1960s, ended up embodying some of the turmoil and pitched conflict of the era. The Smothers wanted to provide a space on prime time television for the perspectives of a disaffected and rebellious youth movement deeply at odds with the dominant social order. CBS, with a viewership skewed to an older, more rural, more conservative demographic, could only find the Smothers embrace of anti-establishment politics and lifestyles threatening.
In the aftermath of the show's cancellation, the Smothers received a great deal of support in the popular press, including an editorial in the New York Times and a cover story in the slick magazine Look. Tom Smothers attempted to organize backing for a free speech fight against the network among Congressional and Federal Communications Commission members in Washington D.C. While they were unsuccessful in forcing CBS to reinstate the show, the Smothers did eventually win a suit against the network for breach of contract. In the years following their banishment from CBS, the Smothers attempted to recreate their variety show on the other two networks. In 1970, they did a summer show on ABC, but were not picked up for the fall season. In 1975 they turned up on NBC with another variety show which disappeared at mid-season. Then, finally, twenty years after being shown the door at CBS, the brothers were welcomed back for an anniversary special in February 1988. The success of the special, which re-introduced stalwarts Goldie O'Keefe (now a yuppie) and Pat Paulsen, led to another short-lived and uncontroversial run of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS. The attempts to re-do the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour pale in comparision to what the original show was all about. Watching parts of it now, many of the segments are tame, and seem too silly to be censored. But as I tell many young people, you had to be there, living in the time when two clean cut looking folk singers tried to put one over on the suits at Black Rock every week. Maybe that was the main appeal, whatever it was, it is a bit of pop culture that helped shape and define the the last few years of that crazy decade, the 60s. When I was a substitute school teacher at Hanover Area in the late 80s and early 90s, one of the students (a seventh grader in fact) asked if I was one of "those people" from the 60s? I wasn't sure if I was getting a compliment or an insult but I did answer proudly, "yep". There was a lot to see in the 1960s and on TV, shortlived though it was, it was The Smothers Brothers on Sunday nights at 9PM.