If you’re looking for a great book about television to give as a last minute Christmas gift, look no further than David Bianculli’s Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
The Smothers Brothers were heroes of mine as I grew up in front of the TV in the ’60s. Their 1967-69 variety series stood out for its youth and charm and amazingly eclectic guest list–everybody from Bette Davis to Pete Seeger–and especially for daring to let the real world intrude into the prime time escapist world of the mid-Vietnam War era.
Bianculli, a former New York Daily News TV critic who continues to write passionately about television at tvworthwatching.com, also grew up on the Smothers Brothers and has spent countless hours over the past dozen years interviewing comedians Tommy and Dick Smothers. Here he sets the stage for the premiere of the Smothers’ show in early ’67:
Tom certainly was right in his assessment of a lack of topicality on the network level. When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour arrived at midseason in 1967, the other new entries replacing fall flops included Mr. Terrific (nerd as temporary superhero), Captain Nice (nerd as temporary superhero) and The Invaders (loner insists aliens have landed on and infiltrated our planet). On TV, escapism was almost everywhere you looked–all the Smothers Brothers had to do to build a reputation for topical comic commentary was to say anything at all.
Gad. I’m old enough to actually remember Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific–and, as a nine year old, was drawn to their Batman-era campiness and felt their their high concept appeal–but not one second from those shows stays with me. Forty years later, The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour still inspires my world view and shapes my work as a writer.
Besides his own insights, Bianculli’s book is filled with illuminating details, straight from all the main players. The Comedy Hour certainly had both an old school and a new school feel to it (which is why I watched it every week with my parents, who embraced the Smothers as clean-cut troubadors), and now we know why. The soundstage was the same CBS Television City facility once used by both Jack Benny and George Burns. That first season, veteran writers who had worked on shows for Benny and Steve Allen, were thrown together with you turks in their twenties (including Canadian-born scribe Allen Blye and Mason Williams). Williams, as Bianculli explains, was a crucial part of the shows ultimate look, feel and even sound, co-writing the catchy theme song, which itself was an attempt to straddle an old world, music hall vibe with the brothers own loopy, mistake-prone style. (Tommy’s note to Mason: give me a new take on vaudeville). CBS wanted an established theme, some old standard, but Tommy Smothers fought to go with the bouncy new original–and it was On.
I’ve known Bianculli for years through our association in the Television Critics Association and nobody is better suited to tell this tale. The Smothers Brothers were fired by CBS 40 years ago and Bianculli has pretty much been working on this book ever since. He has been a lead voice in documentaries about the brothers, coaxed them into finally releasing some of their old episodes onto a terrific DVD set and now sets the record straight on all things Smothers. He arranged for Tom and Dick to be the guests of honour at the 2008 TCA Awards, a night made especially memorable by the brothers comedy performance that night as well as their spellbinding stories before and after.
If you remember this team, this show and the hilarious regulars–especially dead-pan political spoofster Pat Paulsen–you’ll cherish the trip back to an exciting time. If you are meeting them for the first time, you could not have walked through a more open door.
Dangerously Funny is published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, and is available here as well as at book stores everywhere.