The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had a profound effect on this 10 to 12-year-old. You watched TV as a family back then, in front of the one screen in the house, in our case, a 25-inch Clairtone.
“From Television City in Hollywood,” said announcer Roger Carroll. “Ladies and gentlemen, The Smothers Brothers.”
Shot from above, guitar and bass in hand, the comedy/folk duo would stride out in silhouette onto a lit, tiffany lamp designed stage. The theme song, written by Mason Williams and conducted by Nelson Riddle. was bouncy and upbeat. The series resident singers and dancers looked like they had wandered in from a state fair.
The hosts were the biggest trojan horse of them all. Clean cut, in their early thirties, they were decades younger than Perry Como or Jackie Gleason or Ed Sullivan or other TV headliners back then. They shtick was simple: start a song and never finish it.
The comedy was effective but hardly ground-breaking. What was going on under the surface, however, was electric. The Smothers Brothers were revolutionaries. They were anti-establishment and not just anti-CBS, but anti-the president of the United States. More astonishingly, they were beating Bonanza Sunday nights, especially in something new called demos.
They were, as fellow TV critic David Bianculli called them in the title of his excellent book on the duo, “Dangerously Funny.”
Tommy Smothers, who died Dec. 26 at 86, was the chief troublemaker. A bit older than his brother Dick, he was the one producing the show, booking edgy guest stars such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and David Steinberg. He was hiring the young radicals in the writing room, including Rob Reiner and Steve Martin.
Variety shows back then were supposed to distract you from things such as the war in Vietnam and the escalating body count as tracked on the nightly newscasts. The Smothers Brothers didn’t distract; they turned up the volume. Watching their show, all you could think about was war and politics. There was no attempt to sweep assassinations under the rug. This is where you went to get the pulse of a changing nation. This was The Daily Show, Colbert and Real Time with Bill Maher set to vaudeville.
And yet my parents never missed these clean cut brothers, even when old timer-y guests such as Jack Benny and George Burns gave way to Jim Morrison and Tina Turner. The series’ resident sad sack comedian Pat Paulsen — who ran for president in 1968 on the slogan, “We’ve upped our standards, now up yours” — made everybody laugh.
By the third season, ratings slipped enough that CBS pounced as soon as they had any excuse to pull the plug. TV Guide and its very conservative publisher ran a signed editorial (“SMOTHERS OUT: A WISE DECISION”) demanding an end to these anti-American hijinks. Weeks after Nixon was sworn in as U.S. president, the Smothers Brothers were fired.
“TV Guide really slandered us,” said Dick. “My mother just could not believe that her boys were a threat to the nation’s security.”
It was an ironic blow for the American-as-apple-pie brothers. Born on a military base in New York, they lost their father, Maj. Thomas Smothers Jr., enroute to a Japanese PoW camp During World War II. His sons were five and three at the time.
The TV Guide slander was a problem for me in the mid-’80s when I had a chance to meet and interview my comedy idols. The Smothers Brothers were in Toronto performing in the new Roy Thompson Hall. I was a young writer for TV Guide Canada and had arranged to meet them backstage in the green room before the sold out performance.
Dick was there and greeted me warmly but Tommy was reluctant to be interviewed. He was still pissed, nearly two decades later, that TV Guide had called for their ouster. When Tommy eventually cooled down I tried to explain that the Canadian TV Guide was no longer an Annenberg publication and was a separate publishing entity.
“Did that editorial run up here in 1969?” Tommy asked. I knew that it had. The Canadian editions carried the same editorial full-colour pages as they did all over the U.S. back then.
What saved me a bit was that the Smothers were aware that the Canadian broadcaster, CTV, took a much more sympathetic stance with the series. An episode that was yanked on CBS in America, featuring Steinberg giving a controversial sermon, was shown in its entirety to the press in Canada.
I think it was clear as well just how much I was influenced by the team on that series. The lesson that you could stick your neck out over a principle, that you could push back against even the hands that feed, was ingrained in me. I was sad when the Smothers Brothers were yanked off the air (“eight weeks after Nixon’s inauguration,” recalled Tommy) and replaced on CBS by “Hee Haw.” Goodbye ’60s.
I never forgot. however, that going down swinging was always an option.
That 1988 Roy Thompson Hall show coincided with a revival of their series in a summer run on CBS. The new series — hurried to air as a replacement during a writers’ strike — was better than the original. It brought back Paulsen, Mason Williams, Glen Campbell, John Hartford, Leigh French, Jennifer Warnes and Bob “Officer Judy” Einstein — all “as comfortable as an old hippie sandal,” quipped New York Times critic John O’Connor. It also introduced audiences to Tommy Smothers new alter ego, “The Yo-Yo Man.”
Still, without the war and Nixon, it wasn’t quite the same. Tommy suggested to me that it was like taking basketball shots without a backboard. CBS ordered more specials the next summer but soon the Smothers returned to touring as well as their “Mom’s Favorite Red, Mom’s Favorite White” wine business.
I caught their act again several years later when they did a show at the Mississauga Arts Centre, where they had the presence of mind to goof on then mayor Hazel McCallion. Then, in 2008, Bianculli invited them to host the Television Critics Association’s annual TCA awards. The magic was still there for the brothers, then into their seventies.
After the performance, both stood for questions. I got to ask Tommy about the incredible gig he had shortly after the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was yanked off the air in 1969 — playing guitar with John Lennon on “Give Peace a Chance.” It was recorded with dozens of others at a “Bed-In” held in a jammed Queen Elizabeth Hotel room in Montreal.
Tommy was all set to show off to Lennon just how accomplished he was on guitar. After a couple of run-throughs, however, Lennon told the comedian to play it straight. “Just do exactly what I do,” the Beatle demanded. Tommy obediently followed note-for-note.
Those of us who witnessed the TCA reunion show were in no hurry afterwards to call it a night. The elder Smothers brother adjourned to an outdoor patio at the TCA’s summer tour hotel, the Beverly Hilton. Tommy sparked up a joint and passed it around. Even some middle-aged, goody two-shoes, TCA reporters who had never smoked one before joined in — or so I am told.