The Smothers Brothers
At the start of the third season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Tom and Dick Smothers, wearing matching turtlenecks and Nehru coats, took to the stage and sang about “peeping censors” and squabbles with CBS.
CBS would like to give us notice/And some of you don’t like the things we say/But we’re still here.
In September 1968, they were still there, presenting a satirical brew each Sunday night at 9 p.m. But by April 1969, they were gone, ending a tumultuous seventy-two-episode run.
But what a run.
In 1967, they seemed so harmless. Tom would pluck his Guild guitar and Dick his upright bass. Before finishing a song, Tom blurted out some inanity and got scolded by Dick. Wounded, Tom knitted his brows, sputtered something dumb and got his laugh. He was dumb like a fox.
When their jokes turned to the Vietnam War, race, religion and censorship, it threatened the status quo. It’s no wonder people are still talking about them. “If you look at where the voice of the Smothers brothers is today, it’s all over cable and late night,” says David Bianculli, author of the book Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored History of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. “It’s Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Bill Maher and Saturday Night Live.”
Back in 1968, the Smothers brothers were “at the scene of the accident,” as Dick puts it. With 500,000 American soldiers in Vietnam, millions protesting at home, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and events like the Democratic National Convention, where Chicago police tear-gassed protesters outside, the Smothers brothers were delighting more than 30 million viewers by attacking sacred cows.
“They were out there, and we were loving it,” says Maureen Muldaur, writer-director-producer of the documentary, Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. “So much was happening. We used to call it a revolution. It was so much more than that. It became more and more political and that was their downfall. But it was a rapturous show. We didn’t have anything else like it to watch.”
The show gave Steve Martin his start and had a lasting impact on Bill Maher. “They showed that you can actually have a point of view, and alienate some people who don’t agree with that point of view, and that’s okay,” Maher says. “You don’t have to have everybody love you.”
The Smothers brothers, born on an Army base off the tip of Manhattan called Governors Island, suffered early from war. Their father, Maj. Thomas B. Smothers, a West Point graduate, died as a Japanese POW, and Tommy, two years older than Dick, became the man of the house. They settled in Redondo Beach, Calif., during the 1950s. “America was a different place,” Tommy recalls. “Your handshake was your word. Free speech was free speech.”
Tommy, whose dyslexia wasn’t diagnosed until he was thirty-one, compensated by playing dumb and getting laughs. “He was like a savant without being an idiot,” Dick says. “Without training, he would get laughs.”
At Redondo Union High School, Tommy aspired to become a bandleader; he formed musical groups and enlisted Dick to sing. At San Jose State, in the late ’50s, Tommy again drafted Dick, this time for a folk trio with Bobby Blackmore. They played the Kerosene Club in 1958 for $5 a night and free beer.
They landed their first professional gig in February 1959 at San Francisco’s Purple Onion, playing three sets a night. Tommy got laughs by ad-libbing song introductions. When Blackmore left in 1960, the Smothers brothers’ fifty-year journey as a comedy duo began. They enjoyed Laurel and Hardy and Jack Benny — “people who worked slow and were not afraid to put air in between their words,” says Tommy.
Dick Smothers perfected his role as the straight man. “My job and relationship from the beginning is that Tom’s a liar,” Dick says. “A child can lie by omission and exaggeration, twisting the facts, and I try to get it straight.”
One night, while performing at St. Louis’s Crystal Palace, Dick went after Tommy: “You’re stupid. You’re too dumb to be a brother.” When he ran out of things to say, Tommy ad-libbed his most famous line: “Oh, yeah, and mom always liked you best.”
They reached a national audience in January 1961, when Jack Paar introduced them as the boys whose father was killed by the Japanese — and whose act might be awful.
It was their big break. They made thirty-five guest TV appearances that year and recorded more comedy albums. A 1964 appearance on Burke’s Law, an ABC detective show produced by Aaron Spelling, led to a short-lived sitcom, The Smothers Brothers Show (1965-66). In the series, Tom returns to earth as an angel who guides Dick, a young executive. Although Tom wore wings, it was a hellish experience that didn’t employ their singing and spontaneity. When it ended, Tommy wanted creative control in any future show.
That chance came in 1967. Desperate to take on NBC’s top-rated Sunday night show, Bonanza, CBS offered the duo a thirteen-week contract. When Tommy asked for creative control, the network didn’t object.
And so, on February 5, 1967, the show opened. Jack Benny and George Burns handed the guitar and bass to Tom and Dick. “We were safe,” Dick says. “Two crew-cut young Americans. The antiwar thing hadn’t built up yet. We just wanted to do a good variety show.”
Surprisingly, the show caught on with a young audience. By episode ten, Tom and head writer Mason Williams (whose iconic song “Classical Gas” debuted on the show) began adding political satire. “It slowly evolved,” Tom says. “I was reflecting what was happening in the streets. The immorality of the war was so obvious, just like the wars today.”
Ironically, Tommy’s first censorship bout occurred over a spoof on censorship. In April ’67, he and Elaine May played censors, excising words like “breast” from an imaginary script. When CBS cut the sequence, it rankled Tommy so much that on a later show, he grinned impishly as he held up the expurgated script. “My pulse beats wildly in my ‘wrist’ whenever I’m near you,” he joked. “See, Elaine, I told you we’d get it on.”
Tommy invited folk-music legend Pete Seeger, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, in September 1967. But when the censors heard him singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” they disallowed it, calling it demeaning to the troops. Tommy pressed on, and when Seeger returned in February 1968, he sang the antiwar song.
Tom, Dick and George Segal also sang Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag” — I’m only 18, got a ruptured spleen and I always carry a purse — ending with barbershop harmony on the words “Make love, not war.”
The show was such a potent voice against the war that the Johnson administration pressured CBS to sanitize it.
Of course, Tom and Dick fell in love with their presidential candidate, Pat Paulsen, and featured him in nearly every show, initially with his offbeat editorials. In a masterstroke, writer Williams and Tommy created the Paulsen for President campaign to satirize the political process. With his bushy eyebrows and dark suits, Paulsen looked like an everyman politician. Using special effects, they literally had Paulsen talk out of both sides of his mouth. His hilarious run earned him a Primetime Emmy.
Actress Leigh French was another treat for younger viewers, especially when she talked about “roaches” during her “Share a Little Tea with Goldie” vignettes. Her double entendres about drugs and sex sailed past the censors.
But following the tear-gassing at the ’68 Chicago convention, the network refused to allow Harry Belafonte to sing “Lord, Don’t Stop the Carnival” against the backdrop of footage from the melee. In March ’69, when Joan Baez appeared, censors cut her introduction to the song “Joe Hill” in which she said that her husband, David Harris, was going to prison for resisting the draft.
The cuts infuriated Tommy. “I was young, and I was angry,” he says. “I was trying to make the voice heard of this particular viewpoint.”
Some members of the writing staff, including Rob Reiner, wanted him to go further. “It was basically controlled anarchy,” Reiner says of the staff, which included Steve Martin, Bob Einstein and Carl Gottlieb. “We weren’t just pushing the envelope, we were beyond the edge of the envelope. Looking back, I realize Tommy was an incredible guy to be able to get the things on that we did.”
Dick supported his brother but suggested, along with Williams, that Tom focus on comedy. “Why don’t we take longer to say it, then we’ll have more shows,” he told Tom.
Looking back, Tommy cringes at how serious he became in the last year. “I was too involved with fighting with the censors,” he says. “I sacrificed our comedy team in the name of the show.”
CBS renewed the show in March 1969 but canceled it a month later, claiming the Smothers brothers violated their contract by delivering a tape late. In the ’70s, it was the Smothers brothers who won a breach-of-contract lawsuit against CBS and a $766,000 judgment. But they lost something immeasurable. “We were exonerated,” says Dick, “but we didn’t have our power base.”
In 1969, there was nowhere else for them to go. “It’s a shame they didn’t have cable back then, because that’s undoubtedly what would have happened to the Smothers brothers,” Maher says. “They would have gone to a place like HBO.”
After the cancellation, Tommy lost his sense of humor for two years. He sharpened his yo-yo skills and Dick raced cars and started a winery (now run by Tommy). They had another variety show on ABC that did not last and worked independently in feature films.
By the 1980s, Tom and Dick were back. “It was hard work, but we got our sense of humor back and the comedy started working like magic,” says Tommy.
In 1988, CBS invited the Smothers brothers to do a twenty-year reunion show, followed by more shows. Ironically, the network wanted them to be controversial. “No thanks,” they said. They did the shows, but they weren’t political.
As Dick and Tom, who went through couples’ counseling to resolve their differences, celebrate fifty years as a duo, they are enjoying a resurgence of interest. Time-Life released boxed sets of the Comedy Hour. Tommy received an Emmy in 2009 for Outstanding Writing Achievement on the Comedy Hour, presented by Steve Martin forty years after the writing staff for the series had won. (Tom had his name taken off the roster of writers initially because he was afraid the controversy surrounding him might hurt the writers’ chances.)
Yes, the Smothers brothers, who perform eighty shows a year, are still here.
“We’re just a comedy act,” Tom says. “We go out and we try to loosen the screws of despair in this world. We bring joy to it, and some discontent, and a little anger at the way things are going, because it affects all of us. Thank God, there’s comedy.”