Thursday, February 10, 2011

CBS vs. the Smothers Brothers

Here's another excerpt from the book I'm writing about growing up in the '60s. Hopefully, I'll be finished sometime mid-year. The drugs are starting to take effect and I'm beginning to remember 1969 again. But this is an entry from 1967.  It gives a little TV history.

THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR premiered on CBS. Tommy and Dick Smothers rose from the folk music ranks but with a spin. They did comedy. Gentle and wholesome and they still played banjos but comedy nonetheless. CBS figured they’d be the perfect hosts for a variety show geared towards middle-America. Boy, were they wrong.

THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR evolved into the hippest show on television. And later, the most controversial. With young edgy writers like Steve Martin on board, the humor was biting and satiric. Very anti-establishment. Musical guests included Joan Baez, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, and for the first time since he was blacklisted in the 50s – Pete Seeger. Seeger caused a huge stir when he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, an anti-war song. CBS censored it his first appearance but allowed it his second.

That was just one of many battles between the Smothers Brothers (primarily Tommy, who was the creative force of the show) and network censors. Despite its high ratings, especially among my generation, CBS cancelled the show two years later. If they were on today getting those numbers in the key 18-34 demographic, they could show a snuff film live and still stay on the air.

I loved its subversive humor. So much so that I wrote the Smothers Brothers a letter offering my services as a writer. (I was in high school then and had never written a thing.) I got back an autographed picture. I guess that meant no.

Still, I adored that show and fifteen years later I won my first Writers Guild Award and the presenter was… Tommy Smothers. How cool is that? Now I have two autographed pictures.


That Neil Guy said...

Have you read TV critic David Bianculli's book, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers?

Dale in Chico said...

Did you know Gene Farmer?

Phillip B said...

The one writer with the Brothers Smothers who fascinated me was Murray Roman. He did at least one comedy album as a stand-up, with an entirely black cover and called "Blind Man's Movie."

It had a long routine about an attempt to destroy a Sambo's Restaurant by placing thousands of orders for pancakes. (Sambo's eventually realized they might be offending someone with large murals of the children's story, and sold out to Denny's.) The album became a party favorite in college, and just the memory of laughing that hard is a fond one.

In any case, Murray Roman seems to have departed the planet without much trace. Except passages written by Tommy Smothers citing him, and Rob Reiner, as the real radical firebrands in the group.

Proving, I guess, that nothing moves you more quickly to the cultural center of America than being in a hit sitcom...

Parvenue said...

Please, Ken.

Use its and not it's when appropriate..

Mike Barer said...

"Dangerously Funny" is a great book detailing the Smothers Brother plight.

Janet T said...

While I was very young during the Smothers Brothers era, but we were allowed to watch the show. I’m sure the first inklings of my political leanings were gleaned here.
When the Brothers opened a winery in Sonoma County, they took the wine rivalry between Sonoma and Napa counties to the next level by printing t-shirts that said

“Sonoma makes wine, Napa makes auto parts”

emily said...

Please Parvenue,

Take a hike.

te said...

Just to be picky (hah!) neither Smothers played a banjo, at least as part of the act. Tom plays guitar; Dick, bass. Hope this doesn't mean you have to rewrite the book from page 1.

When I was a youngster, trying with no success(from Ventura) to land a job in Los Angeles, I decided to just go for it and approach the Smothers Brothers.

Somehow I got a phone number, and called the office. I spoke with a guy named Denny Shanahan, who in the nicest way possible said they had no openings.

A couple of years later, I was working at a newspaper and dealing from time to time with Denny; who by then was at Knott's Berry Farm.

Several years later than that, I actually went to work for the Smothers' former manager, Ken Kragen.

Hollywood -- where dreams can (sort of) come true!

Nathan said...


Watch this, learn this, live this.

Its' the right thing to do. (Why yes...I did want to watch your head explode a little.)

Bob Summers said...

There is a documentary called "Smothered", which covers the trials and tribulations of the brothers with the network.

It sometimes surfaces on PBS, but I'm sure it's probably available for sale or maybe Netflix.

gottacook said...

I'll have to check out that Bianculli book. As a kid I watched not only the Comedy Hour but their previous half-hour sitcom The Smothers Brothers Show (in which Tommy, as stated in its theme song, is an angel).

Of course I was too young too appreciate the topicality of the humor, but I do recall clearly the Beatles' appearances on the Smothers show for two consecutive weeks in fall 1968: the first a proto-music video of "Hey Jude" and the second a filmed (non-lipsynced) performance of "Revolution." Both of these are available on YouTube - the version of "Revolution" is much like the single but includes the "shoobedoowahs" from "Revolution 1" on the White Album.

JGJ said...

“The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen. -- Tommy Smothers

And that pretty much sums up Tommy Smothers (and why I'll always be a fan).

thomas tucker said...

No wonder his Mom liked his brother best!
(I almost wrote his Mom liked Dick best, but that just doesn't come across correctly.)

mcp said...

In the case of Tommy Smothers, being right doesn't give you the right to be a jerk. He put himself, his brother and a whole group of cast and crew out of work because he couldn't work with CBS.

Did he stand up and take risks at time when it was vital? Yes. Did he win in court against CBS when he got fired (canceled)? Yes. But at some point you need to back off and fight the next battle.

Remember, CBS got rid of Murrow too.

Dean Minderman said...

Phillip B, there's quite a bit more about Murray Roman, and plus info about other writers who worked with the Smothers Brothers, here:

The Forgotten Murray Roman

Anonymous said...

I would love to find a clip of a bit that the brothers did late in the Johnson administration.
Dick is asking Tommy what the President could possibily do about a series of social problems and Tommy deadpan in his classic stutter, "Well, well, well, he could resign."
I haven't seen that clip in years.

Barry Alfonso said...

I remember the Smothers Brothers from my childhood and how relatively innocent and innocuous their comedy was by today's standards. There was a humanity to what they did, as well as a sense of conscience. And I loved the fact they would have weirdos and misfits on their show like this:

Phillip B said...

Thanks, Dean, of the wonderful link about Murray Roman and so many others.

There was actually a music executive named Artie Mogul?

Gary said...

Tommy did (& still does) occasionally play the banjo, tho the guitar was his primary musical instrument.

Max Clarke said...

The Smothers Brothers Show was revolutionary. You had to be there to comprehend its influence on kids like me.

The show was like that image from Apple's famous Superbowl commercial. The woman has smashed the screen and fresh air blows through the theater. Every week, you had to watch just to see how they were going to wake you up even more.

Hilarious, never heard that.

John said...

Ironically, the cancellation of the Smothers Brothers ended up leading to the cancelltion of the entire stable (so to speak) of CBS' rural comedies two years later, since the network took such a huge backlash for replacing Tom and Dick with Roy and Buck and "Hee Haw".

The hayseed "Laugh-In" did pretty well in the ratings, but prestige and demographics-wise, it was terrible for the network, and helped spark CBS' move to scrap it, all the Filmways shows and even Red Skelton in favor of targeting a more urban audience starting in 1971. So if the status quo had remained, we might not have seen ”All In the Family” arrive in 1971, or even a certain show about a medical unit in Korea a year later.

Chuck said...

I wasn't even alive for their first time around, but I fell in in love with the Smothers Brothers during their short-lived return to TV in the late 80s. I had never seen anything like them, and every week watched, rolling on the floor with laughter. At the time, I couldn't understand why my very conservative parents had such a problem with them, but eventually I realized that the show I was watching was very, very different from the one that aired in the 60s. Since then, I've gone back and watched a lot of those episodes and am amazed at the brilliance of it all.

I have to say, though, that my opinion on Tommy Smothers was very tainted recently when I watched a video clip of him on some TV talk show where he was a fellow guest with Penn (from Penn and Teller). Tommy completely laid into Penn for having the audacity to appear on some FOX news show, and I remember thinking how the person who once said that wonderful quote about the censorhip of ideas was now so close-minded that he refused to acknowledge the value of communication or dialogue, regardless of the opinion of the other side. I can't find the clip right now (at work, internet filters in place although they let me get on this site) but if you search for it, you can find a very heartfelt musing by Penn that he posted on his own site days after, where he talks about how much it hurt to be ridiculed by one of his comedy idols. He then goes on to make such a great case, imo, for why he appeared on the show. It really brought Tommy down a couple of notches to me, made him seem very bitter and angry and sad, and made Penn out to be yet again a much more thoughtful and insightful person than people generally give him credit for.

Matt Patton said...

My parents were both Republicans in the 1960's (hey, they were over 30), but I know that every Sunday night after Ed Sullivan, they tuned into those Dangerous Subversives and laughed their heads off (I was all of eight years old in 1970, so I was Too Young for Thomas and Richard -- but I could hear them from my bedroom). Years later, when they re-ran the program on Nick at Nite, I got to watch them. With my mom and dad (they were now both registered Democrats). And they laughed their heads off all over again. So did I. It was a funny show.

The Ames Family said...

I am a child of the 80's, but my mom grew up on the Smothers Brothers. So, she imparted their "wisdom" onto me. I had all their albums converted to CD's and have even seen them live! My ultra-conservative mother and I got matching flower tattoos on our feet for "I've got a daisy on my toe." We LOVE the Smothers Brothers :)

SharoneRosen said...

I am of (approx) your age group (I was in junior high when they were on). I remember how amazing the Smothers Brothers Show was, endlessly brilliant.

I remember thinking, at the time, that the sketch they die with the song HONEY was brilliant.

As I matured, I always wondered if the bit was really as funny as a mature, worldly 13 to 14 year old thought it was. When the reruns came to cable.... hilarious! Brilliant. And if you haven't seen that bit, look for it!

Oh heck.. here it is!

Martin said...

Chuck: Tom didn't have a problem with Penn's "audacity" at appearing on that particular Fox program.

The host of the program Penn appeared on is a particularly vile, racist sleazeball.

Tom wasn't advocating censorship. Nor was he objecting to engaging "the other side" in dialogue.

Tom's objection was that by Penn's going on the show to debate issues with the host, Penn was elevating the host to the level of someone who should be taken seriously.

Dan O'Day said...

@Phillip B:

I had exactly one encounter with Murray Roman, when I crashed the Writer's Room of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

I introduced myself and he responded by fervently warning me of a massive FBI conspiracy to... do something.

His urgency was real and his pain quite evident.

bob said...

Hello and good luck with the will be an excellent read...i have a question you may be able to answer...i am trying to find out the name of one of the smothers brothers guest stars from the 1980s series...he was a comic who fumbled with the microphone...i remember he played the harmonica and it fell apart while he was playing it...he was really funny and i would love to see that skit again...thanks...bob