For CBS, it was the brothers' third strike
Controversial Season 3 was the Smothers Brothers' finest - and their last
By Hector Saldana
San Antonio Express-News
Published: Friday, Oct. 24, 2008
For the Smothers Brothers, there would be no season more
controversial or entertaining – it was the stuff of legend.
By 1968, the comedy team's admittedly rather conventional CBS variety
show had become a lightning rod for its views on politics, censorship
and the Vietnam War. On Sundays, their comedy platform – open to
George Burns and Jack Benny as well as David Steinberg and George
Carlin – was the hippest thing going.
The Beatles came to them to premiere "Hey Jude" and "Revolution." The
Who's Keith Moon nearly blew up the set in the finale to "My
Generation." They gave the world Pat Paulsen running for president.
Those scenes, along with the bickering brothers' trademark red sports
coats, are found on the new four-DVD set "The Smothers Brothers
Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3" ($49.98) from Time-Life.
Eleven uncensored episodes, as well as a never before seen appearance
by Robert F. Kennedy, additional footage and bonus material complete
the set. Tom and Dick Smothers like to say it was all an accident,
that they were a product of the times. Perhaps, but they came to
define the times, too.
While that third season played out, LBJ announced he would not seek
re-election. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were
assassinated. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago became a bloodbath.
Two years earlier, CBS had given the Smothers Brothers artistic
control to make a "socially relevant" show. But by the second
episode, Dick Smothers recalled, CBS was telling them "you can't say
that." The third season, arguably their best, would also be their last.
"Hee-Haw" aired in the time slot the next year.
Tommy Smothers was the uncredited producer, "the heart and soul,"
according to his brother, hiring and firing writers. By the third
season, he had recruited Rob Reiner and Steve Martin. Most of their
writers were younger than 30. (Tommy recently received an honorary
Emmy for writing on the '68 shows.) The show, which was performed in
front of a live audience, was "edited with a razor blade," Dick Smothers said.
He says they're not bitter about the experience.
"Maybe them firing us made us live longer in the minds of our fans,"
he said. "They killed us but we're not dead."
In an interview in connection with the DVD release, he discussed the
series and its repercussions on the brothers and the country.
Q. How did such a straight folk-comedy act become the epitome of hip?
A. It would be great to say we planned it out. The third season,
socially, politically, geopolitically, was a whole different country.
It's hard to believe what happened in this country (from 1966 to
1968). We call it the scene of the accident. When they hired us . . .
the country was not in that sort of turmoil. Vietnam wasn't on every
front page. The civil rights was starting to get national concern.
But nothing had happened yet.
Q. Did you feel like lightning rods immediately?
A. No, we weren't. But from the very start in San Francisco, hippies
and people in North Beach would come see our show at the Purple
Onion, saying, "We got your message." We had no idea of the message they got.
Q. Are the old episodes still relevant?
A. It's the same thing all over again. Except the times today are on
steroids. That was the first time young people didn't leave it up to
their parents and grandparents to make the choices. We thought young
people could make an impact, and they did.
Q. Is there a danger of being too political on TV?
A. Tommy came close to it. He went to a party with (Tom) Hayden and
(Jane) Fonda and all these people. He came back and said, "I found
out what's wrong with me. I saw Jane Fonda, and I found out. I lost
my sense of humor. She doesn't have a sense of humor." And that's
deadly for a comedian.
TV review: How Tom and Dick got 'Smothered'
David Wiegand, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Smothered: The Censorship Battles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy
Hour: Written, produced and directed by Maureen Muldaur. 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 30 on KQED.
At the beginning, the CBS moguls didn't know what they were getting
into. At the end, they didn't know what hit them.
In the late '60s, the Tiffany Network was looking for a new "kamikaze
show" to follow the other nine attempts to beat NBC's "Bonanza" in
the Sunday night ratings. There wasn't time to get a scripted show
ready, so the network took a chance on a pair of clean-cut comics on
the folk music circuit. And "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" had
its premiere in February 1967.
Maureen Muldaur's 2002 film, "Smothered: The Censorship Battles of
the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," could have been made at any point
after CBS fired the brothers in 1969 - certainly, it might have
helped the boys during the long, lean period after their show was killed.
But the fact that it was made recently, at a time when even the
tamest TV shows thrive on references to contemporary politics and
social mores, makes it all the more valuable. Why? Because it reminds
us that there will come an inevitable time when we'll look back at
issues like Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction and marvel that a
supposedly civilized culture can have its priorities so screwed up as
to care about such silliness.
Muldaur's film, which will be broadcast Oct. 30 on KQED with Tom and
Dick Smothers present in the studio to talk about their fabled comedy
show, is probably too long, but it's the perfect companion to the
newly released DVD set of the "Comedy Hour" final season (see review at left).
The film, first made for Bravo, begins with a bit from the show
itself, where a handful of network censors (one played by staff
writer Steve Martin), take turns looking at and discarding pages of
the script until only a single sheet is left. The last censor eyes it
up and down, pronounces that it contains nothing funny at all and
approves it for broadcast.
At first, the Smothers' show seemed pretty typical fare for the day,
with guest stars such as George Burns and Jack Benny. But, as writer
Mason Williams says, around the 10th show, Tommy (who was always the
mastermind of both the show and the brothers' act) began to inject
topical bits into the writing. There was comic and eventual
presidential candidate Pat Paulsen speaking in an "editorial" against
gun control, for example: "If you're old enough to get arrested,
you're old enough to carry a gun," he says.
The censors cut bits they could understand, but, hysterically, didn't
cut former San Francisco performer Leigh French's routine as a
zoned-out hippie chick, advising women on lifestyle issues.
"I'd like to greet you ladies as I always do," she says, pausing
before adding a spacey: "Hi-i-i-i."
She then goes on to tell viewers how to get rid of roaches in their homes.
The CBS censors thought she was talking about the insects.
And if they didn't cut whole segments, the censors had them chopped
up beyond recognition. Joan Baez introduced a song to her
then-husband, David Harris, a few months before he was set to go to
federal prison for draft evasion. The song itself is left intact, but
Baez's intro, in which she discusses why Harris is going to jail, is
cut so badly, there's no vocal or visual continuity between frames.
Former writers such as Williams, Rob Reiner and Carl Gottlieb (the
latter two recruited by Tommy Smothers from San Francisco's the
Committee) and comic-turned-director David Steinberg join the late
writer David Halberstam; former CBS executive Michael Dann, who first
put the show on the air; the show's producer, George Sunga; and
former censor Perry Lafferty in talking about the battles that went
on during the show's aborted run. To their credit, Lafferty and Dann
seem to know better than to defend CBS' decision to yank the show.
The film is pretty compelling on its own, but it works better in
tandem with the "Comedy Hour" final season DVD. Together, they remind
us of how far we've come as a culture, and, sadly, how far we still have to go.
E-mail David Wiegand at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They're Finally Here
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3!
October 22nd, 2008
by: Sheldon A. Wiebe
I remember, with great fondness, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Tom and Dick Smothers started out as a comedy/folk duo, playing clubs
like the legendary Purple Onion. When CBS offered them their own TV
show, they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. The
Brothers Smothers started fairly innocuously, but as the series
progressed it became a bastion of political satire that caused one
U.S. president, LBJ [who clearly had a sense of humor], to send the
duo a letter of praise and another [Johnson's successor, in fact]
to ask CBS to take them off the air [making them the second top
ten-rated series to be removed from a network's schedule because a
sitting president didn't like it the first being The Wild Wild West].
My favorite moment of the series came as the teaser for one episode
that found Tom and Dick noting that CBS had been getting a lot flack
because of the show, and that henceforth the audience wouldn't hear
"anything you wouldn't hear in your own home…" followed by the sound
of a toilet flushing. The Best of Season 3 has moments that match
that hilarious moment [the opening song of the season premiere, We're
Still Here, for example notes that they've survived, among other
things, the network's censors]. And presented some of the most
memorable musical performances of sixties television as when Jim
Morrison of The Doors blanked on the words for Touch Me, or when
Donovan turned the show into a love-in/sing-along for Happiness Runs.
And where else would you find George Harrison stopping by just for a
couple minutes to urge the brothers to keep on keeping on?
Most of the eleven episodes included here are edited partly for
content [not all the moments on the show were gems, and not all of
the show's musical guests were all that memorable], and partly
because the pacing of variety shows [and television in general]
wasn't anywhere near what today's audiences are used to. What
remains, though, is the wit and charm of the Smothers Brothers and
their show's writers along with some hot button issues that
contributed to their show's demise including a medley that was
excised from the season premiere because of controversial content
[activist Harry Belafonte performing a carefully structured medley of
calypso songs before a screen on which played scenes from the
Democratic Convention of 1968]; a comedy sermonette by David
Steinberg [part of the episode that CBS removed from the schedule
when they fired the brothers, and other odd bits [like the take-off
on Bonanza that dared question why the series featured only men as
regulars...]. Also included is the CBS Special, Pat Paulsen For
President, possibly the funniest campaign film of all-time [and,
given the manner in which Paulsen spoke about the issues, another
nail in the Comedy Hour's coffin].
Along with the eleven episodes [which include that unaired ep], The
Best of Season 3 also comes with a mitt full of bonus features. Two
such are especially noteworthy: when you click on certain episodes in
the Episode Selection menu, before it plays, you will hear Tom
Smothers comment on the notable circumstances of that episode, and,
again, when you use the Episode Selections menu, you can choose to
screen each ep with an Introduction and Close by the Smothers Brothers.
Other Features: Disc One: Interviews With Harry Belafonte, Bob
Newhart, Third Season Producer Allan Blye, Doors' Drummer John
Densmore, Filmmaker Chuck Braverman, and Writer Rob Reiner;
Featurette: A Fable For Our Time [Tom smothers reflects on the series
the duo's battles with the network]; Rehearsal Footage Shot By 60
Minutes [aired January 7, 1969]; 1969 Emmy Awards Clip; Photo
Gallery, and CBS Documents: Network memos and other documents
regarding some of the show's controversial elements.
Disc Two: Interviews: Just Collins, Bob Einstein [Writer/Occasional
Performer]; Mom Always Liked You Best Tom, Dick and Mrs. Smothers;
Dr. Benjamin Spock Interview [censored from season three premiere];
Photo Gallery, and CBS Documents.
Disc Three: Interviews: Joan Baez, Jackie Mason, David Steinberg;
Excerpts from Tom and dick's Post-Cancellation Press Conference;
Jackie Mason Dress Rehearsal; Joan Baez Dress Rehearsal and Alternate
Performance; Episode Promos; Smothers Brothers 2000 Reunion at the
U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado; LBJ Letters; David
Rumsfeld's "Department of Peace" Letter; CBS Documents; Photo
Gallery, and Tom's Final Reflections.
Disc Four: Robert F. Kennedy With Pat Paulsen and Tom Smothers
never before seen outtakes from the Pat Paulsen For President
special; Interview Outtakes From special: Woody Allen, David Frye,
Eddie Fisher, Paul Hornung, Nancy Ames, and Jerry Stiller and Anne
Meara; Pat Paulsen at the White House; Pat Paulsen at the 1968
Democratic National Convention; Pat Paulsen Comedy Club Act at the
Pierce Street Annex, Anchorage, Alaska [March 31, 1992]; E! Intro
segment to Pat Paulsen For President; Photo Gallery; Pat Paulsen's
Malignant Humor Pat's personal notes from his fight with cancer, At
Paulsen's Memorial humor.
Grade: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Best of Season 3 A
Grade: Features A+