By Andrew Gilbert
for the Mercury News
Can a presidential election change the cultural climate of the country?
There's no doubt in the mind of Tommy Smothers that the answer is yes.
Speaking by phone from his home near Santa Rosa on the day of Barack
Obama's inauguration, he recalls a very different political
transition. It was 40 years ago that "The Smothers Brothers Comedy
Hour" became an early TV casualty of the culture wars, and Smothers
has no doubt that presidential politics played a role.
"Nixon got in, and we were fired," says Tommy, who performs his
musical and comedy act with his younger sibling Dick on Saturday at
Redwood City's Fox Theatre. Special guests include the Yo-Yo Man
(Tommy's artful alter ego) and the Limeliters, the folk trio that got
its start alongside the Smothers Brothers on the North Beach scene in
the late 1950s.
With a heady mix of pointed political humor, traditional variety show
acts, drug-laced double-entendres and era-defining musical guests
such as the Doors, Joan Baez, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane
and the Who, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" hit the airwaves in
early 1967 and quickly captured the zeitgeist of the growing counterculture.
By 1968, the show pulled off the unlikely feat of dethroning longtime
Sunday night rating champ "Bonanza."
But as the show increasingly turned into a forum for opposition to
U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, jabs delivered both via
subversive comedy and guest musicians like Pete Seeger, CBS began to
push back, cutting entire segments the network considered objectionable.
Despite their ratings success, the Smothers Brothers were
unceremoniously canceled by CBS in April 1969 in a landmark clash
between a controversy-averse corporation and outspoken entertainers
(a speech-chilling conflict recently recounted on the PBS series
"Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of American Comedy" and explored
in far more detail in Maureen Muldaur's 2002 documentary "Smothered").
Years later the brothers won a breach-of-contract suit against the
network, but for Tommy Smothers the emotional impact of being pushed
off the air was devastating.
"I lost my sense of humor for about two years," says Smothers, 72. "I
just brooded and didn't leave the house. I'd go right to the dark side.
"Then one day I saw Jane Fonda and César Chavéz on the 'Tonight
Show.' I agreed with a lot of what she was saying, but there was no
humor and no joy in it.
"I realized I could still have my convictions, but I had to start
lightening up. The last year of the 'Comedy Hour,' I was getting to
be so serious, and I didn't commit myself to the humor."
Tommy started taking a page from his younger brother, a bon vivant
who makes a convincing case that living well is indeed the best
revenge. Inspired by Dick's foray into viticulture, Tommy joined him
in launching Remick Ridge in Sonoma, a winery that produces coveted,
certified-organic cabaret sauvignons.
"Dick was flying planes, driving race cars, writing for Car and
Driver and having a great time," Tommy Smothers says.
"There was always something going on. He got me into sailing. He got
me into golf. He got me into food. I was a one-dimensional guy,
obsessed with show business.
"He's a pragmatist."
Pragmatism and a little therapy is what it takes to outlast Laurel &
Hardy and Abbott & Costello. With five decades under their belts and
counting, the Smothers Brothers are the most enduring comedy duo in
history. While Tommy says much of their stage dynamic flows from
their personalities, there's nothing easy about a sibling act.
"We've had couple counseling," he says. "It's hard for any comedy
team. Most last 10 or 12 years tops. Sometimes we both wished the
other would be hit by a truck."
Born and raised in Los Angeles' South Bay, the brothers moved north
to attend San Jose State University in the 1950s. They started
performing together in a group modeled after the Kingston Trio,
working for five dollars a night and all they could drink at a San
Jose folk venue called the Kerosene Club.
Someone suggested that they audition for a spot at the Purple Onion,
a top North Beach music and comedy club, and they eventually landed a
spot opening for Phyllis Diller.
Performing folk songs in close harmony, the brothers accompanied
themselves on guitar (Tommy) and stand-up bass (Dick), though their
banter often derailed tunes as they debated the lyrics and flew off
on tangents. That early incarnation of their act was captured on
their 1961 hit debut album "Live at the Purple Onion."
"We were serious about the music," Smothers says. "We felt that you
can't have fun with the music unless you play it well. People would
say, 'Why don't you guys ever finish a song?' We were considered
heretics in some folk circles. I'd make fun of 'John Henry,' and you
don't make fun of things like that!"
Tommy feels he and Dick really started clicking as a comedy duo in
the early 1980s as they refined their stage personas. Still, he knows
the CBS show, which is available on DVD, is their most lasting
legacy, both for the battle to expand permissible prime time
commentary and for the talent they showcased on stage and off (the
writers included Steve Martin and Rob Reiner).
"We were famous before we got good," Smothers says. "But it's 40
years since the show went off the air, and it's still discussed."
The Smothers Brothers
With: Yo-Yo Man and the Limeliters
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fox Theatre,
2215 Broadway, Redwood City
Tickets: $35-$75, (650) 369-4119, www.CityBoxOffice.com