Author sees the Smothers Brothers as fighters for the right to
satirize amid unrest of the '60s.
The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"
By David Bianculli
Touchstone. 400 pp. $24.99
Reviewed by Bill Lyon
Mar. 21, 2010
They didn't set out to be purposely defiant rebels, tweaking the
establishment, giving apoplexy to the pompous, leaving a blazing
legacy of social conscience that stretches across half a century.
No, in the beginning they were content with the witty ad-libs and the
clever but inoffensive repartee in their two-man act built around
stand-up comedy and music - Tom and Dick Smothers, the Smothers
Brothers; Tom the fumbling, vulnerable, instantly likable master of
the pregnant pause, Dick the consummate straight man, setting up his
brother, feeding him lines again and again, and on occasion
displaying his own accomplished tenor.
But as happens every so often, they came along at one of the most
tumultuous, wrenching times in American history - the 1960s. Race
riots in the streets. A roaring antiwar sentiment. Woodstock. The
Summer of Love. The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The drug culture was in full psychedelic
flower, its mantra: Turn on, tune in, drop out.
It was a period of profound unrest and the Smothers Brothers were
caught up in it, reveled in it, created a groundbreaking
counterculture genre heavy on political satire. For three glorious,
often riotous years they worked from a prime-time pulpit - Sunday
nights on the CBS television network, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
From a distance, compared with what is permitted on the air now,
their work seems tepid. But it is precisely their work, their
impassioned crusade against censorship and their relentless battle
for free speech, that has enabled so many performers to flourish today.
The trail they left, their enduring influence, is admirably
documented in Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers
Brothers Comedy Hour. Their program ran for three seasons, 72
episodes, and many of the shows are re-created in detail in this
ambitious behind-the-scenes offering, the writing of which required
15 halting and painful years, as reckoned by the author, David
Bianculli. His suffering, and the saintly patience of his editors,
was worth it. The finished product is compelling and immensely entertaining.
It is also most emphatically not objective, nor does it pretend to
be. There are occasional, semi-grudging admissions that the boys may
have gone too far, may have been sophomoric, may have been too
stubborn for their own good, may have been too unwilling to
compromise, may have been too zealous in their ongoing war with
censors and producers, may have gone overboard in purposefully
layering scripts with material they knew would be cut so they could
sneak in something else.
But Bianculli's thesis is right on. Those satirists who make their
living today without having Big Brother's heavy-handed interference
stifling them owe an unpayable debt to the Brothers.
(Full disclosure: I graduated from college in the winter of 1961. It
was an especially unsettling time for coming-of-age. I became an
unabashed fan of the Smothers Brothers and remain so. My generation
needed someone to champion the cause, iconoclasts and provocateurs,
and then there they were, the shy, introverted, deadpan brother, and
the frustrated, world-weary, forever correcting brother. What still
burns today is the message they helped cheer on and that resonates
today: "War is not healthy for children and other living things.")
The Brothers' early years are recounted, but this is far more than a
biography and far more than sliced-up nostalgia. It is seen through
the prism of a crucial period in the history of this country.
Bianculli knows his way around a cathode ray tube. He has been a TV
critic since 1975, first with daily newspapers, including The
Inquirer, and since 1987 for National Public Radio. He currently is
an associate professor, teaching TV and film, at Rowan University.
His book is dead-on and fascinating reading no matter whether you
were an adult in the '60s or are just now becoming one.
(Bianculli himself makes a fond, emotional aside recalling how he and
his father watched the show together: "That was an important show to
me," he says, "and watching with my dad made it an important gift.")
"This book," he writes, "is not some quaint remembrance of a show
with a moral stand that has no bearing to modern times. Think of the
Smothers Brothers as a pop-culture Grapes of Wrath."
The Brothers ended up martyrs. They were fired by CBS, and in turn
fired back, and finally triumphed by winning their lawsuit, an
expensive one for the network. Forty-three years after their debut,
they still have relevance.
Bianculli writes: "The closer you look at The Smothers Brothers
Comedy Hour - season by season, show by show - the more you
understand the generational, artistic, and moral duels being fought
in the '60s, and how quickly small confrontations mushroomed into
all-out war on several fronts. Year to year, the shows said it all:
Tom and Dick Smothers looked different, acted differently, and
protested more brazenly and passionately. What they managed to say
and do was important, and what they were prevented from saying and
doing was no less meaningful."