This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the premiere of one of the most surprisingly subversive shows in television history
Typically when we think about entertainers who have changed America, we think of cultural troublemakers such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Phyllis Diller, or Norman Lear. Each of them, in his or her own way, significantly altered our perceptions on topics such as censorship, race, and women’s liberation, bringing those issues to the forefront by using an effectively edgy approach. Whether it be via stand-up comedy routines, movies, or television, their confident, in-your-face attitudes were hard to ignore. So, if you take a look at the tailored suits, clean haircuts, and outwardly polite manners of Tommy and Dick Smothers, your first impression of the brothers likely screams squaresville. When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on CBS back in 1967, no one suspected the duo to use their weekly hour of television filled with silly sketches and musical performances as an under-the-radar attempt to subvert popular opinion and crush network censorship. Yes, friends, fifty years ago, the seemingly straight-laced, dorky-looking Smothers Brothers paved the way for such smart and rebellious television as The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, The Daily Show, South Park, and probably a thousand others. In the following text, I’m going to attempt to prove that the Smothers Brothers were, indeed, the unlikeliest set of punk rockers in the history of television.
Tom and Dick Smothers got their start in entertainment by honing their act as a bickering pair of folk musicians. Tom played guitar while Dick played a stand-up bass, and their schtick was that one of them would interrupt the song to critique the other for whatever reason. Time after time, the bit ended with probably their most famous punchline, “Mom always liked you best!” Admittedly, the vaudevillian act sounds a bit corny with Dick as the straight man and Tom being the goofy color, but they grew to popularity in the club scene, and had their first national television appearance on The Jack Paar Show in 1961. Six years later, the Comedy Hour was born. At first glance, one might not notice how the show was any more than the average 1960s-era comedy-variety show – what with its cheap set design, hired dance troupe, and musical accompaniment by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. Hidden beneath the visage, though, were a pair of brothers who wanted to use television as a tool to promote new social awareness and give a voice to a growing generation of young American progressives. The show only lasted three seasons, with Tom and Dick fighting network censorship the entire way; the boys were so much of a perpetual thorn-in-the-side of network executives that, in 1969, CBS wanted them off the air so badly they fabricated a “contractual dispute,” and fired them. More on that later.
At a time when mainstream art was just beginning to break through archaic thought about sex and politics, television was the one creative outlet that was lagging behind. It’s no secret that mid-century American television was designed to be non-threatening and non-challenging. Always with advertising revenue in mind, networks played it safe by housing a slew of banal programming tailored to appeal to an older, more conservative audience. What America watched every week was mostly variety shows, westerns, and rural-themed sit-coms (think: Green Acres, The Andy Griffith Show), which all dominated the networks until nearly 1970. None of them particularly said much about politics or featured anything that could be considered remotely controversial; for example, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was set on a United States Marine Corps base in the late 1960s, but the war in Vietnam was never mentioned once. Network television stood firm in the belief that the American public wasn’t interested in mixing current events with their entertainment. And it really wasn’t until television executives were let go and replaced with slightly more forward-thinking individuals that programs began to feature stories set in modern urban environments, and focused on more sophisticated problems and issues (The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered in 1970, and All In The Family appeared as a midseason replacement in 1971). Soon afterwards, variety shows began to die out (interest in the genre definitely faded by the mid-seventies as reflected by the cancellations of shows like Donny and Marie and Sonny and Cher), and, according to Green Acres star Pat Buttram, the so-called “rural purge” killed off “every show that had a tree.” But, those changes came on the heels of what the Smothers Brothers accomplished, so let’s not get too far ahead.
Most households owned one television set, which meant that television-watching was usually a shared family experience. It’s important to mention that the Comedy Hour was one of the first noteworthy programs that attempted to cross the generation gap, with guest stars and musical acts who would appeal to both the older age group and the younger. Viewers would see episodes with a guest star like Jimmy Durante paired with a musical number from The Turtles. Or, Mel Torme with Ravi Shankar – whereas other programs like The Dinah Shore Show or The Andy Williams Show featured a full hour of safe, wholesome entertainment of which your mother would approve. Another part of that push towards a younger audience was the writing staff, comprised of now-famous, but then up-and-coming comedians who were in tune to the changing audience (and social climate). Included in the group were young comedians Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, and Albert Brooks, and series regulars “Presidential Candidate” Pat Paulsen and “Resident Hippie” Leigh French. Paulsen no doubt was a heavy influence on subversive comics of today, pioneering the “satirical take on politics” bit, and paving the way for programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. In his segments, Paulsen delivered editorials from a conservative perspective – bitingly absurd commentary that included accusing elderly people of burning their social security cards as if they were draft dodgers, as well as promoting the age-old right wing idea that gun control activists were “commies.” Especially in the gun debate, some of Paulsen’s material is still relevant today: “If you’re old enough to get arrested, you’re old enough to carry a gun. Guns are a necessity; what if you’re walking down the street and spot a moose?” Replace “moose” with “bear” and “street” with “school,” and you’ve got a real-life quote from our current U.S. Secretary of Education.
The writers, whose expertise was eventually acknowledged by two primetime Emmy Awards, were careful to insert commentary that mocked network censorship into their sketches. One skit from 1967 titled “Billy The Kid’s Birthday” features Simon and Garfunkel as balladeers, narrating the fictional account of Billy The Kid (Tom) asking his girlfriend Belle Starr (Janet Leigh) for birthday sex. Billy’s bandit buddies tell him, “You can’t do that on television! Make love? That’s disgusting!” and they shoot him. Even in the 1960s, murderous violence was alright to show on television, but sex was still taboo. “Hey, Kid, I thought this was supposed to be a comedy show,” Belle says to Billy as he lay there dying. “You can’t be funny all of the time,” Billy insists. Simon and Garfunkel chime in repeating that line, and then harmoniously adding, “Sometimes there’s things to say.” Another example is a memorable show opening in which the writers, portraying Standards & Practices censors, stand in a line passing around a copy of the show’s script. Each man takes a turn silently reading a joke, laughing, ceremoniously tearing a page from the script, and passing it along to the next one in line. By the time the final papers are handed to Tommy and Dick, there’s virtually nothing left. Meta jokes with overt meaning like this clearly defined the struggles entertainers in their generation constantly faced while arguing for freedom of expression.
The show’s musical performances were an indicator of the changing cultural landscape as well, with the focus placed on guests that appealed to teenagers and twenty-somethings. The Who made a literally explosive debut on American television via the Comedy Hour, and The Beatles, disillusioned with touring by 1968, sent pre-recorded performance videos to the Smothers Brothers (and only to them). CBS began to get nervous, though, when the Brothers kept inviting all the same kinds of ruffian rock’n’roll acts and sharp-tongued, progressive songwriters to perform, and the network stepped in to intervene when they felt the program was becoming too edgy. Trying to tame the musical guests was one of the most legendary attempts by CBS to censor the show. In the summer of 1968, popular recording artist and social advocate Harry Belafonte was slated to appear on the program to perform his song, “Please Don’t Stop The Carnival”.
Belafonte had decided to change the lyrics to something more topical: he had written special words to address the violence that occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention earlier that year. Belafonte, with encouragement from Tommy Smothers, wanted to bring attention to the rising political unease in the aftermath of the DNC, and had in mind to project images of police brutality taken from actual news footage of the protests in Chicago that year. Needless to say, the network’s Standards & Practices pulled the performance at the last minute – and, to add insult to injury, replaced it with a five-minute campaign ad for Richard Nixon. Consequently, The Beatles sent the Brothers a tape of them performing “Revolution,” which Tommy introduced with an almost zen-like smirk. “If you watched our show last week, you saw The Beatles perform ‘Hey Jude,’” he says. “And if you also watched our show the week before, you didn’t see Harry Belafonte singing ‘Please Don’t Stop The Carnival’…which has nothing to do with the fact that The Beatles will now sing ‘Revolution’. Or…does it?” Sometime in the next few weeks, George Harrison himself dropped by the studio and joined the Brothers onstage. We see Tommy remark to him that whenever anyone has “something important” to say on American television, the effort is always shut down. Harrison’s reply is an offer of encouragement: “Whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.”
To further set this scene, we have to turn to history. The turmoil surrounding the ‘68 DNC rose from an ideological division in the Democratic Party as pertained to the Vietnam War. The Democrats had been struggling for unity for several months, and wartime unrest was compounded with the tragic killings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy (who, at the time of his death, had just entered the presidential race). As sitting-President Johnson was perceived as a war monger among the more radical sect of Democrats, he was the target of much protest and ridicule. Tom, the more politically vocal of the two brothers, was included in that radical group, and he and the show’s team of writers didn’t shy away from lampooning the president any chance they had. Johnson watched the program regularly, and late one night he called then-CBS President William Paley to complain about a sketch that poked fun at him (something about Johnson’s secret barbecue sauce). Paley went to the writers to ask if they’d lay off the president a bit. In return, Paley agreed to break the seventeen-year blacklist on musician Pete Seeger, who was subsequently invited on. However, Seeger’s song, which criticized the Vietnam War, was cut before airtime. Tom went to the press to complain about CBS dropping the performance, explaining the reason behind it was Seeger had stood his ground by refusing to comply with the network’s request to remove one of the song’s verses. “Waste deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on,” the lyrics go, clearly alluding to the U.S. being stuck in Vietnam, and referring to Johnson, who stood at 6-foot-four, as the “big fool.”
The censorship kept building. After Nixon was elected, he pushed for greater control of journalists and broadcast media. He worked closely with Clay T. Whitehead, who was director of the White House Office on Telecommunications Policy. Whitehead repeatedly hammered the idea that broadcasters should promote Nixon’s political policies; he even went as far as to threaten the licenses of TV stations that showed a bias against the president. Nixon’s paranoia that everyone was out to get him led him to create his infamous “enemies list,” and no joke, the Smothers Brothers were placed firmly on it. In the third season of the Comedy Hour, CBS ordered that the show be delivered finished and ready ten days before airtime so that their censors would have ample time to weed out material they deemed objectionable. The network initially refused to air an entire episode because Joan Baez spoke about her husband being arrested for draft evasion (the episode was run two months later with Baez speaking of her husband’s arrest, but with the reason omitted). Comedian David Steinberg was asked on the show to perform one of his signature “sermonettes” (somewhat cynical, humorous takes on Bible stories), which resulted in reverence by some in the religious sect, but was regarded as blasphemous by the vocal majority of viewers. The segment received the most hate mail in CBS history. But, the Brothers kept fighting for their show’s integrity. Tom asked Steinberg back on the program, and CBS insisted there be no sermonette this time. At Tom’s encouragement, the defiant Steinberg did one anyway, and the censors cut it. CBS considered this offense to be the final straw in a long line of straws, and shortly afterward took that opportunity to fire the Smothers Brothers on a non-existent technicality. The cancellation prompted Tom to file a lawsuit against CBS for breach of contract, which he subsequently won, but unfortunately it wouldn’t be in the cards for the Comedy Hour to return to television. In an almost ridiculing move, CBS had already replaced the show with Hee Haw.
Around this time, Tom took it upon himself to act as a sort of “Counter-Culture Ambassador,” visiting various government representatives and organizations to campaign for artistic expression. Networks had previously agreed to let the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) pre-screen their programs for objectionable, indecent content (if you’re familiar with the Comics Code of yesteryear, the NAB Television Code was similar to that). Apparently the desired result was not exactly censorship, but “interception.” Senator John Pastore (surprisingly, a Democrat from Rhode Island) had been calling for such action for years, and justified the practice by saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Tom had been repeatedly told by CBS that social commentary only belongs on news programs and documentaries, and what he took issue with was that the nation was inundated with outmoded Establishment-oriented ideals every day on the television they watched. Tom spoke with Congressmen about how censors weren’t keeping up with the times, and their archaic line of thought was holding the country back. Tom talked about this in a 1969 issue of LIFE Magazine. “When they were in the Army back in ‘42, ‘freak out’ meant something filthy. Now it just means having fun…standards of broadcast taste are ten years behind the times. They have no relevance to today.” Tom continued to breathe down Pastore’s neck, and fought against the FCC’s desire to establish what they referred to as the “Family Viewing Hour,” a legal measure that would require networks to only broadcast programming that was deemed non-controversial and “family friendly” during the timeslot of 8pm-9pm Eastern. To Tom’s chagrin, the FCC implemented the policy, but then, after only two years, the Family Viewing Hour was ultimately ruled unconstitutional.
Now, please note I do realize it may be a bit of a misnomer to call the Smothers Brothers punks. Given the time period, I suppose it may be more accurate to associate them with the hippie movement (fun fact: Tom was present at John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “bed-in,” even playing guitar on Lennon’s single, “Give Peace A Chance”). But it can be argued that the anti-Establishment, anti-Administration values of hippiedom are similar to that of the punk movement – they’re kind of like cousins. Hippies and punks share one interest especially; neither trust the government too much. In their own ways, they both take from ideals set forth by revolutionary writers like George Orwell or Jack Kerouac to reject the standards and values associated with perceivably normal, conformist society. Tom and Dick Smothers might not look like punks or talk like punks, but by taking a stand against oppressive leadership, they certainly encompassed the values that would later be furthered by the punk movement. Remember that it wasn’t just “polite” society trying to squash anything they considered morally corruptive, but government officials trying to dictate what the media could and could not speak about. We’re at a place now in history where the boundaries holding back free speech on television have mostly been broken, but we may be taking for granted what those broken boundaries mean. Yes, television networks now allow (reasonable) use of vulgar language, open talk about sex, and depictions of violence that border on exploitation. But what we may sometimes be forgetting is that edgy material functions best when the viewer isn’t only affected by it superficially, but is immersed in a narrative that provides substance beyond shock value alone. Harkening back to the message of “Billy the Kid’s Birthday,” there sometimes is – and should be – “something to say.” Otherwise, the battles that entertainers like the Smothers Brothers (or George Carlin, or David Letterman) fought against censorship become moot. And, with America’s current Administration trying so hard to discredit the press, it may be easy to become discouraged. But sometimes it’s helpful to look to those in history who fought the good fight to find inspiration. Tom and Dick Smothers, I thank you for that.
One final note: before his death in 1973, Lyndon Johnson sent the brothers a letter of apology. “It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to be the target of clever satirists,” the former president offered. “You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives.” Perhaps all of us – not excluding our leaders – could stand to take a bit of that advice.
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