In 1964, The Beatles changed the world when they first appeared on Ed Sullivan three consecutive weeks in February, and followed with a fourth appearance in 1965. The Rolling Stones appeared on Ed Sullivan six times from 1964 until 1969. Many other bands like The Byrds, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Doors, and Jefferson Airplane appeared on Ed Sullivan, although Ed was sometimes not too enthused by their appearance, loud music and would even verbally admonish their screaming fans. Ed was an old man to my generation, and although he softened his stiff appearance for Topo Gigio, he showed young America he wasn't having the same for the long hairs going forward into 1967.
As a middle school kid, I also began to notice TV drama shows in the late sixties like Dragnet (1967-1970) with actor/writer/director Jack Webb who would often portray young long hairs as the drug-addled bad guys. So if you're a young person in 1967, TV unlike the recording industry wasn't the communication medium capturing the youth culture in the United States. That was, until a couple of clean-cut nerdy looking folk-comics got their own TV variety show to shake things up a bit.
Tom (born in 1937) and Dick (1939) Smothers grew up in Los Angeles with their single mom as their father had died a POW in Japan during World War II in 1945. Both graduated from Redondo Beach High and both attended San Jose State University in the late 1950's. In college, both started playing in a quartet as folk music was sweeping the country with groups like The Weavers, The Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary. The brothers after working with another musician as a trio, eventually became a duo. Tommy, an accomplished acoustic guitar player, then taught Dickie how to play stand up string bass and the two started honing a comedy act based upon the siblings most common behavior together, argument.
The two brothers were in fact polar opposites. Tom was outgoing, and always able to make people laugh that played against type as he was really an all-work no-play perfectionist. Dick was reserved, more practical and conservative, but that played against type too as he couldn't wait to get off from work and play, indulging in racing cars, flying planes, and boating.
Despite their differences, in the course of a few short years, the team became a polished act with Tommy as the stammering goofball to Dickie's calm talking straight man. The brothers also had what most comic duo's didn't have, both were accomplished musicians as Tom drove the music on guitar meshed with Dick's wonderful tenor singing voice. The combination of singing songs usually interrupted by their sibling rivalry dialog established the duo as one of the most unique and enduring comedy acts in show business history.
Professionally, the brothers got their first big break at The Purple Onion
in San Francisco in 1959. From there they built a solid comedy act on the road and began a series of highly successful live comedy albums in the early and mid-sixties. Their clean-cut looks and act were perfect for television. After one failed sit-com in 1966, they quickly got another, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
, that began in February, 1967.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was designed by CBS to bring in a younger audience and compete head to head with NBC's blockbuster western, Bonanza (1959-1973). Bonanza was geared towards a 40+ aged audience with the coveted time slot of Sunday Night at 9pm. CBS had previously gone through nine different shows to complete with Bonanza, in what at CBS was known as the 'kamikaze time slot.'
Now my dad loved Bonanza, and in 1967 there was only one television in the house. I don't know how my brother, sister and I negotiated with him to switch channels to the Smothers Brothers, but Tom's overall vision of the show had something to do with it. His big idea was to create a 'hip variety show' that brought in a mixture of seasoned guests like Jack Benny and George Burns but mixed with young comics like George Carlin and bands like The Jefferson Airplane complete with their psychedelic light show. By having the mix of traditional with new, Tommy was a genius as he got my parents to laugh or tolerate the young acts and we as the younger audience grew up and still enjoyed entertainers like Jimmy Durante. Tommy's mix was wonderful, and within their first season, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was indeed competing head to head with Bonanza.
Now with success, Tom Smothers vision for a 'relevant' TV variety show that reflected the times of the 60's was actually happening as he steadily pushed the envelope with the CBS censors every week. In 2021, we take for granted that words like "breast" and "toilet" couldn't be said on TV in 1967. Comedy skits that were both funny and relevant in the culture would be constantly pared down or completely cut from the show with Tommy fighting CBS every word of the way. Songs by Pete Seeger (Waist Deep in the Big Muddy) and Harry Belafonte (Lord, Don't Stop the Carnival) were also completely cut because of their political overtones.
Tommy's temperamental and uncompromising stand for presenting a younger person's perspective is all well documented in the book, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
by David Bianculli. I just finished the book last week and highly recommend it if you are a fan of 1960's history.
As the book progresses, it starts with the boys being completely apolitical in the late 50's and early 60's. By the start of their famous show in 1967, Tommy may have looked 'establishment' but was well connected with folk and rock musicians. He had a knack for finding new comics and bands that would have hits after appearing on the show. Every week, Tommy was trying new things, like having a musical format in the round, in the same manner that musicians would informally get together and play for friends.
Tom steadily introduced more topical issues in the brothers monologues and mock editorials with new talent, Pat Paulsen, who on the show had a memorable fake run for the Presidency in 1968 who proclaimed, “I will not run if nominated and, if elected, I will not serve.” Characters such as Officer Judy (Bob Einstein) and Goldie Keif (Leigh French) were my personal favorites filled with youthful inside jokes (even though I was too young to get many of them at the time). For example, ditzy hippie Goldie was originally introduced, in an ostensible studio-audience interview segment, as Goldie Keif; both "Goldie" and "Keif" were slang terms for marijuana at the time (Wikipedia).
Tommy also nurtured talent behind the camera as well. He hired new writers such as Mason Williams, Bob Einstein, Rob Reiner, and Steve Martin, a few no names to later become big names. Mason Williams was so talented. He not only was the head writer on the show, but composed and premiered his smash #1 hit single, Classical Gas on the show in 1968.
In 1969, Tom Smothers at 32 was at the top of his creative game, but with that came his old uncompromising temper. Tom's no-bend personality became a stand-off with the CBS brass as monologues and skits became pitched battles. End the end, Tommy fought the law, and the law won. In this case the law was CBS President Bob Wood who Tommy would famously scream at over the Vietnam War in a one-to-one meeting that was arranged to smooth tensions. Wood simply ended the ongoing battles by pulling the plug on the show after the 1969 season over a script that came in several days late.
|George telling the boys, "To keep trying to say it."|
The Smothers Brothers sued CBS for breach of contract for 30 million dollars and in 1973 won in court with a jury trial and settlement for only $776,300. “We were cut off at the top of our careers, and we were not compensated for it in money,” said Tom Smothers after the verdict. “We spent four years of our lives and $200,000 to prove the point, but I don't think people are going to be willing to say what they think if they know they're going to be penalized for it.”
(New York Times
As I reflect on what happened to the Smothers Brothers fifty one years ago, I have a greater appreciation of what young people lost in 1969 TV land; two talented voices directly talking and singing to our generation on network television, just trying to add some relevance and truth in a modern comedy show. Whereas the 6pm nightly news was showing live battles and soldiers dying in the Vietnam War, the nightly TV entertainment starting at 8pm in 1969 was almost entirely made up of fantasy-based shows like Bewitched and The Beverly Hillbillies.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had effectively become part of American culture from 1967-1969, hell they were just getting started. The civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam and anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, the Nixon administration, and rock 'n' roll were all just hitting stride at this crucial time in our history. The Smothers Brothers show and the timing of the counter-culture were both in sync and in prime time together. For Tom and Dick, it was their moment in time, that lightning in a bottle that is often only captured once in a career in pop culture.
The Smothers Brothers would not be there on Sunday night to provide their audience jokes, satire, laughter; not there to premier music like The Beatles, Hey Jude and Revolution videos did in 1968 on the show; and not there to maybe have parents and kids experience the current culture a little bit more together from the comfort of the couch.
For me, there was never a replacement for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in a variety show format. For many in my generation, The Dick Cavett Show (1969-1974) picked up the 'hip' mantel at least in the late night TV format. Cavett booked many great guests and sometimes we got a counter-culture network glimmer, like when David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell joined the Jefferson Airplane on the Cavett Show the day after Woodstock, complete with Stills' muddy pants he was still wearing.
The playlist this week is a hodgepodge from the Smothers Brothers act, skits, but mostly musical guests from the Comedy Hour show in all their old TV converted to pixilated glory on YouTube. I end the playlist with several interesting and heartfelt interviews with Tom and Dick.
After the playlist, for those who want to take a deeper dive, I have the 2002 documentary, Smothered by Maureen Muldaur complete here on YouTube. Smothered covers the rise and fall of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and I highly recommend it as well.
If you read the comments in the Smother Brothers YouTube videos you'll get the same feeling I have for Tommy and Dickie Smothers, love for them and their wonderful show in a fascinating place in time.
Enjoy my friends, stay well and mask-up.