The Smothers Brothers bring a ‘60s sensibility to Golden State.
Thursday, October 5, 2006
The Smothers Brothers don’t look like counterculture icons. Dressed in matching prep school sweaters, Tom and Dick Smothers looked like more like squares in the era of the hippies, and performed innocuous—yet funny—skits involving yo yo tricks and sibling rivalry. But as it happens, they were a couple of radicals themselves.
From 1967 to 1969, the comedy duo’s CBS primetime show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour skewered racism, the United States government and the Vietnam War, and drew the ire of network censors and, it is rumored, President Richard Nixon.
The hour-long comedy variety show featured overtly political musicians like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, who famously sung an anti-war song titled “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the program, as well as controversial bits like one in which the brothers conclude that with a $50 billion defense budget the US needed more enemies than allies.
From his home in Sonoma, Tom Smothers says he knows why his comedy show was singled out by censors. “We were the only show on prime time television that would talk about policy,” he says. “Anything that talked about the Vietnam War got them angry.”
It eventually got to the point that the network demanded to see the shows 10 days before they aired so that censors could edit out any segments that they deemed offensive. On April 4, 1969, CBS fired the Smother Brothers, citing breach of contract resulting from the fact that the material they were doing was too irreverent for television audiences.
After being let go, the Smothers Brothers filed a breach of contract suit against CBS and won. But by then, their careers were crippled. “It wasn’t cancellation,” Tom says, “it was assassination.”
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Before becoming television stars, the Smothers Brothers started out as a folk duo, singing light songs, until they started to add comedy to their act. Tom jokes that they began doing more comedy “because we had trouble remembering the songs all the way through.”
In the early ‘60s, the Smothers Brothers were releasing classic comedy albums like 1963’s Curb Your Tongue, Knave! Tom says those albums were mostly improvisational riffing between the siblings. “We never scripted it,” he says. “We just talked to each other.”
Following the cancellation of their series in 1969, Tom says, he and his brother had lost their momentum. “By that time, we were dead in the water,” he says. “We felt like our careers were over.”
As the ‘80s rolled around, the Smothers Brothers basically started over, working in comedy clubs and opening for other comedians. In 1988, CBS even gave them a short-lived television show, and the duo started headlining their own tours.
Twenty years later, Tom believes their show, which still features music, yo yo tricks and plenty of humor, is more refined than the old days. “It’s more sophisticated,” Tom says. “It’s like one of us is off and the other is pragmatic. It’s like the Democrats and Republicans going at it.”
The brothers also see themselves as the end of a long line of comedy duos like Abbott and Costello. “I guess we are the last classic comedy team where there’s a smart one and a dumb one,” Tom says. (Tom plays the dumb one.)
A lot of what makes their act work is that he and his brother Dick are truly total opposites. Despite the fact that this makes for many humorous situations, Tom says it has caused real rifts between the siblings, who are also business partners. “Sometimes, we wouldn’t talk to each other,” he says. “We’d even throw blows.”
Six years ago, Tom says, he and his brother underwent 18 hours of therapy to better understand one another. It turned out to be a breakthrough. “[The therapists] said basically stop treating each other like brothers,” he says. “Start acting like professionals.”
As for television and censorship, Tom sees these days as even more dire than the times when his show was under pressure from the networks. The longtime comedian says that too many people are mistaking the freedom to create vulgarity on television for freedom of speech. Rather than satirizing institutions, most programs are simply trying to slip in curse words under the pretext of freedom of speech. “It’s tougher now to make political satire than it’s ever been,” he says. “Everyone is tip-toeing around this shit since 9-11.”<> Tom says there are still people to look up to on television like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. “Bill Maher is my hero,” he says. “Michael Moore is my hero. People who dissent and take the slings and arrows are my heroes.”
THE SOMTHERS BROTHERS perform at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St. in Monterey, Sunday, Oct. 8, at 8pm. $39/upper balcony; $49/front balcony and rear orchestra; $59/front orchestra. 372-3800.