History lesson failed soon after ‘Smothers Brothers Show"
October 30, 2008
Part of the cultural revolution in the 1960s included a couple of clean-cut guys dressed in suits and ties, performing comedy and folk music on acoustic guitar and upright bass.
On the surface it might sound tame by today’s standards but not by those who were around to watch “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” from 1967-69. Just ask Tommy Smothers, the comic, who is the more circumspect offstage.
“It’s much more repressive now than it’s ever been,” Smothers said. “There’s an illusion that everybody’s free to say what they want. But when Howard Stern becomes the poster boy for free speech, we’re in trouble.”
The topics on the variety show included references to and opinions about issues. CBS required Smothers to submit his script in advance so that it could remove what it perceived as controversial. Shortly after President Nixon took office, the network canceled “The Smothers Brothers.”
“It was censorship,” Smothers said. “The war in Vietnam was going on, Kent State, the Democratic Convention, (Robert) Kennedy was assassinated, and the war protests. So we just reflected some of that on the show.
“(Networks) were not used to censoring ideas. They were used to censuring bad language and sexual innuendoes. We were on prime time Sunday night, questioning foreign policy. It was in a polite way, but it was still interesting because today is so much like then except that everybody’s frightened today to speak up. The possibility of doing that today in prime time is absolutely nil.”
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Contemporary political satirists like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart are more outspoken, but they reach smaller audiences on cable channels.
Corporate mergers and FCC regulations have made it easier to stifle a free flow of ideas, Smothers said.
“The consolidation of newspapers and radio and television is just unconscionable,” Smothers said. “I believe the coup took place under Clinton when they decided they’d go for corporate money, too, so they could compete, and now they’re all for sale, just about.
“When a coup takes place in South America or Yugoslavia, the first thing they take over is a radio or television station. Well, it’s happened. It’s just there hasn’t been a violent overthrow. It’s just the corporate United States. The corporations run everything, so the First Amendment doesn’t mean anything. The government can pass no laws restricting free speech, but the corporations can do it selectively, and the corporations run the country. Look what they did to the Dixie Chicks. They wouldn’t play their albums except a few independent stations. Boy, that’s horrendous. So we were fired for the same thing, but basically we got three years in.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson received the brunt of the television program’s jokes, but his successor had the last laugh.
“We got fired,” Smothers said. “Nixon was inaugurated, and it was April. So it took about three or four months before they put the pressure on CBS, and they said, ‘Sure, we’ll get rid of them. … Nixon wasn’t going to put up with another season of “The Smothers Brothers” in prime time.’ “
CBS reasoned that because Smothers missed his deadline for turning in the show’s script, it would cancel the series for breach of contract. It was later revealed, however, that CBS had received the tapes on time. According to the Web site tvparty.com, the network ultimately refused to run the episode anyway because they said it “would be considered irreverent and offensive by a large segment of our audience.”
“It scared the hell out of me because I thought as long as you play by the rules, they can’t touch me,” Smothers said. “And then I learned they don’t play by the rules. They can change the rules anytime they want, just like Bush does.”
Television critic David Bianculli is writing a book about the television show, and in September 2008 Time-Life released a “Best of the Smothers Brothers” DVD.
Writers on the show included Mason Williams, Rob Reiner and Steve Martin.
“We had some good writers, and people’s memory of the show is pretty interesting because they remember it as controversial and cutting-edge, but there was only five or 10 minutes a show that had that stuff,” Smothers said.
To put the material in context, the DVD will include events from the 1960s like war protests and the Watts riots.
One of the most poignant moments from “The Smothers Brothers” was Pete Seeger’s performance of his antidraft song “Waist Deep in Big Muddy.”
“People watch that, and when it’s finished they say it’s just like 1968 all over again,” Smothers said. “It feels just like it. The same type of morons are running the United States. And that’s so depressing because we didn’t learn anything from our history.”
“Depressing” was the same adjective Smothers’ young daughter used to describe how she felt recently after viewing the documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” with her father.
The straight-looking Smothers plays “Give Peace A Chance” with the long-haired, bearded Lennon and friends.
Smothers said the people he admires most fight for humanistic causes, including Maher, filmmaker Michael Moore, writer Louis Lapham and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
“These are guys who are just heroes by the way they’ve lived their lives,” he said. “I had one moment there where I was young, and I took the job and shoved it. I took the risk. Youth is very audacious, and I miss that level of passion. I have babies and kids and stuff now. It’s harder to be reckless.”
Smothers does see a reason to be optimistic about the future.
“Everybody can say what they want, but if it’s not heard, it’s not amplified,” he said.
“They take away the soapbox, and then they take away the sense of newspapers. They took the radio away and then television, but they’re having trouble with this Internet, aren’t they?”