Longest-running comedy duo " ever
October 30, 2008
While Tom and Dick Smothers are known for their short-lived television program and for never finishing a song, they also have the longest-running act in the history of comedy.
What’s it like to stay together so long? Dick Smothers says, “It’s like an old marriage: A lot of fighting and no sex.”
In 2009, it will have been 50 years since the folk satirists debuted at the Purple Onion in San Francisco during the peak of the Beat Generation.
“The premise is still the same except we don’t say mom always liked you best because we have a guy who’s 70 and a guy who’s 68,” Tom Smothers told Lake Tahoe Action before a South Shore appearance in 2007. “But it’s still two brothers arguing, and we have a deep disagreement about just about everything. Most people he likes, I don’t like and most people I like, he doesn’t like. And even though we both have the same ears and are the same height, it’s just like yin and yang out there. That’s why it’s lasted so long, because it’s believable.”
While Tom owns a Napa Valley winery, and Dick has his hobbies, the Smothers Brothers make time to perform 75 to 80 shows a year. They appear Friday and Saturday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, in the South Shore Room at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.
The height of their popularity was from 1967 to ’69, when CBS aired their variety show. The entire nation took note because their material included references to the historic, tumultuous period ” something never addressed in prime time.
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“Part of the success of the comedy hour was because of the times we lived in,” Tom Smothers said. “We’re better now then we were then, craftwise, as comedians, 100 percent. We didn’t develop our craft until 1980. The first 21 years we were just getting our stuff down.”
The first Smothers Brothers show was a sitcom with Dick playing a swinging bachelor and Tom being an angel trying to earn his wings. Despite airing at the same time as “Peyton Place,” the show did well in the ratings, lasting 32 episodes.
“It used to make me cringe, but now I see some of those black-and-white sitcoms and it’s not as bad as I remembered,” Tom Smothers said. “But I had no position. I said, ‘If I’m ever going to have another show I am going to have some creative control with some directors and some writers.’ Then came the big trainwreck.”
The trainwreck had nothing to do with ratings. Although “The Smothers Brothers” variety show went head-to-head with “Bonanza,” plenty of Americans tuned every Sunday night for three years.
Tom and Dick Smothers and writers like Mason Williams, Rob Reiner and Steve Martin would sprinkle political humor into the comedy hour. Vietnam War advocates and the conservative media took offense, and CBS required it receive a tape of the show in advance in order to censor parts it deemed too controversial.
“The big phrase in ’68 and ’69 was that outside agitators were causing all these problems, so we’d open the show and say, ‘Hi. We’re the outside agitators.’ “
One of the recurring guests was Pat Paulsen,who spoofed presidential candidates by starting his own campaign. One entire episode was “pre-empted” to present an entire hour to his presidential election announcement.
Critic Lawrence M. Bernabo of Duluth, Minn., wrote, “Paulsen’s campaign was based on double talk, outright lies and unfounded attacks on his challengers, which simply proves that as a politician he was ahead of his time.”
The Smothers Brothers were big Paulsen fans too.
“Pat Paulsen was the drollest, deadpan ” he was brilliant,” Tom Smothers said. “He’d parrot that (politician) stuff, and we’d just reflect on what was happening when we had the chance. We just wanted the show to be relevant, that’s all.”
“The Smothers Brothers” also featured the world’s best rock ‘n’ roll artists, including The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Pete Seeger, the Doors and Mason Williams, who had the acoustic hit “Classical Gas.” None of the performers lip-synched.
Pete Townshend of the Who suffered permanent hearing damage when Keith Moon’s bass drum exploded during a performance on the show.
Smothers recalled the incident: “The crew puts this little brass cannon in Keith’s drums, and when they did the dress rehearsal they were breaking up the instruments, but the cannon didn’t go off,” Smothers said. “And so there’s two hours between shows, and the CBS technical guys go put a load in, and then Keith Moon comes in and puts a load in. So there’s three loads in that thing.
“As Townshend is crushing his guitar it goes down once and it breaks the handle, he throws the guitar down twice and he getting ready to throw the guitar down a third time and if he would have his head would have been right in front of the drum. When that thing went off I thought shrapnel was going, and the drum exploded. And then Townshend walks over, and I know his head was ringing, and he walks over and grabs my guitar, which we had set up, and he smashes that.”
Smothers said he was too dazed to ad-lib any comments. As the instruments smoldered and the band stood in the rubble, Townshend held the neck of Tom’s smashed guitar and Smothers stuck with his scripted line, “Dickie, can I borrow your bass?”
On stage, the Smothers Brothers are their own version of comedy teams such as Martin and Lewis and Laurel and Hardy. Tom calls Dick possibly the best straight man in the history of comedy. Tom, of course, plays the cutup. But they are just the opposite offstage.
“This tells you where we’re at,” Tom said. “This was when we got fired. I’m talking about free speech and everything and someone asks, ‘Dickie, how do you feel about your brother trying to save the world?’ and he says, ‘Someone’s got to enjoy the fruits of their labor.’ He was out racing cars and flying planes and sailing boats. He was having a great time.”
The Smothers Brothers television show came back three more times up until 1988, but it failed to have the same edge as the first show.
At the age of 45 Tom Smothers took up the yo-yo, and, after mastering it, the toy became part of the routine.
“Once you can throw a good sleeper you can do about 90 percent of all the good yo-yo tricks,” he revealed. “Dickie is the voice of yo ” the play-by-play announcer. When I blow a trick he’s like, ‘Oh-oh, the yo-yo man’s out of his groove. Keep your eye on the yo.’ “
The brothers began performing together when they were in high school, singing pop songs like “Shaboom.” They later changed direction.
“When the Kingston Trio started singing those folk songs, I said, ‘Man this is cool,'” Smothers said. “So we sang folk songs. They told stories. There was history and we made fun of it. We’re folk satirists. We slowly became a comedy team. We were music first and it evolved into the comedy and pretty soon Dickie was talking and today we’re a comedy team.”
Nearly 50 years later, the vaudevillian show continues. Concertgoers can expect a few routines, a yo-yo display, a couple of videos and two guys arguing. And, of course the Smothers Brothers’ abbreviated, classic interpretation of folk music.
“The biggest criticism we have after a show is, ‘Man, that was funny but why don’t you guys ever finish a song? You’re always just making jokes.’ If we just sang, believe me, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”