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The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

The following article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Tunes Into TV.

In 1967 CBS hired the Smothers Brothers to host a variety show that would attract a young, hip audience. The show did that …but CBS didn’t like it. Here’s a look at the controversy behind The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

FAMILY BAND

In the 1960s, musical comedy duo Tom and Dick Smothers, professionally known as the Smothers Brothers, were already veterans of the folk scene. They’d recorded several hit albums of their unique act: singing and playing folk songs before shifting into scripted sibling arguments and topical standup comedy bits.

After the brothers appeared on a string of talk and variety shows, CBS signed them to a contract in 1965 and created The Smothers Brothers Show. It was a forgettable sitcom -Dick’s character was a playboy, Tom was the ghost of his dead brother- and the brothers felt it didn’t play to their strengths. There was none of their usual bantering, and they got to perform music in only one episode. The show was canceled due to low ratings in 1966.

HOW TO BEAT A BONANZA

Meanwhile the network was trying -and failing- to compete with NBC’s hit Bonanza, the #1 show on television. Nothing could touch it in its Sunday night time slot, and it had even killed off former hits Perry Mason and The Garry Moore Show. When Moore was canceled at the end of 1966, CBS decided that the best way to compete with Bonanza was counter-programming. Bonanza attracted mostly viewers over 40. What if CBS put something on that appealed to people in their 20s and 30s? At some point the network realized it already had the ideal stars of this new show under contract: the Smothers Brothers.

Before agreeing to a new show, executive producer and star Tom Smothers insisted on full control. His reason: The Smothers Brothers Show had been so stressful for him that he’d developed an ulcer and gotten divorced. CBS agreed and the brothers got to work hiring writers and performers from the burgeoning Los Angeles comedy scene. Some of those unknowns: Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Pat Paulsen, and Albert Brooks.

FOR WHAT ITS WORTH

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on Sunday, February 5, 1967, at 9PM. The Smothers formula for bridging the generation gap was presenting edgy new comedians and musicians alongside beloved veteran performers. George Burns and Jack Benny guested on one episode. On another, comedy skits with Bette Davis gave way to Buffalo Springfield performing their anti-war song “For What It’s Worth.” A later episode offered a mod fashion show, a satirical anti-gun editorial from Paulsen, and a song from Jimmy Durante. And every episode included songs and comedy routines from the Smothers Brothers.

The show was a big hit. The brothers delivered the young demographic CBS was after, and by the end of the season, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was routinely beating Bonanza. CBS was pleased with the ratings and the critical acclaim.

WAIST DEEP

But this was 1967, and the show’s rise dovetailed with the growing influence that young, edgy, and angry Baby Boomers were having on American culture. The Smothers Brothers grew increasingly bold, using their Comedy Hour as a political soapbox and a platform for comment, social change, and exploration.

They gave rock bands like The Byrds and The Doors national TV exposure, and many performed songs that were either pro-drug or anti-Vietnam War. The brothers themselves pushed the envelope with jokes and editorials criticizing the American presence in Vietnam. They also performed alongside black singers like Harry Belafonte and Diahann Carroll in an era when integration was still not completely accepted. Sketches contained thinly-veiled references to recreational drug use, particularly “hippie” Leigh French’s regular segment, “Share a Little Tea with Goldie.”

(YouTube link)

Just because CBS “gave” the Smotherses creative control, it didn’t mean they actually got it. In the first season, for example, CBS edited out a performance of folk singer Pete Seeger at the request of network president Williams S. Paley, an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War and good friend of President Lyndon Johnson, who had asked Paley to ensure that the Smotherses would “go easy on him.” Seeger’s scathing, anti-war, government-critical song  “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” didn’t air until more than a year later, after Johnson declined to run for reelection.

SEASONS CHANGE

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour finished its first season as the #12 show on TV. The second season continued the successful blend of young and old, but with more edge. Bette Davis returned for another episode, along with The Who. At the end of an especially loud (and pyrotechnics-enhanced) performance of “My Generation,” the band destroyed their instruments, as per usual. But pyrotechnic charges exploded in the chaos, throwing drummer Keith Moon backward, igniting Pet Townshend’s hair (and permanently damaging his hearing), and filling the studio with smoke. Tom Smothers was visibly shaken; Davis was so shocked that she collapsed backstage. Younger viewers loved it, but some of their parents weren’t so thrilled; the ratings started to slip.

(YouTube link)

By late 1967, the Vietnam War was escalating, Georgia had just elected a segregationist governor, and anti-war demonstrations and race riots filled American streets. Material produced by the young Comedy Hour writers became less lighthearted and more topical, reflecting the liberal politics of their generation rather than the conservative views of mainstream television and its executives.

But CBS brass wanted the Comedy Hour to be more neutral. After network censors cut a December 1967 skit on censorship written by guest star Elaine May, the brothers saw red. In a subsequent show, while brandishing the banned script, a seething Tom and Dick explained to viewers that they were “being shut up by CBS.” In early 1968, Comedy Hour got its revenge. The topic of Pat Paulsen’s weekly editorial was censorship. His concluding line: “There is a place for censors. We only wish that we could tell you where it is.”

CENSORS AND SENSIBILITY

Unfortunately for the brothers, the place of a censor was well-defined at CBS, and through 1968, they were kept busy:

* Comedian David Steinberg’s sarcastically-delivered religious “sermonetto” (a weekly parody of devotionals aired by stations when they signed off the air each night) drew so much attention it was banned outright, leading CBS to allow local affiliates to preview Comedy Hour episodes before airing them.

* Harry Belafonte’s “Lord, Don’t Stop the Carnival,” performed in front of a backdrop of bloody police beatings at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, was to be the highlight of the third season premiere. CBS cut the entire number, leaving the show five minutes short. The network sold the time to the Republican Party for Richard Nixon’s campaign ads.

CBS had commissioned the Comedy Hour to attract young viewers, and those viewers wanted rock, suggestive comedy, drug references, and editorials about war, racism, and censorship …the very subjects that the network was determined to keep out of the show. During the third season, CBS demanded to preview each episode well in advance of its air date. On March 9, 1969, CBS broadcast a repeat instead of a new episode with activist and folk singer Joan Baez, claiming to not have received a preview tape in time.

In June 1969, Paley personally cancelled Comedy Hour (replacing it with Hee Haw). But the show had already been renewed for a fourth season, so the Smotherses filed a breach-of-contract suit against CBS. The case was finally settled in 1973, with a judge finding in favor of the Smotherses: CBS owed them $916,300.

THE LEGACY

A little over a year later, the Smothers Brothers returned to TV, now on ABC. The Smothers Brothers Summer Show, debuting in June 1970, copied the bright sets and previous format but failed to recapture the energy, relevance, or audience of the edgy original, and was soon canceled. And so was the similarly lifeless The Smothers Brothers Show on NBC in 1975.

Both brothers guest-starred on TV shows and appeared in movies throughout the next two decades. In 1988, at the peak of a wave of ‘60s nostalgia, CBS aired a Comedy Hour retrospective. It got such good ratings that CBS asked the brothers to revive their show as a summer series in 1988 and ’89. The new Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour mimicked the old show: Pat Paulsen gave whimsical editorials, Tom and Dick still argued over who “Mom liked best,” and a handful of other series regulars returned. The only thing missing: the politics. Instead, Tom Smothers showed off yo-yo tricks.

(YouTube link

___________________

The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Tunes Into TV. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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My father was the Art Director on the original Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
I was only 4 at the time, so it's great to finally learn all the behind-the-scenes stories.
For instance, my Dad had never mentioned the explosion during the episode with The Who.
(BTW, this St. Patrick's Day will mark 20 years since his passing.)
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