The Suits vs. The Talent, circa 1969
I remember the Smothers Brothers. I must have been five or six years old when their show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, ran from 1967-69, featuring a wide array of musical guests, silly skits and a bit of stand-up. I remember Pat Paulson’s deadpan delivery as he editorialized about everything from gun control to Social Security. (“What good has it done? There are more old people now than when it started.”) What I don’t remember is that the Smothers Brothers were a lightning rod of political dissent, a groundbreaking forerunner of such politically charged shows as today’s The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. That’s what David Bianculli would have us believe in his meticulously compiled, 400-plus-page account of those days.
The Smothers Brothers, Tom and Dick, grew up in an unsteady household, their father having died in the Pacific war and their mother entering a string of unstable relationships. But by the ‘50s, the brothers had stumbled upon the roots of their standup act, which involved Tom playing guitar and singing folk songs together with Dick, who would occasionally feed him lines in classic straight man fashion. Over time, the act grew more elaborate, Dick began playing upright bass, and the jokes became as important as the songs.
Forty seconds into a performance of “Boil That Cabbage Down”, Dick would call out, “Take it, Tom!” and Tom would stop dead. “No,” he’d say, as the audience roared and Dick looked on bewildered. “I said no, I didn’t want to take it.” It may not sound terribly funny written on the page, but Tom’s nervous, little-boy-who-doesn’t-want-to-be-doing-this manner ensured that, yes, the moment was very funny indeed. Later in the song, Tom launches into a long meandering monologue about the railroads being built across “the vast bosom of America”—snicker, snicker—and the men who had to fight off pumas in the crevasses. Again, it’s funnier when Tom does it.
By the mid-‘60s the brothers had released a string of successful comedy albums and had gained a measure of national attention, which translated into numerous TV appearances. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour premiered in 1967 as a mid-season replacement, going up against the mighty Bonanza on Sunday night. Bonanza had enjoyed a virtual lock on the #1 spot for four years, and nobody expected a pair of geeky stand-up comics to make much of a dent in that armor. Amazingly, they did.
That’s not all they did, though. Bianculli’s main point in his exhaustive history is to document, sketch by sketch, the battles between CBS and Tommy Smothers, who believed he had “full artistic control” of the show yet who still needed to abide by the network censors. (The network never referred to “censors” but to its “standards and practices” department.) These battles, which started small, ranged from drug references to political commentary to religious satire in the form of comedian David Steinberg’s mock sermons. Sometimes the choice of guest was an issue: it’s tough to believe nowadays that Pete Seeger—Pete Seeger!—was ever banned from network TV, but from 1950 to 1967 he was absent from network airwaves as a result of Joe McCarthy’s HUAC investigations. When the Smothers got network approval for Seeger to appear on their second-season opener, it was a coup. CBS received protest letters, anyway.
For readers interested in following the season-by-season, episode-by-episode permutations of the show, this book is a great resource. Many pages are given over to summarizing individual episodes and the amazing range of guest stars deliberately chosen to appeal to different age groups: The Who, Kate Smith, The Doors, Liberace, Harry Belafonte, Jack Benny, Judy Collins, George Burns. Skits are parsed, along with the edits demanded by the networks, the counter-arguments from Tommy Smothers, the ultimate compromises, and the public reaction to it all.
At times, however, the cascade of detail is overwhelming. Much is made of Leigh French, whose drug-humor evidenced itself in such recurring skits as “Tea with Goldie”. The skits don’t sound very funny, but Bianculli spends a fair amount of time waxing rhapsodical about her, anyway.
On the other hand, the genuinely groundbreaking humor of Pat Paulson, who ran a mock presidential campaign during the 1968 election—campaigning in several states and even meeting Bobby Kennedy—is given its due. (Forty years later, Steven Colbert would try the same thing.) In the spring of 1968, Kennedy famously said to Paulson that “I think you peaked too soon.” Weeks later, Bobby would be assassinated. Paulson garnered 200,000 votes.
Bianculli makes the very relevant point that, in those pre-cable, pre-internet days, the nightly television audience was huge, far larger than anything experienced today. Jon Stewart is quoted as saying that his nightly audience is roughy 1.4 million people. In their prime, the Smothers Brothers reached 30 million. That kind of impact can only be dreamed about by most performers these days.
No doubt, the duo had an influence in their day, and no doubt, they were a polarizing force—one of many—in the social landscape. Bianculli rather overstates the case, however, when he implicitly compares the duo’s battles with the Nixon administration to those of Daniel Ellsberg, the White House staffer who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Such breathless overstatement is typical of this book, and lends an otherwise intriguing story the air of true-believer hagiography.