In one of 30 Rock‘s recent second season episodes, Carrie Fisher plays Rosemary Howard, a down-on her-luck television writer who worked on an influential, politically-charged comedy program back in the ‘70s. Howard is a heroine and inspiration to Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, but when Howard encourages Lemon and her staff to get more political on their own comedy show, to stick it to the man, it only ends up getting them fired.
It’s ironic, then, that Fey’s getting so much attention for her spot-on portrayals of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. You could argue that Palin’s own TV appearances have been such rare, surreal jewels that the SNL skits are effectively dramatic reenactments rather than biting satire, but it does bring you back to the question of whether comedy can actually affect politics. Hillary Rodham Clinton certainly enjoyed a boost after Fey’s “‘bitch’ is the new black” tirade during the race for the Democratic nomination, but is comedy—especially mass-market televised comedy—really dangerous anymore?
The relationship between politics and television has evolved in fits and starts. The Kennedy-Nixon debates were a crash-course in the power of television, as a nation turned in to compare a tanned, rested, and ready Kennedy with a tired, unshaven, sick-looking Nixon. Years later, Nixon would attempt to capitalize on television’s power by appearing on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. In the early ‘90s, Bill Clinton played saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show. Now, it seems like anyone who counts on votes to make a living is lining up to appear on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.
It’s worth dwelling on those last two shows for a moment. Jon Stewart wears his liberalism on his sleeve, while Stephen Colbert is a harder read due to his mix of devout Catholicism, intellectual acumen, and relentless adherence to his son-of-“Papa Bear”-Bill-O’Reilly persona. Both shows, however, have found a calling in directing ridicule and outrage at the Bush Administration’s eight-year run.
It seemed, in the lead-up to the 2004 elections, that The Daily Show was a game-changer, capable of channeling voter dissatisfaction into a tangible force. But as Bush’s reelection proved, ridicule and outrage didn’t translate into regime change. Now, it’s not uncommon to see folks like Tom Delay, Newt Gingrich, or John Bolton bellying up to Stewart or Colbert’s desks, banking on the hosts’ unfailing politeness.
“The Man”, it seems, has grown immune to the slings and arrows of televised opinion—or at least learned how to deflect them. Maybe it’s because the multitude of channels and venues makes it unlikely that a critical mass of people would ever witness a truly radical televised moment. It wasn’t always that way. The Smothers Brothers, for example, were on only one of three primary networks when they were ruffling feathers, raking in huge ratings, and getting cancelled in the process.
This is a point brought home on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3, a DVD release that’s as much a history lesson as it is a comedy show. In addition to 11 uncensored episodes (presumably, the full 26-episode season isn’t available due to licensing issues), the set also contains a ‘60s retrospective, interviews, rehearsal footage, the brothers’ post-cancellation press conference, a 2000 Comedy Hour reunion, scans of more than 100 documents relating to the show’s censorship battles, and even a whole disc dedicated to hangdog comedian Pat Paulsen’s presidential runs. And, of course, deleted footage—which, in the case of the Comedy Hour, reaches far beyond your usual cutting room fare.
For instance, the season’s first episode (which opens with a musical taunt to the censors, “We’re Still Here”) originally lost two provocative segments: Harry Belafonte singing “Don’t Stop the Carnival” to riot footage from the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, and an interview with Dr. Benjamin Spock. The Belafonte performance was never aired, instead replaced by a Q&A session with the studio audience (Tom Smothers’ scowl must be seen to be believed).
In the Spock interview, instead of discussing the doctor’s wildly successful baby books, the brothers ask him about his anti-war beliefs and recent indictment for those views. A Paulsen skit with Robert F. Kennedy (pulled after his assassination) resurfaces, as does an entire unaired episode—the one that finally got the Smothers Brothers fired—containing comedian David Steinberg’s “Jonah” sermonette. In this day and age of Bill Maher openly ridiculing Christians, or of Colbert’s good-natured appropriation of Jewish tradition for his OOPS-JEW! atonement hotline, it’s hard to see why so much uproar greeted Steinberg’s irreverent takes on Bible stories (an earlier appearance had resulted in a flood of complaints to CBS).
Apparently, though, it was quite the lightning rod at the time. The episodes and bonus features all feature thorough introductions and perspective from Tom and Dick Smothers, with Tom providing lion’s share of the audio commentary (often with much of his anger still intact).
So the show’s historical importance, already well-established, is well represented here. At some point, though, you have to get past the show’s value as a casualty of the culture wars, and look at the quality of the show overall. Well, it’s the Smothers Brothers, so it’s funny.
Their material, despite its familiarity to modern ears, still earns laughs. Tom’s village idiot persona, the tweakings of traditional folk songs, the “Mom always liked you best!” refrains—they still work. Still, it’s a late-‘60s variety show, so you have to expect a certain amount of cheese (the brothers dressed as rabbits, the groovy marching band intros, etc.). Just like with any other variety show, some of the skits fall a bit flat as well (a riff on Bonanza flounders for much of its length because it’s little more than a series of inside jokes directed at the censors).
For all of that, though, the Smothers Brothers succeeded in putting together an excellent program that entertained and challenged every time it aired. Their political energy gives even the subpar skits an edge that you rarely see in prime time anymore.
Comedians like George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Steve Martin (also a staff writer for the show), and Bob Newhart bring new forms of comedy to the show’s stage even as they’re working on their own personas. And the musical guests read like Heaven’s own version of a music festival: Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Liberace, Ike and Tina Turner, Mama Cass, the Doors, and more. For a brief few years, it seems that the Smothers Brothers’ show was the place to be.
The late ‘60s were a time of incredible social upheaval, bearing the marks of Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the DNC riots, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Bobby Kennedy. Unlike many other television performers of the time, the Smothers Brothers made a conscious decision not to put their blinders on and offer pure escapism.
Time and time again, they used humor—both light and dark—to reflect the world that existed outside of the studio doors. They ended up getting fired in the midst of their third season, but their show’s short run left an indelible mark on the television landscape.