The Smothers Brothers: Laughing at Hard Truths

Vietnam ’67. Historians, veterans and journalists recall 1967 in Vietnam, a year that changed the war and changed America.

On Sunday nights at 9, 50 years ago, more than a quarter of American households were watching NBC’s “Bonanza.” That comfortable and comforting western series was so dominant that CBS felt it had nothing to lose by taking a chance and giving that time slot to two brothers, musical satirists who interrupted songs like “Boil That Cabbage Down” and “Dance, Boatman, Dance” with ridiculous bouts of sibling rivalry.

The brothers, Tom and Dick Smothers, had had a successful run of appearances in nightclubs and on television variety shows with subversive takes on folk songs. When “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” made its premiere on Feb. 5, 1967, CBS figured the two men in their late 20s, clean-cut and appealing, might find a niche.

Two weeks later, the “Comedy Hour” beat “Bonanza” in the ratings. After a few weeks more, the brothers who had seemed so nonthreatening became more daring, making political and topical references and booking musical acts with new, often anthemic songs to sing. Censors in the network’s standards and practices office began cutting jokes, comments, even entire skits. The brothers’ challenges to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and comments on other political issues became sharper. Battles with the network censors became more frequent. The brothers took their dispute to the press and became national symbols of countercultural resistance. A little more than two years after the show’s debut, CBS fired Tom and Dick Smothers and canceled their still-successful show.

Tom, left, and Dick Smothers on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” CBS, via Getty Images

But for the new generation coming of age in the late 1960s, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” represented their view of the world, the only place on American prime-time TV where George Harrison would pop in unannounced to provide moral support for the brothers’ righteous struggle. There would be no other show on TV quite like it until “Saturday Night Live” had its premiere, in late night, in 1975.

Dick Smothers, now 77, says he still encounters fans who say he and his brother were ahead of their time.

“Not correct at all,” Dick said in a telephone interview. “We would have been ineffective if we were ahead of our time. We were on time.” But, he added, “the time was right for us, too. It was like a big crane just dropped us down right at the start of the bubbling part of the ’60s.”

You wouldn’t get a sense of why the program caught on, or think that it would end up causing such a fuss, by looking at Tom and Dick in their matching red blazers on their earliest shows, hosting such guests as Jack Benny, Bette Davis and Jill St. John. But in the days when most homes had only one TV, which the whole family would watch together, the brothers and their writers started out by trying to appeal to multiple generations, then increasingly sought younger viewers.

“Tom and I had a bachelor pad together before the show started,” said Mason Williams, 79, who became the program’s head writer. “I remember watching TV with him, and Tom asking why there was nothing on for us and our friends.”

And there were a lot of folks like them. Thanks to the postwar baby boom, 90 million Americans — almost half the population — were under 25 years old. And stodgy network TV — about all there was on TV then — didn’t reflect their culture or the turmoil they were experiencing.

At the beginning of 1967, the State Department announced that 5,008 Americans had been killed in Vietnam in 1966, fueling nationwide protests. Also at the start of that year, Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most prominent athlete in the world, fought induction into the Army on religious grounds and condemned the war. Timothy Leary, Jerry Rubin, the Grateful Dead and others held the Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where Leary told people to take psychedelic drugs and “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

For the younger audience who looked longingly at the San Francisco scene, the “Comedy Hour” began presenting new bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Electric Prunes and hip comics like George Carlin. The show’s sketches and jokes might seem tame now, but they signaled that the program was at the center of the social hurricane.

Buffalo Springfield appeared in the third episode, singing “For What It’s Worth,” with its refrain that would make it a counterculture anthem of resistance: “There’s something happening here.”

Before the ninth show, the network censors for the first time banned the broadcast of a sketch, written by the guest star Elaine May, which they considered objectionable because it made fun of censors.

In May 1967, Simon and Garfunkel musically narrated a sketch called “Billy the Kid’s Birthday,” in which Billy (played by Tom) asks to make love to Belle Starr (played by Janet Leigh) as a birthday gift. The rest of the outlaws insist Billy can’t do that on television and shoot him instead — because on TV, murder is acceptable but sex isn’t. “Hey, kid, I thought this was supposed to be a comedy show,” Belle whispers as he dies in her arms.

“You can’t be funny all of the time,” Billy says as his dying words. Simon and Garfunkel musically echo that line, then add in harmony, “Sometimes there’s things to say.”

The more topical the Smothers brothers got, the more vehemently the CBS censors resisted. Tom had demanded “creative control” before the series began and was told he would have it, but that phrase never made it into the contract. So the fights between him and the network’s department of standards escalated, with Tom pushing against the rules like a rebellious teenager and CBS asserting its authority like a frustrated parent.

By the fall of 1967, Leigh French began appearing as Goldie O’Keefe, the drugged-out hippie host of segments called “Share a Little Tea With Goldie.” Her bits were laced with flower-child lingo, slipping drug references past clueless censors and into American living rooms.

The show’s biggest star was the deadpan, double-talking comedian Pat Paulsen, who did ironic editorials on such topics as gun control and the draft laws. His campaign for the presidency in 1968 was a yearlong running joke. But to get an authentic feel for how a candidate would campaign, the writers hired the consultant Don Bradley, who had worked for the John F. Kennedy campaign in 1960 and ran Pat Brown’s successful 1962 bid for the governorship of California. (In both those races, the losing candidate was Richard Nixon.)

“That was one of my proudest moments, running him for president,” said Tom Smothers, who turned 80 on Thursday. “Every time I see an election going up, I say, ‘God, I wish Pat Paulsen was here.’ ”

Increasingly, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was paying attention to politics. After an early sketch lampooned President Johnson (in a silly, but not very funny, segment about his top-secret barbecue sauce), the president complained in a late-night call to the home of the network’s chairman, William Paley.

Paley asked the show’s producers to ease up a bit on Johnson but realized he might have to give up something in return, since the series by then was a hit, with more than 30 million weekly viewers. (Last season’s top-rated series, by comparison, averaged about 20 million viewers — while the population has increased by 60 percent.)

The quid pro quo, to which Paley agreed, was to have on the folk singer Pete Seeger, who had been blacklisted from prime time for 17 years. That alone was a bold move, but even more provocatively, Seeger sang a song he had just written called “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” The tale of a foolish officer recklessly leading his men into a deep river that nearly drowns them, it was a clear allegory for Vietnam and — with lines like “even a tall man’ll be over his head” — to the 6-foot-4 Johnson. When Seeger appeared on the series on Sept. 10, 1967, CBS censors cut the song from the final tape. But when Seeger returned in early 1968, he sang it again, and it remained, still shocking in its power.

To start Season 3, Tom Smothers invited Harry Belafonte to sing a medley of calypso songs, whose lyrics were reworked to reflect the chaos inside and outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Belafonte sang his medley in front of projected images of the convention violence and police brutality. Censors cut the whole piece.

More sketches, and individual lines, were getting cut. One show opened with the program’s writers, including the recent hire Steve Martin, playing censors, passing a “Comedy Hour” script from one to another, ripping out bits until almost nothing was left.

The end came on April 4, 1969, when CBS fired the brothers on grounds of breach of contract after the show had been renewed for a fourth season. The brothers denounced it as a phony excuse to bend to critics, who at that point included President Nixon. They sued and won a settlement of more than $900,000.

Toward the end, the targets of their humor had grown pricklier. The Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein found that between 1969 and 1971, even after the show was off the air, Nixon campaign funds paid a private investigator to look into the brothers, among other targets.

“I thought it was kind of a badge of honor,” Tom Smothers said.

Lyndon Johnson, too, had been enraged by the Smotherses’ barbs. But when he announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election, the dynamic between the president and the brothers shifted substantially.

Tom Smothers recalled being so stunned by Johnson’s TV address that he wrote him a letter, saying that he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, but was impressed by his other accomplishments and wanted to thank him.

Johnson responded with a letter that Dick read on the last episode.

“It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation,” Johnson wrote, “to be the target of clever satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives.”

David Bianculli, a television critic and historian, is the author of Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’ and The Platinum Age of Television: From ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘The Walking Dead,’ How TV Became Terrific.

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