50 Years Later, The Biting Satire Of 'The Smothers Brothers' Still Resonates

Feb 10, 2017
Originally published on February 13, 2017 5:11 pm

Tom and Dick Smothers came to CBS in 1967 not really intending to lead or support a revolution. They just got caught up in it — and they happened to have a network program, with some 30 million viewers, on which they criticized the war in Vietnam, celebrated rock 'n' roll music and satirized politics and politicians.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which premiered 50 years ago this week, got its message out slowly and sometimes sneakily at first. A lot of it came through the music and the hot new acts booked to perform on air. Over the run of the show, it was like a series of anthems from the counterculture — from Buffalo Springfield singing "For What It's Worth" to the Beatles singing "Revolution" — with the American TV debut of The Who, and the West Coast cast of Hair, and Dion singing a song about assassinated heroes in between.

The Beatles didn't appear live to sing "Hey Jude" and "Revolution." They'd gotten disinterested in touring by 1968, so they made these new things called videos, and gave them to only one TV program in the United States. Not to The Ed Sullivan Show, which had helped launch Beatlemania and the British invasion four years before — but to the Smothers Brothers.

That same year, George Harrison of the Beatles showed up unannounced — not to sing, but to support Tom and Dick in their fight against the CBS censors. By then, the fights had become almost legendary. Tom confessed to Harrison that on American television, they didn't always get the chance to say what they wanted to say, and Harrison advised, "Whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it."

At first, the censored bits were silly, like an Elaine May sketch about, ironically, censorship. But quickly, the jokes became political, and battle lines were drawn. CBS was like a stern parent, placing more and more restrictions on a rebellious teenager — and Tom, especially, got more rebellious. He and brother Dick and the rest, including head writer Mason Williams (who unveiled his hit instrumental "Classical Gas" on the show), put more meat and meaning into the program — or tried to.

A skit poking fun at LBJ got the president to call CBS Chairman William Paley in the middle of the night to complain — which, in turn, led to Paley asking the show to ease up on its presidential satire. In return, Paley agreed to break the 17-year blacklist on folksinger Pete Seeger, who appeared in 1967 to sing, as part of an anti-war medley, a new song he'd written called "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," an obvious allegory about the Vietnam War and Johnson himself.

CBS cut the song, Tom went to the press to complain — and the following year, in a triumphant performance, Seeger was asked back. It was during this appearance that he was allowed to sing his song about soldiers trying to ford an unexpectedly deep river.

Other segments produced for the show never saw the light of day — or, at least, the prime time of night. For its first show after the violence-filled 1968 Democratic National Convention, Comedy Hour had Harry Belafonte sing a medley of calypso songs, with reworked lyrics to reflect the disarray and dissent in America — while news footage of police brutality and student protests was projected behind him.

That never made it to air. Nor did a comic sermonette by comedian David Steinberg, whose mortal sin, to CBS, was making fun of religion at all. His first sermon got more negative mail than anything in the history of TV up to that point. When Tom asked him back, CBS ordered there be no sermon. Steinberg delivered one anyway — about Jonah and the whale.

Not only was that sketch cut, but the entire show was pulled from the air — and shortly thereafter, the Smothers Brothers were fired. They took CBS to court for breach of contract and eventually won a settlement close to $1 million, but they lost their platform.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour influenced all satirical political shows that followed, from Saturday Night Live to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Samantha Bee. Comedy Hour also contributed one of the best political satires ever — a literal running gag in which series regular Pat Paulsen ran for the presidency.

The Comedy Hour lasted into the early months of the Nixon administration, which were prefaced by the brothers' on-air promise, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, to "lay off the jokes" toward the president-elect ... at least for a while.

On their final show, Dick read a letter he and Tom had gotten from former President Johnson. These days, President Trump responds to Saturday Night Live skits with angry tweets. Back then, Johnson, reflecting on his treatment by the Smothers Brothers, responded by writing:

"It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation 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."

Happy anniversary, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and thanks for everything.


Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Fifty years ago this week on February 5, 1967, CBS premiered a comedy variety series "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." It starred two young folk song satirists, Tom and Dick Smothers, and very quickly became a focal point on television for the younger generation of the '60s. The Smothers Brothers and their show's writers and performers delivered a hit show in the late '60s while criticizing the war in Vietnam, celebrating rock 'n' roll and recreational drug use and satirizing politics and politicians, including two presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Along the way, they mixed entertainment and advocacy in a way that was rare to primetime TV then. Our TV critic David Bianculli says some of the messages and lessons of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" seem newly relevant today. He brings us this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now, we don't want to offend anybody out there, but if you get offended, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Tom and Dick Smothers came to CBS in 1967 not really intending to lead or support a revolution. They just got caught up in it and happened to have a network program with some 30 million viewers as they became politicized and began to reflect it. "Comedy Hour" got its message out at first slowly and sometimes sneakily. A lot of it came through the music and the hot new acts booked to perform.

Over the run of the show, it was like a series of anthems from the counterculture - from Buffalo Springfield singing "For What It's Worth" to The Beatles singing "Revolution," with the American TV debut of The Who and the West Coast cast of "Hair" and Dion singing a song about assassinated heroes in between.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR" MONTAGE)

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) There's battle lines being drawn. Nobody's right if everybody's wrong. Young people speaking their minds getting so much resistance from behind. We got stopped. Children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down.

THE WHO: (Singing) People try to put us down. Talking about my generation. Just because we get around. Talking about my generation. Things they do look awful cold. Talking about my generation. I hope I die before I get old. Talking about my generation.

THE BEATLES: (Singing) You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we'd all love to change the world. You tell me that it's evolution. Well, you know, we'd all love to change the world.

BIANCULLI: The Beatles didn't appear live to sing "Hey Jude" and "Revolution." They'd gotten disinterested in touring by 1968, so they made these new things called videos and gave them to only one TV program in the United States. Not to "The Ed Sullivan Show," which had helped launch Beatlemania and the British Invasion four years before but to the Smothers Brothers.

And that same year, George Harrison of The Beatles did show up unannounced, not to sing but to support Tom and Dick in their fight against the CBS censors, fights which, by then, had become almost legendary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

TOM SMOTHERS: Do you have something important...

GEORGE HARRISON: Something very important to say on American television.

T. SMOTHERS: You know, we don't - a lot of times, we don't have the opportunity of saying anything important because it's American television and every time you say something...

(LAUGHTER)

T. SMOTHERS: Try to say something important they...

(APPLAUSE)

HARRISON: Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. Cue the limes. Well, whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.

BIANCULLI: At first, the censored bits were silly like an Elaine May sketch about, ironically, censorship. But quickly, the jokes became political and battle lines were drawn. CBS was like a stern parent placing more and more restrictions on a rebellious teenager. And Tom especially got more rebellious. He and brother Dick and the rest, including head writer Mason Williams, who unveiled his hit instrumental "Classical Gas" on the show, put more meat and meaning into the program or tried to.

A skit poking fun at LBJ got the president to call CBS chairman William Paley in the middle of the night to complain, which, in turn, led to Paley asking the show to ease up on its presidential satire. In return, Paley agreed to break the 17-year blacklist on folk singer Pete Seeger who appeared in 1967 to sing as part of an anti-war medley a new song he'd written called "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy," an obvious allegory about the Vietnam War and Johnson himself.

CBS cut the song. Tom Smothers went to the press to complain. And the following year, in a triumphant performance, Seeger was asked back and was allowed to sing his song.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

PETE SEEGER: (Singing) All at once, the moon clouded over. We heard a gurgling cry. A few seconds later, the captain's helmet was all that floated by. The sergeant said, turn around, men, I'm in charge from now on. And we just made it out of the Big Muddy with the captain dead and gone. We stripped and dived and found his body stuck in the old quicksand. I guess he didn't know that the water was deeper than the place he'd once before been.

Another stream had joined the Big Muddy about a half mile from where he'd gone. We were lucky to escape from the Big Muddy when the big fool said to push on. Well, I'm not going to point any moral, I'll leave that for yourself. Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking, you'd like to keep your health. But every time I read the paper, them old feelings come on. We're waist deep in the Big Muddy. The big fool says to push on.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on. Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on. Waist deep, neck deep, soon even a tall man will be over his head. We're waist deep in the Big Muddy. The big fool says to push on.

BIANCULLI: Other segments produced for the show never saw the light of day or at least the prime time of night. For its first show after the violence-filled 1968 Democratic National Convention, "Comedy Hour" had Harry Belafonte sing a medley of Calypso songs with reworked lyrics to reflect the disarray and dissent in America while news footage of police brutality and student protests was projected behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Lord, don't stop the Carnival. Lord, don't stop the Carnival. Carnival's an American bacchanal. Lord, don't stop the Carnival. People should not live under the big gun. Lord, don't stop the Carnival. You know, there's another song we can all hum. Lord, don't stop the Carnival. It goes we shall overcome. Lord, don't stop the Carnival. We shall overcome. Lord, don't stop the Carnival. Let the people see the (unintelligible). Lord, don't stop the carnival. See how the country's being run. Lord, don't stop the carnival.

BIANCULLI: That never made it to air, nor did a comic sermonette by comedian David Steinberg, whose mortal sin to CBS was making fun of religion at all. His first sermon got more negative mail than anything in the history of TV up to that point. When Tom asked him back, CBS ordered there be no sermon. Steinberg delivered one anyway about Jonah and the Whale.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

DAVID STEINBERG: Now, here there are two concepts that we must deal with. There is the New Testament concept and the Old Testament concept. The Old Testament scholars say that Jonah was, in fact, swallowed by a whale. The gentiles, the New Testament scholars, they say, hold it, Jews, no. Jonah wasn't - Jonah - they literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Not only was that sketch cut, but the entire show was pulled from the air. And shortly thereafter, the Smothers Brothers were fired. They took CBS to court for breach of contract and eventually won a settlement close to $1 million, but they lost their platform but not before influencing and leading to all satirical political shows to come from "Saturday Night Live" to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Samantha Bee.

"Comedy Hour" also contributed one of the best political satires ever, a literal running gag in which series regular Pat Paulsen ran for the presidency. He started as the show's editorialist making quick points about everything from gun usage...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

PAT PAULSEN: A gun is a necessity. Who knows, if you're walking down the street, you'll spot a moose.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: ...To the mandatory draft, which was dragging young men into the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

PAULSEN: What are the arguments against the draft? We hear it is unfair, immoral, discourages young men from studying, ruins their careers and their lives. Picky, picky, picky.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: By the time Paulsen ran for president, he was doing things other candidates were doing like attacking the press and denying his true motives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

PAULSEN: The radio and press have once again chewed off more than they can bite. They continue to confuse personality with politics. They seem to assume that I am lying when I state that I am not a candidate for the presidency.

(LAUGHTER)

PAULSEN: True, all the present candidates once denied they had any intention of running. But the fact that I am also a liar doesn't make me a candidate.

BIANCULLI: Pat Paulsen didn't succeed in his run for the presidency, but Richard Nixon did in 1968. And the Smothers Brothers welcomed him sort of.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

DICK SMOTHERS: And history has shown us that almost every president begins his term in office with the support, the absolute support of the entire nation and free from slanders and jokes.

T. SMOTHERS: That's right, Dicky. And for the start of his term, we are going to give our President Nixon our full support and lay off the jokes entirely.

D. SMOTHERS: That's right. He's going to be in office for at least four years, and I'm sure we'll be able to get around to him a little bit later.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Nixon did last four years and a few more. But the Smothers Brothers were gone within six months of Nixon's election, fired in 1969 as the victim of their own outspokenness. Yet on their final show, Dick Smothers read a letter he and Tom had gotten from a former President Johnson. These days, President Donald Trump responds to "Saturday Night Live" skits with angry tweets. Back then, former President Johnson, reflecting on his treatment by the Smothers brothers, responded this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

D. SMOTHERS: (Reading) It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation 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.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: Happy anniversary, "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," and thanks for everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

DICK AND TOM SMOTHERS: (Singing) The war in Vietnam keeps on raging. Blacks and whites still haven't worked it out. Pollution, guns and poverty surround us. No wonder everybody's dropping out. But we're still here. Oh, yeah, we're still here. We face the same old problems, but we're still here. That weekly gripe is stretching out before us.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is the author of the "The Platinum Age of Television: From 'I Love Lucy' to 'The Walking Dead,' How TV Became Terrific" and of "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.'" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.