A comprehensive history of the embattled, groundbreaking variety program The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
NPR TV critic Bianculli (Dictionary of Teleliteracy: Television’s 500 Biggest Hits, Misses, and Events, 1996, etc.) traces the development of the Smothers’s act, which began in 1967 and featured the stuttering, spacey Tom and his straight-laced brother, Dick, performing acoustic folk songs interspersed with zany asides and brotherly bickering. This family-friendly act would ironically serve as a springboard for some of the most daring commentary and satire to appear in a prime-time program up to that point—a distinction that secured the Smothers’s legacy as TV pioneers and, ultimately, cost them their platform and lead to a disastrous relationship with their network, CBS. The author effectively conveys the excitement generated by the late-’60s heyday of the Comedy Hour in its young fans, as its mandate to present fresh new musical acts, including the Who and Buffalo Springfield, and to comment on social issues stood in sharp relief to the staid fare typical of the day. A fascinating cast of characters, including the writer and musician Mason Williams, faux presidential candidate Pat Paulsen, hippy love child Leigh French and irreverent monologist David Steinberg, keeps the narrative hopping, and Bianculli captures the special essence of each performer. The heart of the story concerns Tom Smothers’s epic clash with the draconian standards and practices (read: censorship) department of CBS. The author details the infamous cutting of Pete Seeger’s anti-Vietnam ballad “Waist Deep in Big Muddy,” the fallout from Steinberg’s edgy religious material and censored appearances by Harry Belafonte and Elaine May, as well as Tom’s cheeky brinksmanship and legal battles with the corporate culture at the network. It’s striking to realize how mild much of the contested material seems today, which speaks to the climate of caution and fear that ruled mainstream TV entertainment in the ’60s. The Smothers Brothers lost their show in 1969, but won victories that continue to pay dividends to this day.
A fast-paced, informative reminder of the importance of speaking out.