Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, starring the folk singing, comedy
duo Tom and Dick Smothers, premiered on CBS in February 1967. A
variety show scheduled opposite the top rated NBC programme, Bonanza,
the Comedy Hour attracted a younger, hipper, and more politically
engaged audience than most other video offerings of the 1960s. The
show's content featured irreverent digs at many dominant institutions
such as organized religion and the presidency. It also included
sketches celebrating the hippie drug culture and material opposing
the war in Vietnam. These elements made The Smothers Brothers
Comedy Hour one of the most controversial television shows in
the medium's history. Questions of taste and the Smothers' oppositional
politics led to very public battles over censorship. As CBS attempted
to dictate what was appropriate prime time entertainment fare, the
Smothers tried to push the boundaries of acceptable speech on the
medium. The recurring skirmishes between the brothers and the network
culminated on 4 April 1969, one week before the end of the season,
when CBS summarily threw the show off the air. Network president
Robert D. Wood charged that the Smothers had not submitted a review
tape of the upcoming show to the network in a timely manner. The
Smothers accused CBS of infringing on their First Amendment rights.
It would be twenty years before the Smothers Brothers again appeared
their earliest days, however, the network and the brothers got along
quite well. The Smothers began their association with CBS in a failed
situation comedy called The Smothers Brothers Show which
ran for one season in 1965-66. The show featured straight man Dick
as a publishing executive and slow-witted, bumbling Tom as his deceased
brother who had come back as an angel-in-training. The sit-com format
did not prove to be appropriate for Tom and Dick's stand-up brand
of comedy. CBS, feeling that the brothers still had potential, decided
to give them another try in a different programme format.
how contentious The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became,
it is worth noting that, in form and style, the show was quite traditional,
avoiding the kinds of experiments associated with variety show rival,
Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. The brothers typically opened
the show with a few minutes of stand-up song and banter. The show's
final segment usually involved a big production number, often a
costumed spoof, featuring dancing, singing and comedy. Guest stars
ran the gamut from countercultural icons like the Jefferson Airplane
and the Doors to older generation, "Establishment" favourites like
Kate Smith and Jimmy Durante. Nelson Riddle and his orchestra supplied
musical accompaniment, and the show had its own resident dancers
and singers who would have been as comfortable on the Lawrence
Welk Show as on the Smothers' show.
show was noteworthy for some of the new, young talent it brought
to the medium. Its corral of writers, many of whom were also performers,
provided much of the energy, and managed to offset some of the creakiness
of the format and the older guest stars. Mason Williams, heading
the writing staff, achieved fame not so much for his politically
engaged writing, but for his instant guitar classic, "Classical
Gas." Bob Einstein wrote for the show and also played the deadpan
and very unamused cop, Officer Judy. He went on to greater fame
as Super Dave. Finally, the as yet unknown Steve Martin cut his
comedic teeth as a staff writer for the show.
also raised The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour above the usual
fare of comedy variety was the way the Smothers and their writers
dealt with some of their material. Dan Rowan of Laugh-In
noted that while his show used politics as a platform for comedy,
the Smothers used comedy as a platform for politics. A recurring
political sketch during the 1968 presidential year tracked regular
cast member, the lugubrious Pat Paulsen, and his run for the nation's
top office. Campaigners for Democratic contender Hubert Humphrey
apparently worried that write-in votes for Paulsen would take needed
votes away from their candidate.
Comedy Hour regular engaged in a different kind of subversive
humour. Comedienne Leigh French created the recurring hippie character,
Goldie O'Keefe, whose parody of afternoon advice shows for housewives,
"Share a Little Tea with Goldie," was actually one long celebration
of mind-altering drugs. "Tea" was a countercultural code word for
marijuana, but the CBS censors seemed to be unaware of the connection.
Goldie would open her sketches with salutations such as "Hi(gh)--and
glad of it!"
Goldie's comedy was occasionally censored for its pro-drug messages,
it never came in for the suppression that focused on other material.
One of the most famous instances was the censoring of folk singer
Pete Seeger. Seeger had been invited to appear on the Smothers'
second season premiere to sing his anti-war song, "Waist Deep in
the Big Muddy." The song--about a gung-ho military officer during
World War II who attempts to force his men to ford a raging river
only to be drowned in the muddy currents--was a thinly veiled metaphor
for President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam policies. The censoring
of Seeger created a public outcry, causing the network to relent
and allow Seeger to reappear on the Comedy Hour later in
the season to perform the song.
guests who wanted to perform material with an anti-war message also
found themselves censored. Harry Belafonte was scheduled to do a
calypso song called "Don't Stop the Carnival" with images from the
riotous 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention chromakeyed behind him.
Joan Baez wanted to dedicate a song to her draft-resisting husband
who was about to go to prison for his stance. In both cases, the
network considered this material "political," thus not appropriate
for an "entertainment" format. Dr. Benjamin Spock, noted baby doctor
and anti-war activist, was prevented from appearing as a guest of
the show because, according to the network, he was a "convicted
material that offended the network's notions of good taste also
suffered the blue pencil. Regular guest performer, comedian David
Steinberg, found his satirical sermonettes censored for being "sacrilegious."
Even skits lampooning censorship, such as one in which Tom and guest
Elaine May played motion picture censors trying to find a more palatable
substitution for unacceptable dialogue, ended up being censored.
The significance of all this censoring and battling between the
Smothers and CBS is what Bert Spector has called a "clash of cultures."
The political and taste values of two generations were colliding
with each other over The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The
show, appearing at a pivotal moment of social and cultural change
in the late 1960s, ended up embodying some of the turmoil and pitched
conflict of the era. The Smothers wanted to provide a space on prime
time television for the perspectives of a disaffected and rebellious
youth movement deeply at odds with the dominant social order. CBS,
with a viewership skewed to an older, more rural, more conservative
demographic, could only find the Smothers embrace of anti-establishment
politics and lifestyles threatening.
the aftermath of the show's cancellation, the Smothers received
a great deal of support in the popular press, including an editorial
in the New York Times and a cover story in the slick magazine
Look. Tom Smothers attempted to organize backing for a free
speech fight against the network among Congressional and Federal
Communications Commission members in Washington D.C. While they
were unsuccessful in forcing CBS to reinstate the show, the Smothers
did eventually win a suit against the network for breach of contract.
In the years following their banishment from CBS, the Smothers attempted
to recreate their variety show on the other two networks. In 1970,
they did a summer show on ABC, but were not picked up for the fall
season. In 1975 they turned up on NBC with another variety show
which disappeared at mid-season. Then, finally, twenty years after
being shown the door at CBS, the brothers were welcomed back for
an anniversary special in February 1988. The success of the special,
which re-introduced stalwarts Goldie O'Keefe (now a yuppie) and
Pat Paulsen, led to another short-lived and uncontroversial run
of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS. Most recently,
in 1992, the Smothers re-edited episodes of the original Comedy
Hour and ran them on the E! cable channel, providing introductions
and interviews with the show's guests and writers to explain the
The Smothers Brothers
Mason Williams (1967-1969)
Jennifer Warnes (1967-1969)
John Hartford (1968-1969)
Sally Struthers (1970)
Spencer Quinn (1970)
Betty Aberlin (1975)
Don Novello (1975)
Steve Martin (1975)
Nino Senporty (1975)
The Louis Da Pron Dancers (1967-1968)
The Ron Poindexter Dancers (1968-1969)
Anita Kerr Singers (1967 )
Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra (1967-1969)
The Denny Vaughn Orchestra (1970)
PRODUCERS (1967-1969) Saul Ilson, Ernest Chambers,
Chris Bearde, Allen Blye
February 1967-June 1969 Sunday
July 1970-September 1970 Wednesday
January 1975-May 1975 Monday
Aniko. "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the 1960s Youth Rebellion."
In, Spigel, Lynn, and Michael Curtin, editors. The Revolution
Wasn't Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict. New
York: Routledge, 1997.
Steven Alan. "On the Edge of Tastelessness: CBS, the Smothers Brothers,
and the Struggle for Control." Cinema Journal (Champaign,
Illinois), Summer 1992.
Tony. Going too Far. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
William. "The Transmogrification of the Smothers Brothers." Esquire
(New York), October, 1969.
Robert. CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. Chicago: Playboy,
Bert. "A Clash of Cultures: The Smothers Brothers vs. CBS Television."
In, O'Connor, John E., editor. American History, American Television.
New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983.
also Columbia Broadcasting