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. [Whose ox is gored? – LG]