Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Smothers Brothers: Laughing at Hard Truths

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I well recall the Smothers Brothers and at one time could recite by heart a considerable portion of their albums. David Bianculli has a good story on them in the NY Times as part of the Times series on the Vietnam war 50 years ago. He writes:

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.

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.

Continue reading the main story

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]

Continue reading.

Other articles in the series are listed on this page.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2017 at 10:57 am

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