Smothers Brothers Comedy Column

January 26th, 2010 by Max Allan Collins

Last week was spent recovering from writing KISS HER GOODBYE. I really should allow myself a week off between projects, but I am stacked up right now and just can’t take the luxury. But it was slow-going, getting anything done. By late in the week I was finally able to finish a 14-page synopsis for the next Mike Hammer radio novel, which is entitled ENCORE FOR MURDER. The basis is a brief novel outline I found in Mickey Spillane’s files, so THE NEW ADVENTURES OF MIKE HAMMER VOL. 3 (starring Stacy Keach) will again have a basis in Mickey’s work.

I also wrote the introduction for volume ten of IDW’s reprint series of the DICK TRACY strip, edited by my old pal Dean Mulaney, the man who brought MS. TREE to the world of comics. The book winds up 1945, includes the entire run of 1946, going several months into ‘47. This is prime Gould material — great villains, lots of wonderful comic-relief characters, with everything from the intro of the Two Way Wrist Radio to the marriage of B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie. Watch for that — it’s one of Gould’s strongest periods.

You Can't Stop MeThe first review of YOU CAN’T STOP ME has appeared, from internet reviewer Harriet Klauser, and it’s a nice one.

I have been in a somewhat nostalgic mood lately, primed by reading a good book, DANGEROUSLY FUNNY: THE UNCENSORED STORY OF “THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR,” by David Bianculli. It’s as entertaining as it is informative, though the author has a bad habit of repeating himself (how many times do I have to be told that Jennifer Warren became Jennifer Warnes?) and sometimes including personal asides (don’t you hate writers who do that? I do!).

Anyway, it prompted me to look at the two seasons of THE SMOTHERS COMEDY HOUR available — actually these are BEST OF’s, selected and edited by Tommy Smothers himself. Season Three, the final season, was released first, followed by Second Two (no sign of Season One yet). This is not Tommy Smothers being quirky, rather realistic. The show began as a fairly traditional comedy/variety hour in 1967, and as the times changed, and the under-thirty crowd got radicalized, the show shifted naturally. By the third season, it was featuring counter-culture musical artists (The Doors, The Who) and hip comedy (George Carlin, Jackie Mason, the Second City-style Committee) with a number of episodes performed in the round. The third season set includes an excellent documentary, SMOTHERED, which chronicles the war between the show (in particular the volatile Tom Smothers) and CBS.

I started with Season Two, and admit to being shocked by how standard a variety show it mostly was — later I learned that Tom Smothers had edited both seasons ruthlessly (sometimes too ruthlessly) because he too realized the memory of the ground-breaking show of over 40 years ago was better than the reality. That, of course, is why he insisted the final season be released first. This is not to say there isn’t a lot of funny material in the second season boxed set — the Pat Paulson run for the president is there, and Paulson was an excellent deadpan comedian. But I fast-forwarded through about a third of the stuff. Leigh French as Goldie O’Keefe, spaced-out hippie chick, remains a lovely young woman, frozen in video amber, with a nice delivery, but the “jokes” run mostly to slipping drug references past un-hip censors. If hearing the word “roach” or “high” tickles your funny bone, you’re in the right place.

TV variety shows of the fifties, sixties and even seventies were pretty dismal. I watched a lot of them as a kid, but they are a tough go to sit through now. Even shows that were hip for their era, like SMOTHERS BROTHERS, FLIP WILSON, and LAUGH-IN, seem about as dated as kinescopes of early TV.

Smothers Brothers Season 3
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour:
Best of Season 3

The third season of SMOTHERS was a revelation, though — while some traditional variety show stuff survives (and Tom S. edited a lot of that out), there is plenty of social commentary and musical acts that could have appeared no where else on primetime TV of the late ‘60s. I find myself not liking the stuff I didn’t like at the time — Mason Williams’ classical gas remains gaseous to me, as does his anti-censorship poem, and self-righteous hippie show biz types like the aforementioned Warnes, the Los Angeles cast of HAIR, Joan Baez and the oh so precious Donovan still give me a pain. If you lived through those years, and were a sort of hippie yourself (and that’s how I’d describe myself then — a sort of hippie, married and going to school but long-haired, in a rock band, and desperately trying not to get drafted), you found a lot of the hippie musical stuff of the era pretty forced and artificial and terribly self-satisfied.

Nonetheless, the bravery of the Smothers Brothers to air this stuff — and to employ as writer/performers young punks like Bob Einstein (aka Super Dave Osborne), Steve Martin, and Rob Reiner — is impressive. The difference in approach and attitude between season two and three is shocking — it’s like one week the show is CAROL BURNETT, and the next week it’s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Historic performances from Pete Seeger (“Big Muddy” is amazing) and Harry Belafonte (“Don’t Stop the Carnival” to footage of the ‘68 Demo Convention) are alone worth the investment, and not much fast-forwarding elsewhere is required.

At the center of it all are those underrated performers, the Smothers Brothers, hip subversives posing as white-bread American boys. I loved them from the first time I saw them on (wait for it) Jack Parr’s TONIGHT SHOW. In the midst of a lot of smug and self-important folk musicians, the Smothers Brothers came on with their lampoon version of folk that had, in its day, the impact of Andy Kaufman. Initially, Tommy just seemed to be an idiot screwing up the act. We did not know we were witnessing one of the last great traditional comedy teams in the Laurel and Hardy/Abbott and Costello/Martin and Lewis mode. And Dick Smothers was and is a genius straight man.

I had all their albums. Grew up listening to them. Saw them perform at Hot Springs, Arkansas, at a nightclub/casino (a mob operation my middle-American parents took me to), and got to speak to them both and get my first celebrity autographs. They were extremely kind to me. (I would have been, perhaps, 16.) From junior high on, my friend Jim Hoffmann and I did Smothers Brothers impressions at parties and shows — we got great laughs in the time-honored tradition of kids stealing the acts of professionals, butchering those acts, and getting undeserved giddy praise from their classmates.

During the late ‘60s, Barb and I never missed THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS on Sunday night (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE came right after, with Leonard Nimoy in for Martin Landau at this point, Trekkies). We were married in June ‘68, Barb 19 and me 20, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy took place while we were honeymooning in Chicago. Right around this time, I took a draft physical at Des Moines, Iowa, that scared me silly, classifying me 1-A — fortunately, I eventually was re-classified 4-F. Would Barb and I have gone to Canada? Probably. So we were absolutely the target audience of THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW, but I admit that I never saw anything controversial about what I saw there, and was shocked that censorship was an issue in an era of MIDNIGHT COWBOY and ZAP COMIX.

(Yes, friends, an almost draft dodger with leftist leanings somehow became the caretaker of right-wing icons Dick Tracy and Mike Hammer.)

So watching these DVDs, I find myself experiencing various shivers of memory — delight, sorrow, embarrassment, even pride — as I watch Tom and Dick Smothers on their very important TV show take on the establishment. The stories of Tom’s battles with CBS are so much like mine with the Chicago Tribune Syndicate over DICK TRACY that it made me uncomfortable — we were both punks, and both right. We took a stand, and got fired. I said pride was one of the shivers.

I recommend the book and both DVD sets, which are loaded with special features, each episode bookended with on-air comments by a very uncensored Tom and Dick (prepared for E Entertainment reruns a while back). Anyone my age will find this compelling viewing.


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7 Responses to “Smothers Brothers Comedy Column”

  1. mike doran says:

    Amazing Coincidence: you put this one up on the day that Pernell Roberts’s death is announced. I remember when the Smothers Hour first went up against Bonanza, which was #1 in the Nielsens at the time. Tom & Dick didn’t stand a chance of even being a loss-leader against the Cartwrights. Our old friend Conventional Wisdumb again…

    !968 was the year i graduated from high school. The shooting of Bobby Kennedy took place the morning of the graduation ceremony; he was still lingering that evening, and both clergymen who worked the graduation offered prayers for his recovery.

    That September, I turned 18, and duly registered for the draft. I was 1-A for a year, with a lottery number somewhere in the 300s; then I was 1-Y for another year, then 4-F thereafter. I had no idea, then or ever, why these decisions were made, but I never questioned them.

    My earliest Smothers memories come from their Mercury LPs, from Steve Allen’s short-lived ABC show (where they became regulars, along with some guy from Cleveland who still called himself Tom Conway), and from Jack Paar’s primetime show that he did after he left Tonight (whatever made NBC think that kind of show would work in primetime? I mean, really…).
    Also Dan Sorkin’s morning radio show on WCFL; it was Sorkin who was Chicago’s outlet for comedy LPs, most notably Bob Newhart’s, so the Smothers had a radio home right from the start.

    My father was a big Sorkin fan, so my brother and I heard all the top recorded comics there, later seeing them on the tube.
    Politics didn’t enter the equation until the late 60s. Dad’s politics consisted of never voting for Republicans because they were anti-labor (not that he was”liberal” in even the early 60s sense). But Dad’s sense of humor was wide-open, and even when comedy turned left, he could still watch and laugh. We all started watching the SBCH, and Dad was first to pick up on Pat Paulsen’s deadpan. In later years he would watch Paulsen’s own ABC show (yeah, he was the one). The rock groups lost him, and the folkies weren’t much better, but the mix of old and new styles of comedy went over well enough to do the job for him (and for us as well).

    For me the oddest part of the Smothers Bros. is that though they’ve gotten older, they haven’t really aged.
    By that I mean that although Dick has become a kind of grey eminence, Tom looks almost exactly the same in his seventies as he did in his thirties; even though he’s older than Dick he still plays the kid brother, and very well too. This more than anything else is what enabled them to survive their “controversies”; for all the turmoil they remained likable. At least that’s how I’ve always parsed it; maybe I’m wrong.
    *no i’m not*

    Off-topic Rap Sheet update: I tried to register wit Google and ran into Technoslavian directions that shot me down, principally the one that requires a portable phone, which I don’t have.
    Again, my problem is not getting Rap Sheet to load; that it does. But as soon as it loads, I can’t get it to scroll. A few seconds later I get (Not Responding) and that Oedipusrexing Hourglass icon. It’s been almost six weeks now. *aaaarrrrgggghhh*

    Sorry. I know it’s not your problem. Forgive my venting.

  2. Thanks for these great comments and memories, Mike.

    People rarely comment on the explosion of comedy albums of the late ’50s and early ’60s. I listened to those as much as I did music — Shelley Berman was the originator, Bob Newhart the Wasp pretender (though he pretended very well indeed), Jonathan Winters the resident maniac, and so many others. The Smothers put out scads of Mercury LPs, and I had every one of them. Believe I still do.

    I should add that the third season BEST OF “SMOTHERS COMEDY HOUR” DVD set has a wonderful bonus disc devoted to Paul Paulsen, with a great ’68 vintage mockumentary of his presidential bid (with Henry Fonda narrating!) and even a comedy club appearance by Paulsen a few years before his death…in Alaska. Wonderful stuff.

    Elsewhere on the set, there’s also an extended look at an Aspen comedy gathering from 2000 where the Smothers are honored and joined by Steve Martin, Mason Williams, and Bob Einstein, moderated (not terrilby well) by Bill Maher. Einstein is out of control but very, very funny (Maher just doesn’t know what to do about it). As a Super Dave fanatic, I found it hilarious.

    Finally, let me say that while I dissed Mason Williams above, he was the head writer on the show and must be lauded for his work there — he was the guiding spirit behind the Paulsen campaign, for example. He comes off humble and well on the Aspen appearance.

    One last thing: I have trouble with Google, too. I leave comments now and then at “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger,” where my option for commenting is Google-driven. Just about every time I have to re-sign up to get through.

  3. Dana King says:

    I’ve liked the Smothers Brothers since I was a kid; their variety show was the first time the side of me that routinely questioned authority realized I wasn’t just some loser who didn’t always go along to get along, that there were time when that was the right thing to do.

    he Smothers Brothers are excellent examples of people who have been treated well by history. They stood up for themselves and paid a price for it in the short term. Long term, their positions have been validated, and they will always be thought of as the winners in their conflict with CBS. That’s easy to say in retrospect, knowing their careers went on and they weren’t living in cardboard boxes for taking a stand, but I hope they take some pride in what they did, knowing that, while it was extremely entertaining, it was a lot more than just entertainment.

  4. Great comment, Dana!

    I do think the Smothers Brothers suffered in their career. They would never be on top of show business again — they worked, they were respected, they had some modest TV comebacks (the longest on CBS!), but they lost traction. Their show might have run as long as Carol Burnett’s. They had, after all, been renewed for a fourth season before they were fired. So they paid for making a stand. History has validated them, and they were successful as a nightclub act, but they paid.

  5. jkaclem says:

    I saw the new Steven Soderberg film a few months ago, “The Informant”, with a surprisingly good Matt Damon in the lead role. However, 2 minor roles were played by (wait for it)….Tom and Dick Smothers!

  6. mike doran says:

    Quick follow-up on some of the above;

    Those comedy LPs of the 50s-60s (aka my adolescence) can set me off on the tangent of tangents.
    Most of my record buys of that period were comedy. I may have been the right age for rock, but for some reason it never took with me. So while everybody else my age was listening to WLS’s Silver Dollar Survey, I was buying Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, Bob Newhart (One of my own – Irish Catholic {and how strange to hear him called ‘wasp’]), Bob & Ray, Charlie Manna (remember the astronaut who wanted his crayons?) , the Old Philosopher (is this much nostalgia gettin’ you down, Bunky?), and more than even I dare to name in this limited space.
    I don’t wish to sound like an old prude here, but I guess I must be one, because so much of what passes for comedy these days is way too mean-spirited for me. It’s not the nonstop cussing (I do far enough of that on my own to fill any needs in that direction) so much as the gratuitous cruelty that gets me down. It’s the kind of comedy that I listen to and say, “Hey, that was supposed to be funny.” And I don’t laugh. Or even nod.
    These days I get most of my laughs from Mark Evanier’s NewsFrom ME site. When there’s nothing new I go to his Archives, pick a random month, and go scrolling. Best way to spend a lunch hour that I know.

    I have also heard that Pat Paulsen’s Half-A Comedy-Hour id due for DVD release. It wasn’t exactly Pat’s A-game, but there are some surprises in there if you’re willing to look.

    That last assessment was from memory – the greatest deciever of them all. You could posibly get a whole essay out of past favorites that aren’t quite as great as they seemed (what am I saying – you already have, and will no doubt in future).
    That being the case, I’d best let it drop.

    *and NEVER GIVE UP
    *pop* *pop*

  7. Didn’t know, or anyway remember, Newhart was a Catholic. The “button-down” aspect sure seems WASP. I believe Shelley Berman — who I got to meet and get an autograph from at the Second City 50th Reunion (he and his wife were sweethearts) — resented Newhart for stealing the phone-call format. Both were great, although Berman was a genuine artist. He could make you laugh and make you cry. Still can.

    I had every obscure comedy LP you could shake a diamond needle at. We’re talking WHY NOT? by Dayton Allen, here. We’re talking HELLO, DERE! by Martin and Rossi (Paul Thomas and I laughed so loud at their show, about ten years ago, that the two sought us out afterward and said they wanted us to tour with them).

    But I like many of the modern comics. I would say Patton Oswalt is my favorite — he’s a genius, no question. I like Louis Black a lot, too. Carlin in all his manifestations. David Cross. But also Bob & Ray. I am open to all kinds of comedy. Much to the dismay of many, I can honestly say I love both the Ritz Brothers and Olsen and Johnson. Shemp Howard is a god. I can continue like this for hours.

    I like comedy without shame, and have no shame for liking it. Laughter is second only to sex, and you do it longer.