These notes accompanied The Crank’s screening of excerpts from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on April 21, 2016. The Smothers Brothers and their television show have been important to me since I was in high school, and I selected these excerpts based on their historical importance, artistic achievement, and the fact that, like much archival television (especially material that never aired), there are few outlets for seeing them in their entirety.
THE CRANK PRESENTS:
Selections from THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR. Comedic Productions, Inc. DISTRIBUTED BY: CBS.
SHOW NO. 0009, EXCERPT: CENSORSHIP SKETCH (1967). PRODUCED BY: Saul Ilson, Ernest Chambers. DIRECTED BY: Stan Harris. WRITTEN BY: Elaine May, Mason Williams, et al. CAST: Elaine May, Tom Smothers, Dick Smothers. FORMAT: Betacam SP. RUNNING TIME: 26 minutes. ORIGINAL INTENDED AIRDATE: April 9, 1967.
SHOW NO. 222 (1969). PRODUCED BY: Allan Blye, George A. Sunga. DIRECTED BY: Tim Kiley. WRITTEN BY: Bob Einstein, Carl Gottlieb, Steve Martin, et al. CAST: Dick Smothers, Tom Smothers, Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, Mary Travers, Mort Sahl, Jennifer Warnes, Donovan. FORMAT: Digital Betacam. RUNNING TIME: 60 minutes. ORIGINAL AIRDATE: March 23, 1969.
At first glance, the Smothers Brothers would seem the least likely of show-business acts to attempt to wreak havoc on the network television system. Clean-cut and sharply dressed, Tom and Dick Smothers built their comedy act on genial sibling rivalry and an appreciation of the folk-music styles of their time, and the material in their albums was a far cry from anything overtly political or controversial. However, once the brothers were given a major network TV platform by CBS in 1967, their non-threatening appearance gradually gave way to an eagerness to use that platform to engage with their audience in a meaningful way. Writer David Bianculli states, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour wasn’t any old variety series. It was a new variety series, one that managed to appeal to a different, younger demographic…” Thanks to the resolve of Tom Smothers, Mason Williams, and other members of Comedy Hour’s creative staff (writers included a young Steve Martin), the show embraced topicality, bringing in musical acts popular with youth audiences and, even more importantly, addressing subject matter that was socially and politically relevant. However, while the topicality and substance attracted new, younger viewers, they would also get the show into trouble with the network’s content overseers. Ultimately, CBS would end the show by infamously firing the Smothers Brothers in 1969, after three seasons.
The first major clash with CBS over content, beginning a war that would last for the show’s entire run, involved a 1967 sketch about censorship, co-written by and starring Elaine May, at the time best known for her work in a comedy duo with Mike Nichols. The sketch was meant for an episode in the show’s first season. May and Tom Smothers, in three loosely connected skits, play censors who object to words like “breast” and are driven to a comically ridiculous moment of passion by the material they censor. CBS executives, including the network’s president, Tom Dawson, objected to the sketch, particularly the “breast” dialogue that vexes the censors within the sketch. Since Tom Smothers, assuming creative control, refused to allow edits to the material, the entire sketch was cut from the episode, despite how tame it may seem by today’s standards. Mason Williams theorized that “one of the things CBS didn’t like about the [Elaine May] show was that we pointed out that there were censors and gave them a persona.”
The situation took another turn when an excerpt of the sketch was leaked to the press and printed in the New York Times. Now the censor’s presence was quite clear. The conflict between Comedy Hour’s creative team and CBS had become a public matter, and it would factor into the show’s future development as it continued to tackle sensitive subjects such as politics, racism, war, and religion, and to push the limits of what could and could not be said on television.
Comedy Hour would grow to expertly balance artistic prowess and cultural awareness, a special quality that is on full display in Show No. 222, from Comedy Hour’s third and final season. Announced at the opening as “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Concert Hour,” the episode is primarily a performance showcase for its talent, featuring musical performances by Donovan (“Atlantis”), recurring Comedy Hour guest Jennifer Warnes (“Easy to Be Hard,” from Hair), and Peter, Paul and Mary (Bob Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing”), as well as a comedy routine by Mort Sahl, whose substantial, topical humor Tom Smothers had long admired, despite doubting that CBS would “hold still for him.” Here, Sahl jokes about the recently inaugurated President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover just as edgily as CBS’s limitations would allow. The episode includes another subversive move: the opening recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance deliberately excludes the phrase “under God,” subtly (or not so subtly) criticizing the conservative, capitalistic revisionism under which the phrase was added to the Pledge in the 1950s.
The episode is performed “in the round,” with the audience surrounding the performers, a manner that, Bianculli notes, appealed specifically to “younger, more liberal viewers.” The entire ensemble of guests joins together in the opening rendition of Donovan’s “Atlantis” and the closing performance of Peter Yarrow’s “Day Is Done.” The immersive setting encourages the audience to sing along and, in the closing number, to leave their seats and enter the performance space, offering a powerful image of unity coupled with the song’s message of hope.
Bianculli, David. Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
May, Elaine. “The Sketch That Couldn’t Be Done.” New York Times, April 16, 1967: D21.
Stone, Judy. “Two Clean-Cut Heroes Make Waves.” New York Times, April 16, 1967: D21