Though he's loathe to admit it publicly, Appellate Judge Tom Becker always liked Tommy Smothers best.
"It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to
be the target of clever satirists."
Nearly 40 years after it left the airwaves, it's easy to see how The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was considered the hippest thing on television in its day. It was funny and irreverent, took an ironic leftish look at social and political issues like war, sex, and race relations, and featured groovy guest stars like Ike and Tina Turner, Judy Collins, George Carlin, and Donovan.
From a 21st century perspective, it's hard to understand why the show was so controversial. The Smothers' act is endearingly silly and dweebish. Brother Dick is the straight man, while Tommy is the seemingly slow-witted goof. With Tommy on guitar and Dick on bass, they banter and riff (lots of sibling rivalry stuff) over folk songs, often traditionals like "Red River Valley" and "They Call the Wind Maria."
Folk music, of course, is also the music of protest, of change, of the people, and the Brothers, looking slightly incongruous in their matching blazers (or Nehru jackets) turned their show into a kind of street theater. They gave a forum for liberal political and social voices not often heard on network television entertainment programs. Had they been on PBS, they would likely have picked up a Peabody Award.
But they were on CBS in the late '60s, home of Lucy and Jackie Gleason, Gentle Ben and Family Affair, not yet home of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. That sophisticated, edgier CBS wouldn't dawn until the following decade. While the country digested the new morality, the youth movement, civil unrest, and a changing political scene, the three major networks struggled to come up with "relevant" programming, socially conscious but not too challenging. The "Tiffany Network" was a tea-cozy, already skewing the oldest, and the Smothers Brothers—their best shot at reaching the young, urban, politically aware audience—were treated like a thorn in the side.
On The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3, we see Tommy and Dick Smothers playing up their position as the Bad Boys of CBS. Censorship was a frequent topic—and target. The battles with the network were open and often played for laughs, as in the Season Three premiere, in which the Brothers turn up in Nehru jackets and mustaches, rather than their more conservative blazers and no facial hair look.
Other times, the censorship issue was no laughing matter. In that same premiere episode, guest Harry Belafonte sang a song called "Don't Stop the Carnival" against a backdrop of footage of the riots and police response at the infamous Chicago Democratic National Convention just weeks before. CBS refused to air this segment and instead had the Brothers do a Q&A with the audience; this turned into an angry rail against censorship and stifling freedom of expression. Ironically, the Q&A—which I'm guessing the network envisioned as a comfy, Carol Burnett-style chat—was as politically potent as the segment it replaced; in hindsight, perhaps more so. (The episode on this set presents the show as it was filmed, with the Belafonte song intact and the Q&A as an extra, along with a series of memos between CBS and the Brothers' production company concerning the segment.)
On another show, Joan Baez dedicates a song to her husband, who's about to go to jail for draft evasion. CBS left in the part where she says he's going to jail, but cut out the reason. (This, too, plays intact on this set.)
Yet another show was canned altogether: the penultimate episode of the third and final season was completed but not broadcast by CBS because of a religion-themed routine by David Steinberg. Steinberg had done a similar routine on an earlier episode, and CBS had gotten complaints. They warned the Brothers not to let Steinberg do a routine like that again, but when Tommy booked the comic this time, he specifically asked him to do a "Sermonette." CBS dumped the episode without notifying the Brothers and shortly thereafter, fired them. The show, which had been renewed for the 1969-70 season, was canceled.
What's striking about this is how the material that caused such a firestorm was inoffensive. The Smothers Brothers weren't making partisan political attacks or personal slurs, and there was nothing "anti-American" in their message. Apparently, back in the day, CBS considered a few protest songs, some socially relevant skits, and a pro-peace/anti-war sentiment to be subversive and controversial. Less than two years after the Smothers Brothers were sent packing, CBS would begin airing series from Norman Lear, including All in the Family, Maude, and Good Times, which dealt with social and political issues in a manner far more confrontational that Tom and Dick ever did.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3 is the first DVD release for this series (the Brothers decided to release the shows in reverse order). This is not the complete season; there are 11 episodes in this set, less than half of what was broadcast, but it's a good representation. Programs that had segments edited are shown as originally intended, with alternate takes available as extras, and the "censored" show, first aired on the E! Network in 1993, is presented intact.
The Brothers themselves are entertaining, and there are some good comedy bits by Steinberg, Carlin, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, and Jackie Mason. But it's the musical guests who really shine. In addition to those already mentioned, we get appearances by The Doors, Ray Charles, Mama Cass, Nancy Wilson, and in the most time-capsuley moment, the West Coast cast of Hair.
From a tech standpoint, the shows themselves are in fair shape. They really haven't been well-preserved, nor do they appear to have been remastered. Some of them seem to have been edited from what was originally filmed; here and there we get the odd jump. The sound is uneven, and there's lots of dust, like these were pulled from old videotape masters. One episode has the CBS announcer asking us over the closing credits to stay tuned for Mission: Impossible and to watch Carol Burnett the following night; clearly, this was a broadcast copy.
While the shows are a fun watch, this set is really all about the extras. Each episode has recently filmed, anecdote-heavy introductions from the brothers; there were also interviews done in 1992 with various guest stars and contributors, including Belafonte, Newhart, Baez, Collins, John Densmore, Producer Allan Blye, and filmmaker Chuck Braverman. These are kind of funny, kind of informative little looks back.
Along with alternate takes and dress rehearsal footage, we get "A New Fable for Our Time," a featurette that gives some context to the times and the Brothers' brand of satire, and "Mom Always Liked You Best," a cute bit built around the Brothers' catchphrase.
We also get a clip of the writers (including a ridiculously young Steve Martin) getting an Emmy for an episode featuring Liberace and David Frye (included on this set); rehearsal footage shot for a 60 Minutes segment; and lots of looks at correspondence between CBS and the Smothers Production Company, as well as a letter the Brothers wrote to President Lyndon Johnson—and Johnson's touching reply. Throughout, the Brothers pop in to offer their recollections and their take on things.
The shows are spread out over three discs. A fourth disc houses the TV Special, Pat Paulsen for President. Paulsen was a comic who often appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and in 1968, ran a mock presidential campaign. He was actually a registered candidate ("Just a common, ordinary, simple savior of America's destiny") and "ran" in every race (except 1976) until 1996, frequently pulling in a fair share of protest votes. Pat Paulsen for President focuses on his 1968 campaign; it's a wonderful mockumentary, frequently hilarious, and the disc is loaded with extras, including outtakes of Paulsen with Robert Kennedy (which was supposed to have appeared in the special but was pulled after Kennedy's assassination) and a 1992 comedy club act.
This is really an outstanding set. While the less-than pristine tech is a slight drawback, I don't know that you'll find a more satisfying, entertaining, or significant TV release this year. Kudos all around.
The Smothers Brothers are guilty of capturing and preserving a moment in our social and cultural history. Sentencing is delayed until the court sees additional evidence on appeal—like the release of more episodes.
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Scales of Justice
• Episode Introductions by the Smothers Brothers
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