Of Sponsors & Censors: 50 Years Ago The Smothers Brothers Transformed TV by Bijan C. Bayne
Of Sponsors & Censors: 50 Years Ago The Smothers Brothers Transformed TV
Of Sponsors And Censors: The Smothers Brothers Tests the Boundaries of Television
Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.
Sometimes the bravest ideas come from inside the box. CBS Television Studio City was a box. Because of a pair of brothers inside that box who were looking forward, after the winter of 1967, U.S. television never looked back. Situated in the Fairfax section of Los Angeles, at 7800 Beverly Boulevard, Studio City was designed by William Pereira, who would go on to design San Francisco’s TransAmerica Pyramid. At 24, Pereira helped draft the master plan for the “Century of Progress” building, at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. With Negro architect Paul Revere Williams, and Welton Becket, he helped design the spaceship looking Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. And Studio City’s designer was no stranger to show business. He earned an Oscar for Best Special Effects, was art director on This Gun For Hire, and his credits included production design for Jane Eyre, and producer of Johnny Angel. Studio City had opened in 1952, a utilitarian building fronted by a grid of large windows, a white outer wall on the right stamped by the network insignia, the big, black-and-white CBS eye. Studio City was square, but hip things were taking place inside. The purveyors of the avant garde, were as unlikely as they come. But they were funny, down to the name of their act.
In 1967, the wide corridors of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour offices inside CBS Television City are covered with large photographs of Jack Benny, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley. Younger writers share small offices. Suits command large ones. Stage hands, set designers, costume, and prop staff busy themselves back and forth in the halls, up and down the elevators. The writers call the backstage staff “earth people”. A new breed of magic is being made inside CBS Television City- a country and a coast apart from the network’s skyscraper headquarters in New York, called “Black Rock.”
The top rated shows of the 1966–67 season are the Sunday night NBC western Bonanza, followed in order by The Red Skelton Hour, The Andy Griffith Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Green Acres, Daktari, Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Gomer Pyle, USMC. What most of these series have in common, was they aired on industry leader CBS. Of the top 20 rated shows in ’66-’67, six are variety series, where hosts perform skits or “sketches”, and famous or trending guest stars sing, participate in skits, or do standup comedy. While CBS did dominate the airwaves, they didn’t gain that status through complacency. Within the reason of the times, “The Tiffany Network”, guided by their president Bill Paley, took risks. From 1951 to 1960, their standard bearer was a sitcom about, and produced by a mixed couple, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz and his actress wife Lucille Ball; I Love Lucy. And while Luci’s antics and Desi’s swarthy complexion and noticeable accent may seem tame in retrospect, CBS also afforded genius writer Rod Serling the opportunity to stage weekly morality plays concerning war, bigotry, greed and technology, under the thin paranormal veil of The Twilight Zone (1959–1964).
It was on CBS, that the hit Dick Van Dyke Show, aired an episode called That’s My Boy on September 25, 1963. The show, which ran 10 days after four little Black girls were killed during a terrorist bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, was about couple Rob and Laura Petrie bringing their baby back from the hospital, only to have comedy writer Rob suspect they had the wrong child. When his fears are confirmed, a couple named the “Peters” comes to the Petrie home because the infants were apparently mixed up because the mothers had similar hospital room numbers, and alphabetically close surnames. Rob opens the front door to welcome the Peters, and before a live studio audience, the Peters’ step inside- they are Negroes. Van Dyke said the resulting audience laughter was the longest in the history of the series, which ran five seasons. The positive response inspired the show’s producer, Sheldon Leonard, to cast a standup comic named Bill Cosby in an action series called I Spy that debuted in 1965- making Cosby the first Negro to play a leading role on a dramatic tv series. Though I Spy was an NBC show, the plot line that led to that breakthrough typified CBS. Paley’s network commanded viewership by occasionally entering new territory. In the new year of 1967, it scheduled a program that forever changed the medium. Only Paley had no idea at the time.
Bonanza’s Sunday night, 9 p.m. slot was a fiefdom. Tens of millions of Americans settle in, following early evening NBC offerings such as Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, to the tales of the all male Cartwright family on the Ponderosa estate in 19th century Nevada. The Cartwright’s: silver haired father Ben, hulking son “Hoss”, and originally, brothers Adam and “Little Joe” (the latter portrayed by Michael Landon), fought off strong CBS competitors such as Perry Mason and The Garry Moore Show. When variety host Moore’s show failed to attract significant numbers of middle aged Americans from the Ponderosa bachelors, CBS changed its strategy. Paley ordered Garry Moore producer Mike Dann, to pull the series by early 1967.
“Where am I going to find a show in mid-season?” Dann asked Paley.
“I don’t know, but I want Moore off of there by January 20.”
Why not concede that audience to NBC, and shoot for younger fans? But how? Should it air a rock ’n’ roll themed variety show? CBS host Ed Sullivan had introduced U.S. audiences to the music of the Beatles and The Supremes. What about a sitcom that skewed young? Or futuristic sci fi, since ABC had Lost In Space and Star Trek.
From September 17, 1965, to September 9, 1966, CBS aired a series that blended fantasy and comedy, The Smothers Brothers Show. The premise was brother Tom was an angel, returned to earth to supervise the ill-advised romantic affairs of his publishing executive brother Dick. Unfortunately, The Smothers Brothers Show was as poorly chosen, as Dick’s character’s dates. The comedy did not utilize any of the gifts or skills that made the Smothers a brand. The boys made their mark as an All-American looking duet who interspersed amusing folk music with “brother” jokes. A running joke, from the bumbling Tommy, was “Mother always liked you best.”
Tommy and Dick Smothers were born in 1937, and 1939, respectively, on Governor’s Island, New York, to West Point graduate Major Thomas Smothers, Jr. and the former Ruth Remick, who was born in Colorado in 1916. Major Smothers was a member of the 45th Infantry Regiment. Confined to a Japanese POW camp during World War Two, he died while being transferred from a camp in Fukuoka, Japan to a camp in Mukden, Manchukuo. When the boys were small, Ruth Smothers entered into unfulfilling relationships. The family moved to Southern California. Tommy and Dick graduated from Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach. They performed in a quartet for a while, then began singing as a duo. They also enrolled at San Jose State College. In 1961, they made their professional debut at San Francisco’s Purple Onion. Folk singing groups such as The Kingston Trio and The Highwaymen, and copycat groups, many of whom met in college, were part of a national fad for the genre.
The Smothers Brothers, armed with a funny duo name and trendy musical repertoire, incorporated sibling jokes into their act while working in Aspen, Colorado. They hoped the laughs would separate them from the hundreds of aspiring folk groups. It was a good hunch- they recorded a comedy album, and were booked onto late night tv’s most popular talk show, The Jack Paar Show. Appearances on Paar, who was Johnny Carson’s predecessor, sealed their success. Viewers enjoyed the repartee between the straight man Dick, and the mild-mannered Tommy. Tommy played up his reluctant entertainer bit to the hilt. Because even the more confident of the two, was so strait laced and courteous, the brothers were not offensive, they were the kind of kids middle aged men hoped their daughters would date, and whom their wives, because the boys seemed a bit unsure, might imagine mothering. As clever and wholesome as that was, their sitcom on Fridays at 9:30, turned Dick into a ladies man, in the parlance of the times. And there was no singing. Even the Cartwright boys did a little singing. And they had guns and horses. So what CBS did with the canceled Smothers, came as quite a surprise.
Mike Dann called the William Morris Talent Agency, desperate to get something on Sunday night to replace crew cut old schooler Garry Moore’s variety flop. The agency suggested the stars of another show that had failed. The Smothers were still under contract to CBS. But the network had never let them do what they did best.
CBS’ Dann offered them a variety show, the same night as Ed Sullivan’s weekly powerhouse, and directly opposite Bonanza. Only there were some problems. The grind of the unsuccessful sitcom had given Dick ulcers, and he also attributed his divorce to the failure of the show. They would only host a variety show, which could be quite an undertaking to write, staff and produce, under one condition. Dick insisted on creative control. He hoped that would give him the freedom to hire writers from among the pool of emerging comedians working the L.A. comedy scene. In subsequent decades, several became household names.
On January 15, 1967, indicative of their rivalry, both CBS and NBC simulcast the first AFL-NFL World Championship football game with their respective announcing teams. Tickets to the game in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum cost from $6 to $12, and 61,000 fans attended, with 33,000 empty seats. It was the 28th birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. While Dr. King was the symbolic leader of an effort to colorize a nation whose televised existence was lily white, from the faces in its advertisements, to its newscasters, to the casts of it sitcoms, television was embracing a different sort of color. By the fall of 1967, most network programming was in color. On August 21, ABC’s Dark Shadows, and NBC’s As The World Turns became the first network soap operas to broadcast in color. But the color of the faces remained white.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour premiered on February 5. Though the plan involved engaging younger viewers, the producers intelligently appealed to the Bonanza demographic, by scheduling a song by The Buffalo Springfield after a comedy bit featuring Bette Davis. Mickey Rooney was a guest the same night as The Who. Kate Smith sang on the episode which starred Simon & Garfunkel. Vaudeville, radio and movie veteran Jimmy Durante did Smothers, on an hour that also featured a “mod” fashion show. Something for everyone, and a platform for a vanguard of new comics. Beat that, Ben Cartwright!
The Sullivan Show aired before the Smothers premier. Sullivan’s guests were musical (torch singer Lanie Kazan, the fresh faced Doodletown Pipers), comedic (Woody Allen, a Negro named Stu Gilliam), inhuman (The Muppets) and suave (action tv star Gene Barry). Sullivan was the king of the old guard, broadcasting inside a Manhattan theatre when the Smothers Brothers were produced in CBS Television City.
Variety series employed large writing staffs because comedy writing is not an exact science. Some writers are better producing punch lines, others with either song parodies, or story ideas. Sketch writers may have dry spells, the collaborative nature ensures shows will meet schedules. And there are people whose ideas work better with particular guests, and not as well with others. The Smothers Brothers had assembled a unit with all these nuances in mind. The senior minds were Hal Goldman and Al Gordon, who were in their fifties. They had worked for Jack Benny. Mason Williams was a guitar playing college buddy of Dick Smothers, whose hit album Classical Glass was released that year. Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark were in their mid-thirties. Bobrick was an Air Force vet who had written on the morning kiddie show Captain Kangaroo. Clark had broken into the business in ’63, working on an animated series, and writing on Jimmy Dean’s and Danny Kaye’s variety shows. Jerry Music is a short, round guy with an artsy goatee. A Canadian former rabbi and cantor named Allan Blye, works up music routines with Mason Williams. A new young writer named Ted Bergman is paired with Music. Bergman had sold his first script, to the sitcom The Munsters while attending UCLA. He earned the Smothers gig on the strength of a skit parodying the 1967 movie The Dirty Dozen. Saul Illson and Ernie Chambers, who produced the show, were in their late thirties. Illson was bespectacled with bushy eyebrows, Chambers ruddy with receding hair. Other producers included Mike Dann and Fred Silverman. Dann had worked on the legal hit drama The Defenders, and CBS’ Gilligan’s Island. Silverman was only 30. He broke into tv on the basis on his Syracuse University masters thesis on 10 years of ABC programming, which led CBS to hire him as an executive when he was 25.
Except for general staff meetings, most of the writers worked within their two-to-an-office teams, paired by age or interest. When necessary, they interacted creatively with Dick Smothers. Tommy was more of an enigma, with whom they had almost no contact.
With total control of the show, Dick Smothers and his writers transitioned from standard parodies based on wordplay and current events, to edgier material reflective of the increasing dissent in the atmosphere. Tommy, Dick, and their guest, actor George Segal sang The Draft Dodger Rag. The Buffalo Springfield sang an anti-war song called For What It’s Worth. CBS president Paley was close to President Johnson, and a supporter of the U.S. role in Vietnam. An actress named Leigh French did a regular bit called “Share A Little Tea With Goldie”, which was a tongue in cheek routine about marijuana. Critics praised the show, viewers strayed from Bonanza, and back in New York City CBS brass were conflicted by a widely discussed hit that skirted network convention.
Comedian Elaine May did a sketch about censorship in the movies, in which she named the movies which were controversial. The network cut the bit, which angered Dick and Tom. What happened to “total control”? Why were the bosses censoring a bit about censorship? The brothers struck back by coming on the air holding the actual script containing the banned sketch, letting viewers know they were “being shut up by CBS”. But the orders weren’t coming down from Bill Paley. That’s not how network tv works.
No one at CBS used the word “censors”. At CBS, the genteel gatekeeper of contested content was Bill Tankersley. William Howard Tankersley was born in 1918 on his parents’ ranch in Tankersley, Texas, and named after former President Taft. His family moved to Fort Worth, where they had purchased the ranch from a Frenchman who imagined the land, which included a vineyard, would not reap much income after Prohibition. Little Bill didn’t figure that out for years. Bill Tankersley was a child of The Great Depression. After a three year drought, he found himself a sixteen year old able to land employment when his father could not. Standing 6’4” and weighing 145 pounds, Bill was nicknamed “Treetop” by the local press, for his skills on the basketball court. Still, he had no dreams beyond high school. His family could not afford college, even though he posted the best grades in the history of Knickerbocker High School. Instead, Bill worked at construction sites, and played some industrial basketball. In 1936, aged 18, he moved to Arizona. He didn’t have much of a life plan mapped out, but he had fallen in love with radio, since the first time he heard it over at a friend’s house.
Tankersley took a correspondence course, which helped him get a job as an accounting clerk with a copper company. He was promoted to claims agent. Tankersley was never averse to learning new things. And he never lost his fondness for radio. On his vacations, and even weekends, Tankersley took courses in speech and production at Radio Arts Academy in L.A. He moved to Globe, Arizona, where he did radio news and sports at nights and on weekends, slept six hours overnight in the station’s offices, and in his free time, visited NBC’s studios in Hollywood. Globe, Arizona may have sounded worldly, but it was too small for the ambitious young man who soaked up knowledge of the radio industry like a sponge. He applied for a job with CBS Radio in Hollywood. He was told they had held a competition for open positions, though he was welcome to enter his audition tape. He later bounced from Oregon, to Utah, where he read for a gig at station KALL in Salt Lake City.
A station manager for a Mutual Radio affiliate in Odgen, Utah who was re-organizing his station, heard Tankersley’s resonant baritone audition tape. The kid had a robust tone of voice, the kind Americans decades later would associate with Walter Cronkite. Tankersley observed the Ogden station’s operations- the poor equipment quality, inefficient use of space, excessive use of remote reporters, and stayed up all night preparing a blueprint of efficiency proposals. He told the station manager “I don’t want the job, but I owe you this.”, handing him the blueprint. He briefed the manager on it, citing the costs that would be involved in an overhaul, and the salary required to supervise it. The manager reviewed the material, and still offered Tankersley the equipment and salary to revamp KLO. “My eye is on the network,” he warned his boss.
“That’s fine,” said the station manager. Nine months later, Tankersley was working in Salt Lake City as an announcer at KDYL, an NBC station. There, some of his fees went into the owner’s pockets. Tankersley countered by bringing in the union, AFTRA. He was fired. He took announcing work in Great Falls, Montana, calling live baseball games, and recreating others. By now he was married. Baseball recreation consisted of receiving Western Union telegram summaries of what took place in an inning, some far less detailed than others, and expanding on them as if the announcer was calling the action live for their audience. Tankersley’s wife, an artist, worked as a scorekeeper in the press booth at the ballpark. Sometimes announcer’s accounts would run two or three innings behind the actual games. Some telegrams were so sparse, a lot of imagination was required to paint a picture of an inning. Ronald Reagan got his start in media, recreating ballgames. Tankersley stalled between reports, by having batters hit in their shins, or pitchers attempting to pick off runners at first base. Sometimes if a home run was hit, he would have to wake a snoozing sound engineer by tapping on the glass so the engineer could cue crowd noise. After the last ballgame of the fall, Tankersley told his boss George Hatch, “I’m headed to Hollywood.”
“What’ve you got there?” Hatch asked.
“Nothing, but we’re going.”
The Tankersley’s bought a home in Laurel Canyon from Carl Hoff, the conductor of radio’s Kay Kyser Orchestra. The house was trimmed in white, surrounded beautifully by trees. It was perched on Lookout Mountain, near Houdini’s home, and nearby movie stars. To make ends meet, Tankersley taught speech at Radio Arts Academy, where he was paid better than others. He did freelance announcing, including for an automobile account, where he even gave his students some gigs. Tankersley applied for various network jobs. An ABC gig fell through when the position was cancelled. He wrote sales presentation about himself, a thick publication that featured artwork by his wife, which he used rather than job applications. Tankersley was hired by the regional division of CBS in April 1950, as manager program promotion of merchandising. It was a very difficult job, getting buy-ins from large corporations, but Tankersley had a large expense account, and a talented staff at his disposal. Tankersley’s success led to three job offers: regional head writer, regional assistant sales manager, and manager of program operations for the network. Naturally, the man who had his eye on Hollywood for years, accepted the latter. The timing could not have been better. In the late 1940’s, CBS head William Paley made a proposal to the biggest stars and shows on the air. He suggested that the top radio shows, Amos ‘n Andy, The Great Gildersleeve, Jack Benny, incorporate their shows, rather than taking weekly salaries. He convinced a few they would make more money, and then he would buy their shows from them under their new companies. Amos ‘n Andy came first, and others followed suit, in what became known as “Paley’s Raid”, although the idea likely originated with MCA. So many acts made the jump, CBS didn’t have studio room for their broadcasts and had to rent the Lux Radio Theatre on Vine Street, The Ritz, and for ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, The El Capitan. The theatres were needed because most of the leading shows were broadcast before live audiences.
Bill Tankersley ran every detail of these shows before and during production. He was the troubleshooter if Jack Benny ran long, or stars complained to Paley about their demands for favored engineers or writers. He booked the acts for promotional appearances and charity events. He dealt with egos and last minute emergencies. At the time, television was in its infancy, and struggling. The Tankersley’s first set was a 1948 Admiral, so large and unsightly they built it into a wall. Paley had no interest in the new medium, and assumed the telecasts, which were largely local, with hours of dead air, were a passing interest. But Americans’ purchasing power for the bulky sets grew largely because of the G.I. Bill. One by one, radio favorites such as Burns and Allen, The Lone Ranger, and even Jack Benny moved to tv. Not long after, Tankersley went from working with white actors portraying colored buddies “Amos” and “Andy” on the radio, their Negro dialect a hallmark one of the most beloved series in the U.S.- to working with a colored recast of the show for 1950’s tv.
Bill Tankersley, who had endured the quirks of the most demanding talents in radio, was CBS’ VP of Programing & Practices when the Smothers’ variety show hit the air. It was Tankersley with whom Rod Serling had haggled regarding the social themes of Twilight Zone episodes. It was he whom Sheldon Leonard of The Dick Van Dyke Show, negotiated about Mary Tyler Moore’s bottom in capri pants. When the Smothers scheduled an anti-war song, or punch line critical of LBJ, Tankersley delegated the feuds to his West Coast staff. Bill Paley was generally above these content battles. All the while, some Americans’ views on Viet Nam were evolving. And while Negroes were invisible even on fantasy series such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie (which were sitcom metaphors for “mixed” marriages)- the Civil Rights Movement was not. In fact, demonstrations, and footage of the war, led nightly news telecasts. The Smothers Brothers and their guests addressed these issues.
Right outside CBS Television Studio City, the world was changing. In L.A.’s Fairfax area, there were what people began calling “hippies”, men with hair longer than The Beatles, women in peasant dresses, drawn there by funky bookstores and second hand record stores. In nearby Laurel Canyon, this environment fostered a new music scene. Sonny and Cher, The Mamas and the Papas and the Doors emerged there. Millions of young Americans wanted to see these acts perform on tv. Their parents worried about who would run the country in 20 years, but CBS realized these kids had no interest in the gun toting violence of Bonanza, The Wild, Wild West, and even its own Gunsmoke.
When it came to approval of material, Dick Smothers preferred calling Tankersley at his home to discuss the sketches, to fighting the suits in Studio City. The conversations reminded the older man of dealing with the old radio stars. As for the writers, like Dick, they were so upset because of the cut Elaine May bit on censorship, and the prohibition of the line “heart beating in my wrist”, after “…heart beating in my breast…” had been shot down, they took to inserting phrases the oldheads would think was racy or subversive, that were really nonsense terms. They resorted to playing with Programming and Practices. When they used the words “rowing to Galveston”, the execs assumed a hidden meaning, and demanded, “You can’t say that!” On the other hand, because of the generation gap the show got away with gags that did have hidden meanings, which went right over the heads of the suits.
To his credit, the main suit, Tankersley, tried to reach happy mediums with Dick Smothers. He was neither dogmatic nor inflexible. This was network television before sitcom husbands and wives slept in the same bed. In ads for laundry detergents, floor polishes, and instant coffee, “housewives” shilled for products that made suburban life more pleasant for their husbands and children. Men hawked hair care products and aftershave that promised to make ladies lose their minds. Minorities apparently did not exist, if they did, they must not have used toothpaste or bleach. When Tankersley explained to Dick Smothers why a bit was offensive, he would often ask, “Is there something else we can give you?” The boys and their staff had longed to have folk singer Pete Seeger as a guest. Seeger had been blacklisted by tv since 1950, in part because his name appeared on a list of supposed subversives in an indicting publication called Red Channels, and because he refused to testify before The House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Smothers asked the suits if they could bring Seeger on. They were turned down.
The boys never gave up. Getting Seeger was symbolic to them- a tv appearance was more than a coup, it would demonstrate that the blacklist, which ruined so many artistic careers, was behind us as a country. It was a nod to a previous era of protest and free speech. During a conversation about an upcoming week’s material, when asked where the middle ground lay, or what else he could do, Dick told Bill Paley, “We’d like to have Pete Seeger on,”. This time, Paley consented He had to be reasonable with the Smothers, given their ratings. And compared to some of the radical left of 1967, a 48-year-old Seeger seemed fatherly.
Seeger was singing a new song in 1967. Written in 1942, Waist Deep In The Big Muddy is about a Louisiana military platoon whose captain asks them to cross again, a river they have crossed before in a training procedure. It has rained since the previous crossing, and a sergeant objects. The captain pulls rank on him, and orders the men to follow his lead, which results in water reaching higher and higher, even to his neck. The foolish captain drowns. Seeger’s guest appearance would include various songs soldiers had sung, from the Revolutionary War through Word War One. …Big Muddy would be his finale.
Paley would not approve of Big Muddy. The song, in 1967 context, represented the Viet Nam war as an ever deepening river, and the stubborn captain as President Johnson. The following section in particular, was too offensive for CBS president Paley:
The Captain said to him.
“All we need is a little determination.
Men, follow me. I’ll lead on.”
We were neck deep in the Big Muddy,
And the big fool said to push on.
Paley was not going to be party to a parody that labeled LBJ a fool. He told Johnson about the song, and the president asked the studio head to muzzle the performance. Paley made that clear to Dick Smothers. But the Smothers pulled their own New York trump card on Paley. They told the New York Times CBS was censoring their best material, much as they had told their viewing audience Elaine May’s bit had been excised. They made Paley the bad guy, when more and more Americans were questioning what was going on in Vietnam, and how long we would be there, and whether the U.S. could win. Seeger guested on the show on September 10, 1967. He did not sing Big Muddy. But on the 15th, the New York Times ran the censorship article, quoting Seeger. The story included the section:
SONG WINS APPLAUSE —
“It’s strange that C.B.S. should have objected to it”, Mr. Seeger said, “No song that I’ve done in the last ten years has got the applause that this one has. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I’ve sung it before lots of family audiences.”
He also stated “I’m very grateful to C.B.S. for letting me return to commercial broadcasting”, Mr. Seeger said, “but I think what they did was wrong and I’m really concerned about it. I think the public should know that their airwaves are censored for ideas as well as for sex.”
Now CBS and their new hit show, were making the news for all the wrong reasons. That strengthened Dick Smothers’ bargaining position regarding material. He challenged the network.
“We were given total control,” Dick would insist. CBS had an ace in the hole. Network tv shows not only had to earn the blessings of their internal standards and practices departments, they were reviewed by local affiliates. Station managers in The Heartland, the Deep South, and elsewhere, screened network shows, when available, days before they were scheduled to air. Because of this, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had to wrap episodes several days out, to allow CBS time to ship the telecasts to affiliates for sign off. While the Smothers did contractually have creative control, the suits would claim they violated contract clauses that they deliver shows on deadline, because getting content cleared days before Sundays, proved more challenging as the year progressed. Sketches and songs had to meet two levels of sanction. Some weeks, as many as 15 to 20 local stations refused to air the show, which cut into its ratings. The technicality put the show in as awkward a position, as media reports about censorship did CBS. Audiences grew larger, some attracted by the possibility they would see a radical routine, or a musician too toxic for Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand. The show was the 12th highest rated tv series of 1967.
The week after Pete Seeger guested, The Who were scheduled for Sunday, September 17. One of the songs they were to play, was My Generation. The band rehearsed it at Television Studio City in the afternoon. For effect, they put a bit of explosive into a little cannon inside Keith Moon’s bass drum. During the run through, the explosive turned out to be a dud. One of the “earth people”, a stage hand, placed a second charge inside the drum. Moon didn’t know that, and before the recording of the night’s show he also placed an explosive there.
During the telecast Pete Townshend was going to yank Tommy Smothers’ folk guitar away and smash it on stage. The Who played My Generation. Near the conclusion, when Townshend was to grab Tommny’s guitar, Moon activated his charge. The double explosion from the two devices blasted a flying drum shard into Moon’s arm. The live and tv audience hear him moan, but the band plays on. Pete Townshend was playing with his back to Moon, and his hair was singed nearly to the scalp. Townshend frantically picks the flame out of his hair, all on camera. Even when The Smothers didn’t plan to be incendiary, it happened. Some attribute Townshend’s significant loss of hearing to the accident on the show.
In Los Angeles, the Smothers show became the job for up and coming comics and writers who wanted to live on the edge of television propriety. During its run, Rob Reiner, Albert Einstein (who later changed his surname to “Brooks”, and became a highly successful comedic actor and screenwriter), his brother Dave Einstein, who portrayed “Officer Judy” on Smothers, and later became hilarious “stuntman” “Super Dave Osborne”, Steve Martin, and actor Joe Novello, whose character “Father Guido Sarducci” was an early regular on Saturday Night Live.
The Smothers Brothers feud with CBS continued after 1967. The network cut a song folk singer Joan Baez planned to dedicate to her husband David Harris, whom she told the Smothers tv audience, was going to prison because he “protested war”.
On September 9, 1967, NBC aired a pilot episode of a show called Laugh-In. Laugh-In was a socially topical comedy show hosted by standup comics Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. Taking a page from the Smothers Brothers’ book, only on the network known for family fare such as Bonanza and Walt Disney, the pilot featured gags about the Viet Nam war, racial unrest, and women’s rising hemlines. On January 22, 1968, Laugh-In began as a regular midseason show, just as the Smothers Brothers had in February 1967. Seven years later, NBC introduced Saturday Night Live. Steve Martin from the Smothers Brothers, was part of its original cast. In 1968, Beatle George Harrison appeared on the Smothers Brothers unscheduled. Before a tv audience, he commended them for championing their freely speaking material. The brothers modestly said they were just trying to say some things about society. “Keep trying to say it,” said Harrison.
They did keep trying. President Johnson shocked the nation and world when he announced on the night of March 31, 1968, he would not seek nomination or re-election. The constant chants of protestors in Lafayette Park, “Hey, hey, LBJ- how many kids did you kill today?”, audible inside the White House, and the failure of what was called The Tet Offensive (a Vietnamese New Year’s attack on the communist opposition the North Viet Cong) influenced the president’s decision. He was also dismayed that during a CBS special report from Vietnam, “the most trusted man in America”, longtime CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, questioned if the U.S. really had an endgame. “I’ve lost Cronkite,” LBJ told staffers. Walter Cronkite symbolized the establishment, the Americans who had won (and in his case, broadcast radio news to) World War Two. Cronkite was no Dick Smothers. Four days after Johnson’s announcement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That summer, there were televised riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, after the city police attacked protestors who were primarily anti-war college students. On the September 29, 1968 season premiere, Smothers Brothers guest Harry Belafonte sang Lord, Don’t Stop The Carnival, to footage backdrop of the beatings at the DNC. CBS cut the song from the telecast.
President Nixon succeeded Johnson, and the Smothers were as critical of him. Their efforts were met with CBS pushback that affiliates were airing alternative content some weeks, and the Smothers missed production deadlines others. On March 14, 1969, CBS renewed the series for its 1969–70 season, by which time Laugh-In was a Monday night sensation over on NBC. That month, Canadian comic David Steinberg taped a standup “sermonette” for the show, which featured the following analysis of the Biblical Jonah.
STEINBERG: He got into a ship that was commandeered by 23 gentiles. A bad move on Jonah’s part. And the gentiles, as they would from time
to time, threw the Jew overboard. Now here there are two concepts that we must deal with. There is the New Testament concept and the Old Testament concept. The Old Testament scholars say that Jonah was, in fact, swallowed by a whale. The gentiles, the New Testament scholars they say, hold it, Jews. No. Jonah wasn’t — Jonah, they literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament.
Religion was not fair game for tv comedy in 1969. Other than a standup Bill Cosby did, first on a comedy album, about Noah talking to God about how and why to build The Ark (which was not about theology, it was a speculative parody of a man talking to a deity), faith was taboo. Despite having just renewed the show, Paley, tiring of the censorship skirmishes, fired Dick and Tom Smothers on April 4, 1969, a year to the day after MLK’s assassination. The reason given, was failure to meet delivery dates as stipulated by contract. Progressive op ed writers railed against the decision, but it stood. The final episode aired on January 8, 1969. It was replaced by Hee-Haw, a country music themed variety show paced similarly to Laugh-In. After being fired, the Smothers Brothers won the 1969 Emmy award for Best Comedy Writing. Tommy did not receive a trophy, because he left his name off the show’s application, feeling his name was too controversial.
In 1969, the Smothers Brothers sued CBS for breach of contract. Tom Smothers et al. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., was litigated in the US District Court in California. In 1973, the brothers won their lengthy court battle. They were only awarded about two-thirds of a million dollars. Though they never again hosted a regular season tv series, CBS did give them a summer replacement show that aired in 1975. By then, President Nixon had resigned a year earlier under pressure he might be impeached because of covering up a burglary of the DNC headquarters inside Washington’s Watergate Hotel. Distrust of public officials was much higher than it had been in 1967, and political parody was relatively commonplace in magazines such as National Lampoon, tv, and movies. The Smothers recorded their final comedy album in 1988. Tommy and Dick were frequent tv guests into their sixties. In May 2010 in Las Vegas, they officially announced their retirement.
The Smothers Brothers were considered heroic figures on the free speech front, and received several awards in recognition of it. In 2003, the Video Software Dealers Association presented them their George Carlin Freedom of Expression Award. At the 60th anniversary Emmy awards in 2008, Tommy was presented with a Best Comedy Writing award for the 1968 tv season.
Smothers Brothers writer Jerry Music changed his name to Lorenzo Music. Music co-created the 1970’s CBS hit The Bob Newhart Show, and on another CBS series, Rhoda, served as the voice “Carlton, your doorman”. Mason Williams’ instrumental album Classical Glass won three Grammy awards. He also won an Emmy in 1968 for his work on Smothers. His most celebrated routine on the series, was a 1968 presidential “campaign” for dour faced comedic regular Pat Paulsen. Williams recorded more than a dozen albums. His musical writing partner on Smothers, Allan Blye, produced the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the 1970’s, and Super Dave during the ‘80’s.
Beginning in 1971, Rob Reiner, son of legendary comedian and 1950’s Your Show of Shows writer and Dick Van Dyke Show character (“Alan Brady”) Carl Reiner, starred as son-in-law Mike Stivic, on the CBS sitcom All in the Family. All in the Family was the first sitcom whose characters took on the subjects the Smothers Brothers fought to include on their show- sex, race relations, and Vietnam.
Fred Silverman was promoted to vice president of program planning and development for CBS. In 1970 he was bumped up to VP of programming, giving him final say on the slate of shows for America’s most popular of the three major networks. One his first decisions in this role, was canceling three former top 10 national shows, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Mayberry, R.F.D., in what became known as “The Rural Purge”. Silverman brought All in the Family, The Walton’s, Charlie Angels, as well as miniseries Roots, and Shogun, to network tv. By 1978, he was president of NBC. Letterman, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life were all Silverman vehicles.
Ted Bergman wrote for Sanford & Son and Three’s Company during the late 1970’s, and Small Wonder in the 1980’s. Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark teamed to write the play, Norman, Is That You?, about a couple who learn their son is gay. Producer Saul Illson moved on to do tv shows for Tony Orlando & Dawn, and Billy Crystal. His cohort Ernie Chambers produced tv specials for Dean Martin, Barbara Mandrell, Barry Manilow, and Leslie Uggams.
Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert consider the Smothers Brothers influences. But in the era of the three big networks, the Smothers touched far more Americans than cable comics Colbert, Maher and Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart reached 3 million cable subscribers. When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a top 12 show in 1967, 30 million people were tuned in. By thinking inside the box, called CBS Television Studio City, the Smothers Brothers faced The Establishment, and in court and public opinion, won.
Bijan C. Bayne is a cultural critic, and author of Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball, & Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race And Class. He may be contacted at @bijancbayne on Twitter