The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
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|The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour|
Tom and Dick as Romans in a 1967 skit.
|Directed by||Bill Davis
|Narrated by||Roger Carroll (announcer)|
|Theme music composer||Mason Williams
|Opening theme||"The Brothers Theme"|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||3|
|No. of episodes||72|
|Executive producer(s)||Ken Fritz|
|Running time||45– 50 minutes|
|Production company(s)||Comedic Productions, Inc.|
|Original release||February 5, 1967– June 8, 1969|
|Preceded by||The Smothers Brothers Show (September 17,1965 - September 9, 1966)|
|Followed by||The Smothers Brothers Show (July 8, 1970 - September 16, 1970)|
The series was a major success, especially considering it was scheduled against the major NBC television series, Bonanza, with content that appealed to contemporary youth viewership with daring political satire humor and major music acts like Buffalo Springfield, Pete Seeger and The Who. Despite this success, continual conflicts with network executives over content led to the show being abruptly pulled from the schedule in violation of the Smothers' contract in 1969.
The evolution of The Comedy Hour was unique to a medium that was, and still to a degree, fearful of change. The show debuted in the winter of 1967 as a slightly "hip" version of the typical comedy-variety show of its era. But within weeks it rapidly evolved into a program that extended the boundaries of what was considered permissible in television satire. A case in point would be the very series which The Comedy Hour replaced. Returning to weekly television following a two year hiatus, broadcasting pioneer Garry Moore attempted a revival of his popular comedy-variety program which produced high ratings at CBS for six seasons starting in 1958. It also became a launching pad for the career of comedienne Carol Burnett. But Moore's comeback could not halt the avalanche he faced coming from NBC's hit western, "Bonanza," then placing solidly at number one. A simple answer would be the ratings game played its hand. Another could be The Garry Moore Show now looked too old. The Smothers duo were in the second year of a five year contract with CBS following a failed sit-com the previous season, a series they were pleased to see wrap. The network approached the brothers to host a mid-season replacement for the Moore hour with a 20 week commitment and complete artistic control. Ed Sullivan, who presided over the most successful variety show in TV history, would be their lead in. Sullivan was chosen to introduce the opening night festivities, live from his New York studio with a tongue-in-cheek bio of the brothers. Tom and Dick then appeared on stage from Hollywood launching into a typical song taken from one of their many hit Mercury Records comedy albums,"We Are Marching To Pretoria." The formula was now set. A national audience now witnessed what nightclub and concert goers had known for more than seven years. Here was a finely polished stage act, combining traditional two-man stand-up comedy with folk music and contemporary satire. A high bred of old time radio vaudeville meets The Kingston Trio meets Mort Saul. But their image was, for its time, more cutting edge than most musical comedy revues. Underneath a playful sibling rivalry act, one smart, one dumb, The Smothers Brothers personalities contained a confrontational imbalance that became commonplace in late 1960's culture. Their unique act would play equally to comedy club dinner audiences and coffee house thinkers. It was this generational merger that created the perfect venue to showcase side by side yesterdays entertainment legends with tomorrow's innovators. Where else could one witness 1940's songbird of the south Kate "God Bless America" Smith share camera time with Haight-Ashbury's Jefferson Airplane? It was that kind of unconventional approach to television packaging that would seal this programs fate. The first few weeks were innocent enough with other CBS series stars appearing in easy going guest spots. Jim Nabors of "Gomer Pyle" fame sang "The Impossible Dream," Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor brought their "Green Acres" characters on stage for some good nature cross promotion. Even Danny Thomas arrived in a surprise walk on to lend some credibility on the premiere show. Episode three reunited old friends and show biz veterans Jack Benny and George Burns. Introduced in Smothers attire; matching red blazers and carrying the brothers acoustic guitar and bass, Benny and Burns aped the brothers "Mom Always Liked You Best" routine. George complained to Jack, "Of course mom liked me best. You held the mortgage on the house!" This melding of the Smothers and Benny persona displayed the highest endorsement from these comedy icons. But it was the fourth outing that foreshadowed what future programs would look like. Bette Davis made a rare TV appearance in a parody of her early film roll as Queen Elizabeth l with Tom, in a clown version of Errol Flynn, as her lover. In the sketch, the queen comes to liberalize her rule over her subjects and the monarchy. In a tease to then First Lady, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, Her Majesty Miss Davis closes the skit with the degree, "Just call me Queen Bird!"; a reference to Mrs. Johnsons familiar nickname, "Lady Bird." This innocent moment was the first toe dipping into the waters that would drown the hour. This was followed by "The Buffalo Springfield," in their network debut, performing "For What It's Worth"; an early Stephen Stills composition about the recent youth riots on LA's Sunset Strip. A line in the song referring to the police, "There's a man with a gun over there," is lightened by a quick cut of Tom dressed as a gunslinger, complete with six shooter and Tom Mix hat. At this stage of the game no one was taking any chances. But the most socially conscious moment from show #4 was a song delivered from a rooftop set complete with billowing smokestacks sung by Dick and "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane. It was a take on satirist Tom Lehrer s "Pollution." This came only one month after a Time Magazine cover story on poor urban air quality that pictured a downtown Los Angeles covered in sickening brown smog. Show #5 further pushed all boundaries with Barbara Eden as a sex education teacher on a date with high school student Tom. Show #6 guest starred Carol Burnett, six months away from beginning her own long running variety hour, as a nervous member of a nudist colony, a sketch that would never be allowed while she was a regular member of the Moore Show. The following week brought the show another great, the legendary Jimmy Durante. With the brothers he recreated, "Clayton, Jackson and Durante," a vintage number he regularly performed with former musical comedy partners, Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson transformed here into "Smothers, Smothers and Durante." While the brothers themselves were at the forefront of these efforts, credit also goes to the roster of writers and regular performers they brought to their many shows, including Hal Goldman and Al Gordon who wrote for Jack Benny on radio and television from 1950 to 1965, Jim Stafford (who served as head writer and producer of their 1975 NBC variety hour), Steve Martin, Don Novello ("Father Guido Sarducci"), Rob Reiner ("Mike Stivic"), Presidential candidate Pat Paulsen, Bob Einstein ("Super Dave Osborne", "Marty Funkhouser", and "Officer Judy"), Einstein's brother, Albert (who works professionally as Albert Brooks), and resident hippie Leigh French ("Share a Little Tea with Goldie"). The show also introduced audiences to pop singer Jennifer Warnes (originally billed as Jennifer Warren or simply Jennifer), who was a regular on the series. The television premiere of Mason Williams' hit record, Classical Gas, took place on the show, and Williams himself received an Emmy for his work as a staff writer.
The series showcased new musical artists that other comedy-variety shows rarely gave airtime to, due to the nature of their music or their political affiliations. George Harrison, Joan Baez, Buffalo Springfield, Cass Elliot, Harry Belafonte, Cream, Donovan, The Doors, Janis Ian, Yank Barry, Jefferson Airplane, Peter, Paul and Mary, Spanky and Our Gang, Steppenwolf, The Who, Simon and Garfunkel, Ray Charles, The Hello People and Pete Seeger were showcased during the latter years of the show despite the advertiser-sensitive nature of their music.
Seeger's appearance on the Season 2 premiere which aired on September 10, 1967 was his first on network commercial television in 17 years since being blacklisted in 1950. His performance of "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was dropped from the broadcast after his refusal to comply with CBS's request to remove the sixth verse. The song, its story related to the present by the controversial stanza, was a metaphor for President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Vietnam War policy. Seeger was eventually allowed to reappear on the show to perform the song again on Episode 24 later that season.
In 1968, the show broadcast several promotional videos (later known as "music videos") for The Beatles' songs "Hey Jude" and "Revolution". Before a rowdy crowd at the Los Angeles Forum, Jimi Hendrix dedicated "I Don't Live Today" to the Smothers Brothers, as heard on The Jimi Hendrix Box Set.
Controversies and cancellation
With the focus of the show having evolved towards a more youth-oriented one, the show became both popular and controversial for those same references to youth culture and the issues that both interested and affected this particular target audience. Three specific targets of satire — racism, Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War — would wind up defining the show's content for the remainder of its run, and eventually lead to its demise.
Whereas most older and more conservative audiences were tuning into shows like the western Bonanza, the younger, more liberal generation — ages 15–25 — were watching the Smothers' more socially relevant humor.
The Brothers soon found themselves in regular conflicts with CBS' network censors. At the start of the 1968/69 season, the network ordered that the Smothers deliver their shows finished and ready to air ten days before airdate so that the censors could edit the shows as necessary. In the season premiere, CBS deleted the entire segment of Belafonte singing "Lord, Don't Stop the Carnival" against a backdrop of the havoc during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, along with two lines from a satire of their main competitor, Bonanza. As the year progressed, battles over content continued, including a David Steinberg sermon about Moses and the Burning Bush.
With some local stations making their own deletions of controversial skits or comments, the continuing problems over the show reached a boiling point after CBS showed a rerun on March 9, 1969. The network explained the decision by stating that because that week's episode did not arrive in time to be previewed, it would not be shown. In that program, Joan Baez paid tribute to her then-husband–David Harris–who was entering jail after refusing military service, while comedian Jackie Mason made a joke about children "playing doctor." When the show finally did air, two months later, the network allowed Baez to state that her husband was in prison, but edited out the reason.
Despite the conflict, the show was picked up for the 1969-70 season on March 14, seemingly ending the debate over the show's status. However, network CEO and President, William S. Paley, abruptly canceled the show on April 4, 1969. The reason given by CBS was based on the Smothers' refusal to meet the pre-air delivery dates as specified by the network in order to accommodate review by the local affiliates before airing. Another of the network's presidents, Robert Wood, stated that it became evident that the brothers "were unwilling to accept the criteria of taste established by CBS." This cancellation led the Brothers to file a breach of contract suit against the network. On April 6, 1973, after four years of litigation, the Federal court ruled in favor of the Smothers and ordered CBS to pay them $766,000. Despite the Smothers' legal victory, the show never returned to the air.
Despite this cancellation, the show won the Emmy Award that year for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy, Variety or Music.
The saga of the cancellation of the show is the subject of a 2002 documentary film, Smothered.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was revived for the 1988–1989 television season, which included the return of cast regular Pat Paulsen as well as new, aspiring performers. The revival lasted one season. The revived Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour began production during a 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, resulting in the brothers being allowed to perform their own material.
- The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967) at the Internet Movie Database
- Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, by David Bianculli, Touchstone, 2009.
- Fresh Air with Dave Davies, Nov. 30, 2009
- Gent, George. "Seeger Accuses C.B.S. Over Song; Act Cut When He Refused To Drop Verse, Says Seeger," The New York Times, Friday, September 15, 1967.
- The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – The Museum of Broadcast Communications.
- CBS Evening News, 4 April 1969. "CBS announced today that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour will not be returning to the CBS television network next season. Network president Robert Wood said it became evident that the brothers 'were unwilling to accept the criteria of taste established by CBS.' CBS News efforts to reach the brothers for comment have been unsuccessful."
- Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at the Internet Movie Database
- The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1988) at the Internet Movie Database
- Bianculli, David (2009). Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour". Touchstone. ISBN 978-1-4391-0116-2.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.|
- The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at the Internet Movie Database
- The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at TV.com
- List of episodes on official Smothers Brothers site
- The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour-related interview videos at the Archive of American Television