A 1960s Classic Gets a 21st-Century Update

In the summer of 1968, in the middle of that strange, historic and literally mind-boggling year, the most popular summer replacement TV show was "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

This was the era of the primetime variety revue; Westerns (except for "Bonanza") were essentially gone from television, as had the brief run of superhero/monster shows ("Batman," "The Munsterss," etc.) and the networks – there were only three of them – were now casting about for low-cost productions that would fill an hour and attract a wide demographic audience.

The result was the late '60s equivalent of today's endless run "reality" shows: a single host (Johnny Cash, Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett, Dean Martin) or duo (Sonny and Cher, Rowan and Martin) presiding over a series of skits, stand-up comics, musical performances, jugglers, just about anything that might attract viewers. These revues had begun in the 1950s with the likes of Milton Berle and most famously, Ed Sullivan, virally spread across primetime in the late '60s and early '70s, then faded into history with the forgettable likes of Pink Lady and Shields & Yarnell (mimes!).

Unlike most viewers, and despite the fact that I was just 14 in a watershed year, I knew who the Smothers Brothers were. They had built their folk music/standup comedy act in San Jose, Calif., and San Francisco, so they were pretty hard to miss around my neighborhood. And, in fact, they hardly changed their increasingly anachronistic act when they hosted their new series.

But what was the most important about the Smothers Brothers show was not what they did, but who they brought on as guests. The music acts, as an example, were astounding: It was the first time most of us actually saw Eric Clapton and Cream. And Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and notoriously, the Who (Keith Moon used too much explosive on his drum kit and both injured himself and damaged Pete Townsend's hearing). Even that old Stalinist Pete Seeger came on and sang, to the network's fury, his anti-military song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." The comedy acts were perhaps even more amazing: the first appearance for most of us of Steve Martin, George Carlin and Rob Reiner, among others.

It was all very countercultural and anti-establishment and, for the time, quite daring – and if you were young, in those pre-Tivo days, you didn't dare miss it each week for fear of being out of the conversation in the days that followed. So great was the cultural influence of the Smothers Brothers show during its short run that Jimi Hendrix even gave it a shout-out during one of his concerts (I have the bootleg) and the Beatles let them premiere the videos for "Hey Jude" and "Revolution."

And then one night, the Brothers introduced a home-grown video – some have called it the first modern music video – from the most unlikely source. Mason Williams, the show's head writer, also happened to be a musician, and he composed an instrumental piece that he called "Classic Gasoline," meaning a piece to "fuel" the fun at a party. The name accidentally got cut down during the recording session to "Classical Gas", a name that seemed a lot less dumb then than it does now. Williams put the piece on an album he recorded in February 1968, and it did moderately well.

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