TV critic and entertainment journalist David Bianculli goes behind the scenes of the onetime ratings king that was "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" to find out what really happened to the canceled program. The TV variety show had been part of the antiwar movement in the late 1960s and included such musicians as the Beatles and the Who. The Smothers Brothers' show also helped jump-start the careers of Steve Martin and Rob Reiner before CBS yanked it from the network.
Bianculli draws on his interviews with Tom and Dick Smothers for his book "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
Read the excerpt below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
Six months after the tragic events of 9/11, at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, five defiantly outspoken performers were saluted for their often costly efforts to exercise their First Amendment rights as comedians. One was Bill Maher, who lost his ABC late-night talk show Politically Incorrect after remarking of the AlQaeda terrorist hijackers who commandeered passenger airliners and steered them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building -- say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Another was stand-up comic and civil rights advocate Dick Gregory, who not only challenged segregation by becoming the first black comic to headline in all-white nightclubs, but also demonstrated alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers in history-making confrontations in Montgomery and Selma. Still another was George Carlin, whose infamous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" and "Filthy Words" comedy album routines sparked a free-speech battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. And rounding out this handful of brave, bold humorists were Tom and Dick Smothers.
Significantly, the Smothers Brothers received their Freedom of Speech Award from comic David Steinberg, whose controversial mock sermons on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour played a key part in having that variety show yanked and the brothers fired, despite three successful seasons on CBS from 1967 to 1969 and an announced renewal for a fourth.
"The most innovative variety show on television shut down because of political pressure," Steinberg told the audience in Aspen that night. "But the Smothers Brothers got their revenge. Never giving up, they sued CBS -- and they won. And they forever became prominent symbols in the fight for free speech."
Accepting the award, Tom Smothers joked, "Of course, many of you recognize the fact that we are not the original Smothers Brothers. I'm sure they would have loved to have been here to receive this award. But the original Smothers Brothers passed away in 1969."
As jokes go, that one cuts very close to the bone.
On the surface, it's patently ridiculous. The Smothers Brothers are, of course, the same siblings who began performing as folk satirists in 1959, and whose half-century career has outlasted almost all comic teams on stage, screen, and television. Tom, who plays guitar and unleashes elaborate fibs and heated emotional outbursts, and Dick, who plays bass and acts as the grounded and weary straight man, have a history as a comedy team that covers more years than the Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, and even George Burns and Gracie Allen.