'Dangerously Funny' by David Bianculli

In another way, though, Tom was being painfully honest. Part of the Smothers Brothers did die when CBS wrested their show away from them. Oh, they were vindicated in court, proving that they had not violated any terms of their agreement in providing shows for the network. And over the years, they starred in several subsequent TV showcases, including a brilliant run of reunion specials and series in the 1980s for CBS, the very network that had shunned them two decades before. In addition, they never failed to find steady work in nightclubs.

However, by becoming unexpected martyrs to the cause of free speech, the Smothers Brothers lost their most influential national TV platform just when that freedom mattered the most. Like Elvis Presley when he was shipped off to the army, or Muhammad Ali when he was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, the Smothers Brothers were nonconformist iconoclasts, pop-culture heroes yanked from the national spotlight in their prime. Muhammad Ali became the champ again, and Elvis returned to record many more number-one hits, but Tom and Dick Smothers never again enjoyed the influence or mass popularity of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In terms of introducing and encouraging new talent, pushing the boundaries of network television, and reflecting the youth movement and embracing its antiwar stance and anti-administration politics, the show was, quite literally, their finest Hour.

What, exactly, made the Smothers Brothers so important a guiding force in the 1960s? Mostly, they were in the right place at the right time, reacting to the '60s as events unfurled around them. They were the first members of their generation with a prime-time pulpit, and they used it. Each season, the average age of their writing staff got younger, and the satiric edge of the material being televised -- or censored -- got sharper. Yet in an era when most families still watched television together, in the same room on the same TV set, the greatest and most impressive achievement of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was that it spoke to and attracted young viewers without alienating older ones. With its humor, guest list, and high caliber of entertainment, it bridged the generation gap at a time when that gap was becoming a Grand Canyon-like chasm.

The Comedy Hour introduced fresh talent -- from inhouse future stars Pat Paulsen and Mason Williams to such emerging rock groups as Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, and the Who -- while making room for veteran stars from movies, TV, even vaudeville. On one show, Kate Smith shared billing with Simon and Garfunkel. Another show featured Mel Torme, Don Knotts, and Ravi Shankar. Musicians came on not to perform their old or current hits, but to unveil new ones -- a bold departure from established practice. The Beatles even provided the brothers with a US exclusive -- the videotaped premiere of "Hey Jude" -- and in the middle of the Smothers Brothers' battles with the CBS censors, George Harrison showed up in 1968 as a surprise guest to offer moral support. "Whether you can say it or not," Harrison urged them on the air, "keep trying to say it." And they did. First, individual words and phrases that CBS found objectionable were cut from skits after rehearsals or edited out of the final master tape. Then entire segments were cut because of their political, social, or anti-establishment messages.

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