'Dangerously Funny' by David Bianculli

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.

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.

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