'Dangerously Funny' by David Bianculli

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.

For every battle the Smothers Brothers won, CBS sought and got revenge. When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour wanted to open its third season by having Harry Belafonte singing "Don't Stop the Carnival" against a backdrop reel of violent outbursts filmed in and around that summer's Democratic National Convention, CBS not only cut the number completely, but added insult to injury by replacing it with a five-minute campaign ad from Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon.

Politics, and politicians, play a big part in the story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Even though the show poked fun at President Johnson and criticized his Vietnam War policies, LBJ's daughters were fervent fans. Yet more than once the chief executive of the United States called CBS Chairman William S. Paley to exert pressure on the Smothers Brothers. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour even ran its own candidate for president, Pat Paulsen, whose tongue-in-cheek campaign was a brilliant deconstruction of the 1968 presidential race. Paulsen had become popular delivering fake editorials on the show, such as the one in support of network censorship ("The Bill of Rights says nothing about Freedom of Hearing," he told viewers, adding, "This, of course, takes a lot of the fun out of Freedom of Speech"). Paulsen moved effortlessly onto the actual campaign trail, where real candidates such as Robert F. Kennedy got and played with the joke, and the show hired a former California gubernatorial campaign manager to offer behind-the-scenes advice.

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