'Dangerously Funny' by David Bianculli

With regime changes both at the White House and at the CBS New York headquarters known as Black Rock, the Smothers Brothers' days were numbered. Once Nixon ascended to the presidency, Tom Smothers insists he was targeted in a way that both predated and prefigured Nixon's enemies list and the sneaky tactics of the "Plumbers." Nixon pushed for greater governmental control of broadcast media at the same time well-placed Nixon allies, from new CBS programming chief Robert D. Wood to TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg, adopted hard-line stances against the sort of envelope-pushing content the Smothers Brothers were trying to present in prime time. Both sides got increasingly, exponentially petulant and combative. Tom Smothers fought too fervently for every word and idea, and slipped obscenities into scripts just to tweak the censors, who promptly removed them. Eventually, Tom lost his own sense of humor while railing against the network suits. CBS executives, on their part, grew impatient and resentful at having to defend or discuss the Smothers Brothers everywhere they went, and began to both change the rules and enforce them ruthlessly.

Undeniably, CBS wanted Tom and Dick Smothers off the air because of the ideas they were espousing on their show, but eventually removed them by claiming that the brothers had violated the terms of their contract by not delivering a copy of that week's show in time. It was like the feds busting Al Capone: the crime for which he was convicted was a mere technicality, but it got Capone off the streets. In the case of CBS and the Smothers Brothers, they got them off the air. Fired, not canceled, as Tom Smothers invariably corrected people in an effort to set the record straight. A few years later, in the case of Tom Smothers et al. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., the US District Court in California ruled that CBS, not the Smothers Brothers, was the party in violation of its contract. But by then, the duo's prime-time platform had long been torpedoed and their influence stolen from them. The attitude they reflected would continue to flourish on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, but only briefly. In late-night TV, it would find its closest approximation, within a decade, on Saturday Night Live, which as recently as the 2008 presidential race proved itself a vital, arguably invaluable, pop-culture component in analyzing and advancing what was, and wasn't, funny about national politics and politicians. But in prime time, where the Smothers Brothers once dared to offer the same sort of probing and timely humor, the concept of relevance in entertainment shows would become an endangered species, if not completely extinct.

During its three-year reign, however, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was about as topical, influential, and important as a TV show could get. Tom Smothers, for the last half of the '60s, was like a mod Zelig or a hippie Forrest Gump, appearing almost everywhere the times they were achangin'. In 1967, Tom was present, and an occasional onstage presenter, at the Monterey International Pop Festival, scouting such breakthrough acts as the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Ravi Shankar. In 1968, Tom was an early champion of the Broadway show Hair, and instrumental in bringing the show to the West Coast. In 1969, Tom could be found at the bedside of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, playing guitar and singing with Lennon as a group of friends recorded the classic anthem "Give Peace a Chance."

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