'Dangerously Funny' by David Bianculli

Yes, there was sex, and there were drugs, and everything else associated with the '60s, from freedom and peace to foolishness and paranoia. Both the Smothers Brothers and CBS, in the end, agree that they overreacted at the time -- but remembering how polarized and sensitive society was then goes a long way toward explaining how pitched those battles got, and why.

This book is not, however, some quaint remembrance of a show with a moral stand that has no bearing to modern times. Think of the Smothers Brothers as a pop-culture Grapes of Wrath. When Michael Moore takes his time in the spotlight during a live Oscar telecast to scold President George W. Bush for sending America to war without due cause, the Smothers Brothers, in spirit, are there. When the Dixie Chicks make an anti-Bush comment onstage and suffer a backlash from conservatives before reemerging triumphantly with a new hit and a slew of Grammy Awards, the Smothers Brothers are there. When Bill Maher resurfaces on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, or when Jon Stewart skewers politicians and the media on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Smothers Brothers are there. When Stephen Colbert attempts a comedic run for the presidency, the Smothers Brothers are there. It's worth pointing out, though, that contemporary outspoken comedians and programs reside today on cable. When CBS fired Tom and Dick Smothers, there were no cable networks. They had not been invented. And nearly forty years after the network pulled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from prime time, there's still no true modern-day equivalent on broadcast network television -- no series that speaks truth to power, pushes boundaries, and champions new art and artists in quite the way Tom and Dick Smothers did.

"I run into people," Tom Smothers told the crowd at the Free Speech Tribute in Aspen, "who say, 'Don't you wish you guys had a television show right now? You could say anything you want!'

"That's an illusion, isn't it?" he asked. "The language is there. You can say any language you want...you can talk about violence, graphic sex. But I'm not hearing anything being particularly said. And if we had a show today, I don't think we could say anything more than we did back then."

The closer you look at The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour -- season by season, show by show -- the more you understand the generational, artistic, and moral duels being fought in the '60s, and how quickly small confrontations mushroomed into all-out war on several fronts. Year to year, the shows said it all: Tom and Dick Smothers looked different, acted differently, and protested more brazenly and passionately. What they managed to say and do was important, and what they were prevented from saying and doing was no less meaningful.

Copyright © 2009 by David Bianculli

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