In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter gave me the opportunity to write an oral history about one of my passions, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the groundbreaking variety program hosted by Tommy Smothers, who died Tuesday at age 86, and his brother Dick. Airing on CBS from 1967 to 1970, the controversial show offered an alternative television universe for the younger generation, filled with sharp humor, political satire, rock music and relevance. Not ahead of its time, but rather right on target.
I compiled countless interviews with what seemed like every surviving artist from the show, including Steve Martin and Rob Reiner. Everyone except the brothers themselves, who had been rather elusive.
Through secret channels, I finally obtained Tommy Smothers’ cell phone number, along with a series of warnings. First, I was told, be persistent because he almost never answers his phone. Second, be persistent because he probably won’t call you back. And third, don’t be Also persistent because it will just annoy him.
I called Tommy first thing on a Monday morning. As I listened to the phone ring, I practiced in my head the message I would leave him. I thought I would have two sentences, maximum, to convince him. Lost in my own thoughts, I initially missed his whispered and somewhat self-deprecating vocal response: “Hello?”
Caught off guard, I froze momentarily before uttering 100 sentences of admiration in maybe 10 seconds flat. Tommy laughed, not at what I had said, but out of empathy for my frantic state.
We planned to talk the next day. My timing couldn’t have been worse. California wildfires had ravaged his Sonoma County neighborhood, forcing Tommy to evacuate. He didn’t know if he still had a home, a destiny he hoped to discover before our planned call. Hearing my apprehension, Tommy joked. “I might not be in a very good mood if my house wasn’t here.” The house has survived.
Over the years, I’ve recorded our conversations about the artist and his art, such as how he paved the way for political satire on television for programs like Saturday Night Live, the daily show and countless others. “I always wanted something relevant,” he once said. “I felt like not everything on television accurately represented what was happening in the world, and I thought it was important to do that.”
Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became the first high-profile television show to appeal to the counterculture. “I was targeting college graduates and an educated, white-collar audience,” he told me. “It turned out we were No. 1 with 13-year-old boys and 15-year-old girls. The children are always a little ahead of the arc.
Led by series producers Saul Ilson and Ernest Chambers, the comedy has spanned generations in a unique way, combining rock and roll with Hollywood’s biggest stars. Imagine an episode with Bette Davis and The Who, Tallulah Bankhead and The Temptations or Jonathan Winters and Jefferson Airplane.
No one has ever matched the brothers’ unique relationship, blending folk music and natural conversations with sibling rivalry and comical bickering. “We always fought since we were little about everything. » Tommy remembers. “Whether the window should be opened or closed. We slept in bunk beds and fought over eating crackers in bed.
I was amazed by his ability to find talent. “Mason (Williams) said we had to go to the Ice House in Pasadena. There’s a guy there. Steve Martin. He’s kind of funny and really weird,” Tommy remembers. “I watched the show and said, yeah, let’s bring him in.”
The show’s lasting legacy ultimately became Tommy’s censorship battles with CBS, which cost the brothers their show and nearly their careers. “When we tried something and were told no, I wanted to know why,” he said. “I never had a good reason not to put substance into the show.”
Sometimes he would hide an episode’s soundtrack from the network, sending it at the last moment before broadcast so no one would have time to edit it. “I became very stubborn. I can laugh about it now because all my tears are gone,” he admitted half-jokingly.
He played ping-pong with a censor once on the CBS roof, two times out of three, to see if he could keep a joke. He won. CBS has already tried to introduce a spy into the writers’ room. “We all knew it. So we did really bad things, just to keep him busy. We entertained him a lot. He thought the network had ended up bugging his office.
For all he lost, Tommy had empathy for the censors. “Some of them were really nice,” he said.
“They were stuck in a place they had never been before. It was a 1950s mentality. You can’t say “pregnant” or “sex education.” It was difficult for them when it came to social issues regarding the (Vietnam) War, voter registration and racial issues. And they didn’t know how to deal with it.
Ultimately, the network canceled the show, a term the brothers never found accurate. “Dickie always gets pissed when people say that,” Tommy said. “We were fired.” They thought they would never work again. They went on tour to do 200 dates a year in small venues. Vegas avoided them. Friends felt uncomfortable. “If your friend is really sick, there’s a lack of eye contact,” Tommy said. “I felt like they felt for me but I didn’t know what to say.” Through it all, he always admired Dickie for being by his side. “My brother was never mad at me,” Tommy insists. “He said, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ I said, ‘I’m sure of it.’
I think the most poignant aspect of my interactions with Tommy came from Dick. About a half hour after my first call, Dick called (Tommy had apparently passed him my number). Dick told me that Tommy was feeling depressed and a little forgotten. My call had meant something to him. Imagine hearing this from one of your idols.
In his farewell speech, General Douglas MacArthur mentioned that old soldiers never die, they just disappear. I agree with this first part, as long as we keep their memories alive. But I also feel like special artists don’t disappear either. We keep their artistry in our hearts. In that sense, today is just another day in Tommy’s life, a day for which I will remain forever grateful.
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