February 19, 2021

FTV: The Smothers Brothers – Part 2


     We left Part 1 of The Smothers Brothers just as they had their first album in the can.  They landed in New York during the brutal winter of 1961 for their first club dates on the East Coast.  It must have been quite a shock to their systems having spent the majority of their life thus far in sunny southern California.  Their eight week booking at The Limeliter Club in Aspen, Colorado and a subsequent gig at Denver’s The Satire got them a little east of SoCal, but the New York swing was a whole different matter.  We have been following their career from Dangerously Funny – The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (David Bianculli – Touchstone – 2009)  which places their first New York booking at an uptown club called The Blue Angel.  

     The Brothers were in NYC to be the opening act for Pat Harrington, Jr. (best known at the time for appearing on Jack Paar’s Tonight show as the fictitious Italian golfer Guido Panzini). Harrington would later be cast in the role of Schneider the handyman on the 1970s CBS sitcom One Day at a Time.  It was Harrington who lobbied Paar’s booker to get the Brothers on Tonight, but word of mouth in the entertainment industry is also a powerful force.  As word spread, fellow New York neophyte Bob Newhart was joined in the audience by actor Anne Bancroft, comedians Jake E. Leonard and Shelley Berman, composer Richard Rogers, and singer ‘perky Peggy King’.  King had been one of the regulars on The George Gobel Show and she promised to bring him to a show as well.  Gobel attending was a big thing as he was Tom’s original comedic inspiration.

     Tom sent a letter to their sister Sherry on January 16, 1961 in which he commented on the size of the city, the ‘name entertainers’ who came to their shows, and their prospects for getting on a TV show (either Parr’s or Perry Como’s).  Tom told her, “So far, no definite TV shows.  First time in New York, you can’t get everything!”  Tom was wrong.  Just before they were due to head back to California, Paar’s booker called and asked if they would be willing to fill in after another act fell through.  Bianculli summed up their New York experience:  “[The Brothers] had to prove themselves to the legendarily tough New York audience.  Success didn’t come immediately.  It took about a week.”

     After being introduced to camera blocking at rehearsal, Tom inquired if they would be called over to talk to Paar after their performance.  The stage manager replied rather snarkily, “Ah, well, I don’t think so.”  The talent coordinator heard this exchange and brought them backstage to meet the man himself.  Paar wasn’t much more encouraging than the stage manager had been:  “Hi, boys.  You’re folk singers, right?  I like folk singers.  I just hate hillbillies.”  After looking them over in an awkward pause, Paar asked, “What’s the difference between hillbilly and folk music?”  Paar roared with laughter at Tom’s nervous response, “Well, hillbillies sing higher.”  Paar’s introduction during the show was not a ringing endorsement either:  “I’ve got to tell you, this next act, I have never seen before.  And I have never heard of them before.  They’ve got a funny name – Smothers Brothers – it’s not made up.  But their dad, their dad was an army man, he was killed in the war.  And they’re folksingers.  I don’t like folksingers generally.  I like Burl Ives.  But . . . come on out boys!  Come on out!”

     About this time Dick was thinking, “What kind of an intro is that?” Paar then showed why he was the king of late night TV comedy.  He asked Tom the hillbilly vs folksinger question again, this time knowing Tom had a killer retort (the one he had given backstage).  Dick recalls, “[Paar’s] set up was perfect, letting them see us for a second, dismissing us, and setting up Tommy’s line so they saw his character a little bit before we got into the music – it was huge.”  Success on Paar’s show was like finding the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory.  As a result, the Brother’s stock soared and people were clamoring for the album the Brothers had just finished but had yet to be released.  No PR guy in the universe could have set them up better than Paar had.

     The Smothers Brothers approached their recording career backwards.  Most acts hone their material live before committing it to vinyl.  The Brothers would record live shows and then piece together the best ad libs and tracks into an album.  Once the album was completed, they used it as the template for their live act.  They performed these routines until they were better than their albums.  Releasing two albums a year is a daunting task but the way Tom and Dick worked, it left them free to pursue their own interests now that they were making more money.  By their own admission, they were lazy when it came to writing new material for records.  Recording new material live was a trial by fire, but it also let them try a lot of stuff, toss the weak links, and keep the best bits in their live act.  Families and hobbies came first, work was done when it had to be.  The Smothers Brothers made a decent living doing college and nightclub gigs while using occasional guest appearances on various TV shows to spark their album sales.

     A guest appearance as a couple of tycoons in an episode of Burke’s Law introduced them to TV empresario Aaron Spelling.  Spelling gave the go-ahead to develop a situation comedy vehicle to cash in on the craze that made shows like My Favorite Martian and Bewitched big hits.  These fantasy sitcoms featured Ray Walston and Elizabeth Montgomery whose characters had amazing powers they needed to keep hidden.  Of course, Bill Bixby and the two actors who played Montgomery’s husband during the series were the only hapless humans to know their secret.

The Smothers Brothers Show cast Tom as an apprentice angel (with secret powers) who returns after being lost at sea to complicate his freewheeling bachelor brother’s life (the hapless human) played by Dick.  The producers took away all the things that made the Brothers funny:  no instruments, no ad libbing, and very few scenes where they could play off of each other.  In the end, Dick says, “The show was extremely hard on Tom because he had all the words – all the words – and they didn’t know it was hard for Tommy to learn the words.  So it was extremely hard on him, compared to me.  Tom got nothing out of the series but an ulcer.”  When the show was mercifully canceled, they were not disappointed and got back to doing what they did best.

     The last reruns of the sitcom played in September of 1966 and no one, including Tom and Dick, would imagine that they would be back on TV as soon as the winter of 1967.  They can thank the NBC ratings juggernaut called Bonanza for their next opportunity.  Bonanza was the big dog of network TV and every show put up against it in the 9 PM Sunday slot either faded away or died in swift fashion.  Even after a successful eight year run, the courtroom drama Perry Mason was canceled after only one year going head to head with the Ponderosa boys.  Mike Dann, the head of programming at CBS at that time, is credited for ‘having the courage’ to put together a variety show featuring the Smothers Brothers and run it opposite Bonanza.  Dann sees it differently:  “It didn’t take any courage!  They were the only show I could get ready [fast enough]!”  The only other thing they had going for them was their age – CBS realized that all the other variety show hosts were getting long in the tooth.  The Brothers were charged with being the networks ‘young act’.  CBS underestimated the effect a young act could have on a national TV audience.

     The competition frightened a lot of the brass at CBS, but not Tom.  Tom said, “Hey, if we succeed, it will be big.  It will be a big deal.  And if we fail, no one will blame us.  So let’s go.  I want to go now.”  Because they had been mismanaged in their failed sitcom, Tom insisted they be given creative control over the new show.  Some doubt that CBS would have signed any contract  stating the Brothers had full control, but all the Tom and Dick ever signed with the network was an ‘intent paper’.  The show was put together fast and Tom certainly seemed to have the right to hire and fire.  He filled the staff with writers Tom and Dick felt comfortable with while bringing in many friends from the folk circuit.  A good number would become household names thanks to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Mason Williams and John Hartford came on board as writers and to help on the musical side.  Along the way, unknown musical artists like Jim Stafford, Jennifer Warnes, and Glen Campbell were also blended into the mix.  Comedic personalities like Leigh French, David Steinberg, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Lorenzo Music (later the voice of the animated Garfield the Cat), Bob Einstein (who would go on to play the jinxed stuntman Super Dave Osborne as well as Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Pat Paulson cut their teeth as writers and performers on the show.  Borrowing bits and pieces from shows like Your Show of Shows and That Was the Week That Was (not to mention hiring away some of their writers), the Brothers began assembling a show that had roots in the past but branches to the future.  Mason Williams and his girlfriend, Nancy Ames, wrote the show’s theme song based on a mistake Williams made while accompanying Ames at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.  It was perfect, Williams recalled because, “Since the Smothers Brothers’ whole career is based on mistakes, maybe we should create a song that’s just full of mistakes – or the same mistake, repeated over and over.  Same as their career.”  CBS didn’t like it but Tommy did.  They would continue to use it as their theme from then on.

     Mason Williams recalled how they used a shoe box parked in the foyer of their apartment to collect ideas for skits and guest stars.  “When it came time for the show,” Mason said, “we dug [the box out and it contained] and there were two to three page of solid ideas of things we wanted to explore.  From the scraps of paper that collected in the shoebox, the Comedy Hour was constructed and ready to roll in a mere two months.   By their ninth show, they were averaging 12 million viewers to Bonanza’s 14 million.  CBS balked at including music that wasn’t from, “Broadway, or hits, or Americana.  We [CBS] don’t want things on the TV that aren’t familiar, or that people don’t already like.”  The younger audience that the show was courting thought otherwise.  The music began attracting viewers who normally did not watch TV.

     A little known California band called The Turtles were taped for the show lip-synching their single Happy Together.  The song reached the Billboard Top 100 on February 11, the night before the show aired.  Other groups and record labels noted that Happy Together shot right to number one, opening a crucial door to attract other upcoming bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders, Buffalo Springfield, and The Doors.  The first time I heard The Doors perform Touch Me live was on TSBCH, months before it was released on record.  Similar chart action took place for Jefferson Airplane (Want Somebody to Love and White Rabbit) and The Who (I Can See for Miles).  The Who made an even bigger impression on their second number, a live version of My Generation.  Drummer Keith Moon bribed the effects guy into upping the amount of powder used to make it his bass drum ‘explode’ during their instrument smashing finale.  The concussion was so large it knocked Moon and Townshend in opposite directions, singed Townshend’s hair, and caused Pete to suffer (partial) permanent hearing loss in one ear.  Guest star Bette Davis fainted back stage.  The Comedy Hour was turning out to be a little different than a run of the mill variety show.  

     The wink and nod in Bianculli’s book title is “The Uncensored Story . . .” because what people remember most about the Comedy Hour is their battle with the network censors.  It was a war that  would get the Brothers fired from CBS in May of 1969 (after a three year run).  It started innocently enough with little bits of jokes and skits chopped to pieces as the CBS censors sought to protect the viewing public from what they viewed as ‘objectionable material’.  Oddly enough, the first skit completely deleted was about TV censors and the war was on.

     As the show’s popularity grew, more and more overtly political topics began appearing.  After seventeen years of being blacklisted from TV, the Brothers brought folk singing legend Pete Seeger in as a guest.  Seeger did several selections and ended with his new song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.  Set in World War II, the song nonetheless was a thinly veiled poke at the futility of the Vietnam War and the president.  CBS cut the Big Muddy segment out of the program before it aired.  No one knew at the time, but they had waved a red flag in front of a bull.

     Tom took any censorship as a challenge to his artistic control of the program.  He and the writers began peppering skits with things they knew would be cut or just to rile up the two guys charged with protecting TV viewers from ‘inappropriate content’.  Some of these throwaways were put in just to needle the censors (or ‘editors’ as CBS called them).  Some were bargaining chips:  if they put in something outrageous, perhaps they could trade that for something that would not be cut.  Undeterred, Tom and Dick (but mostly Tom) began to battle with the network.  Airing many of their grievances directly to the press pushed CBS to fire the Brothers at the end of their third season.  When asked to return for a 20th Reunion Show,  CBS and The Brothers acknowledged that both sides blew many things way out of proportion back in the day.  When it got really tense, every little spark caused a huge conflagration.  Both sides were ready for the separation yet they were on the cutting edge, the ratings were still solid, and The Comedy Hour was making TV history when it all came crashing down.

     The Brothers provided TV with many memorable firsts:  the introduction of youth culture with the likes of real life flower girl Leigh French providing her colorful commentary proved to be a key generational bridge.  Long time friend of the Brothers, Pat Paulson, began as a bit player (that is him sporting a fake moustache toting the bass drum in the opening credit sequence) to a full blown comedic presence via his hangdog facial features and his catch phrases such as, “Picky, picky, picky.”  Paulson’s faux presidential campaign turned out to be one of the few light political moments during the tragic stretch of 1968 starting and ending with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.   Glen Campbell was picked to host a summer replacement series after season two (The  Summer Brothers Smothers Show) which set him up to host his own mid-year replacement show (The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour).  Tom Smothers had a knack for finding talented young writers and performers to bring into the fold. Some of the bits that caused the censorship uproar in 1967-1969 seem downright tepid when viewed today.  Pushing the limits they way they did cost Tom and Dick their show, but opened the way for future hits like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.  Remember Rowan & Martin’s wall with all the little doors that cast and guests would pop out of to deliver one liners?  You can guess where they got the idea.  Would sitcoms like All In The Family have made the grade without the Smothers Brothers paving the way for edgier, topical humour on network TV?  

     Other than shows with popular musical acts on the schedule, I did not spend a whole lot of my high school years watching TV variety shows.  The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was the exception and I wasn’t alone.  We spent a lot of time on our high school band bus trips repeating the latest ‘cool’ bits that we had heard on the show.  Noted documentarian Ken Burns perhaps gave the best analogy about the controversial nature of the show:  “They were the irritant and in the end, CBS ended up with a pearl.”  It is too bad neither side pulled in their horns enough to let it continue past season three.  Tom and Dick can still look back in pride.  They paved the way for any number of revolutionary TV and cable programs spawned from their pioneering work.

Top Piece Video:  The introduction to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – Twenty Year Reunion show!