Smothers Brothers recall TV censorship battles

Friday, March 2, 2007


Special to the Journal-World

Comedian Tommy Smothers, left, and Dick Smothers have been performing as the Smothers Brothers for nearly 50 years. "Thank God I was born with a funny brother," says Dick Smothers, who will appear Sunday in Topeka.

Audio clips

Dick Smothers

When they first appeared on "The Tonight Show," host Jack Paar told the Smothers Brothers, "I don't know what you two guys have, but no one's going to steal it."

True enough. Despite being hailed as inspirations to an entire generation of Vietnam-era comedians, no one has ever tried to adopt the same mix of sibling rivalry, social commentary and folk music balladry as Dick and Tommy Smothers.

Still best known for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," a ratings smash that CBS canceled in 1970 because of its envelope-pushing material, the duo became emblematic of the struggle between art and censorship.

"We never thought we were the greatest, the best, the sharpest," says Dick Smothers, calling from a tour stop in Maryland. "We just happened to be at the right time, the right scene of the accident, politically. Tommy said, 'We didn't cause the '60s, we just happened to have a show.'"

Now age 67, the younger Smothers is still logging nearly 100 shows a year with his brother. And he remains one of the premier "straight men" in comedy, comfortable with the fact his partner delivers most of the punch lines.

"Tommy has made me a funnier person," Dick says. "He can't believe it when we go out and do social things and I'm around people. He'll say, 'Dick, you're funny all the time.' And I'll say, 'Yeah, but I can't do it onstage.'

"I told Tommy, 'I'm waiting to cross that line, then you're out of here!"

Q: It's interesting how your act has this reputation for being very subversive AND very wholesome. How do you straddle that line?

A: We don't talk dirty. We don't use four-letter words like all the other acts. When we started out, Lenny Bruce was the big bad bear. He used his words and vernacular to shock. But the Smothers Brothers never did. I was always puzzled why we got that reputation. We got it really from the networks not being able to accept (negative) letters from some of their affiliates.

Q: Has the entertainment industry become more permissive?

A: We feel that in some ways the government is more restrictive with content. They let you get away with sexual things to let you believe you have freedom. I once used the analogy of an ant farm like you had when you were a kid. It was wide but very thin. We could go as wide as we wanted. But if you went forward or backward, you found a thick barrier.

Q: What's an example of something you slipped past the television censors?

A: It started to be a game. It's hard enough to make a great show, and then to have these other levels on it. Sometimes we would put in a lot of red herrings in the script, then give them up and keep the stuff we really wanted. That takes a lot of energy. ... One thing we did on a regular basis was this section called "Share a Little Tea with Goldie." She was this housewifey, hippie-looking girl. Well, her name referred to pot. She would always say, "Hi(gh)," and just giggle. One time she said, "It's time for spring cleaning, ladies. Send me all those old roaches and sweep them up." She would just laugh like she was stoned.

Q: I just watched "The Kids Are Alright" again, which opens with a clip of The Who performing on your show. What do you remember about that taping?

A: The explosion. What I thought about, too, is these groups would come over and they're so cocky. Sometimes I felt like the hayseed standing around when they came to OUR show. They're all so full of themselves. But The Who were really hot at the time. I think Bette Davis was on that show. She was up in years and probably standing around smoking a cigarette or something. The controversy was The Who always loaded their (bass) drum so that it exploded. But the crafts union and CBS wanted to do it. And they had too many charges in the drum. It darned near killed Pete Townshend.

Q: What can we expect from your live show on this tour?

A: It's like two family members - a couple of uncle Smothers - you haven't seen them in a while. You say, "My god, they haven't changed. They're still arguing." ... It's changed in that the show is more eclectic musically than it used to be. But the songs are just sort of a framework for our conversations. But the undercurrent of the show is Tom still goes off and talks about things with great assurance that he knows nothing about.

Q: Do you dislike or embrace the phrase "the straight man"?

A: Love it. He's necessary. Absolutely necessary. Tommy just extols it. My role is necessary to help Tommy be funny. If you look at Abbott and Costello, take away Abbott and Costello is a hyperactive little guy who would probably drive you crazy in five minutes. You needed the dark cloud of Abbott trying to take advantage of him and manipulate him.

Q: What's something new you recently learned about your brother?

A: I'm surprised he can still get the energy up to believe in the character. We're in our 49th year. The character was born onstage as far as I'm concerned. I'd never seen it before.

Q: Did your mom really like you better?

A: Best. We should have copyrighted that. If I told you, that would be giving it away. But the truth is, Tommy is the first born and I'm the second born. Wouldn't a brother want to get sympathy from the audience, then at the same time rub my nose in it because I know it's not true? So he nails me and gets sympathy at the same time.