Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Happy Birthday, Tommy Smothers!

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Today is the 73rd birthday of Tommy Smothers and, as much as I think it's important to honor the work of those who have passed away, it's a pleasure to be able to salute a fine comedian who is still very much with us. Tommy Smothers was one-half of the Smothers Brothers, partnering his younger brother Dick (born 11-20-39) on their own CBS television variety show. They are still active and in fact both can be seen in cameo roles in last year's The Informant!.

The Smothers Brothers' m.o. was folk music, not physical comedy, but their act was right out of vaudeville with Dick playing straightman on string bass to a confused, emotional Tommy on acoustic guitar. You never knew what words would come from Tommy's mouth. His character was the one who blurts out what everyone else may be thinking but is afraid to say out loud.

But this is a physical comedy blog, so here's a clip of Tommy showing some pretty cool chops on the yoyo!

And here they are (their actual voices) as part of a Bart Simpson dream (he badly wants a brother) on an episode this past December on The Simpsons:

Fired from CBS? Yes, another reason to praise the Smothers Brothers is that back in the turbulent Vietnam War era, long before cable tv and the internet, when three major networks controlled everything Americans saw and heard on television, and most entertainers chose not to make waves, the Smothers Brothers continuously fought back against this wall of censorship. They engaged in weekly battles with the CBS censors, who insisted that television was entertainment, pure and simple, and that politics was bad for business. They lost most of these battles, but paved the way for the greater freedom enjoyed today by such satirists as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.

One of the biggest controversies was over a Harry Bealfonte song that was accompanied by footage of police violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The song (video clip below) was not aired and later that season the Smothers Brothers were booted off the air for refusing to cave to the censors. This Wikipedia summary pretty much nails it:

With the focus of the show having evolved towards a more youth-oriented one, the show became both popular and controversial for those same references to youth culture and the issues that both interested and affected this particular target audience. Three specific targets of satire — racism, the President of the United States, and the Vietnam War — would wind up defining the show's content for the remainder of its run, and eventually lead to its demise.

Whereas most older audiences were tuning into shows like the western Bonanza, the younger generation — ages 15–25 — were watching the Smothers' more socially relevant humor.

The Brothers soon found themselves in regular conflicts with CBS' network censors. At the start of the 1968/69 season, the network ordered that the Smothers deliver their shows finished and ready to air ten days before airdate so that the censors could edit the shows as necessary. In the season premiere, CBS deleted the entire segment of Belafonte singing "Lord, Don't Stop the Carnival" against a backdrop of the havoc during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, along with two lines from a satire of their main competitor, Bonanza. As the year progressed, battles over content continued, including a David Steinberg sermon about Moses and the Burning Bush.

With some local stations making their own deletions of controversial skits or comments, the continuing problems over the show reached a boiling point after CBS showed a rerun on March 9, 1969. The network explained the decision by stating that because that week's episode did not arrive in time to be previewed, it would not be shown. In that program, Joan Baez paid tribute to her then-husband–David Harris–who was entering jail after refusing military service, while comedian Jackie Mason made a joke about children "playing doctor." When the show finally did air, two months later, the network allowed Baez to state that her husband was in prison, but edited out the reason.

Despite the conflict, the show was picked up for the 1969-70 season on March 14, seemingly ending the debate over the show's status. However, network CEO and President, William S. Paley, abruptly canceled the show on April 4, 1969. The reason given by CBS was based on the Smothers' refusal to meet the pre-air delivery dates as specified by the network in order to accommodate review by the censors before airing. This cancellation led the Brothers to file a successful breach of contract suit against the network, although the suit failed to see the Brothers or their show returned to the air.[2] Despite this cancellation, the show went on to win the Emmy Award that year for best writing. The saga of the cancellation of the show is the subject of a 2002 documentary film, Smothered.[3]

Here's a telegram from CBS staking out their right to pre-censor the show, followed by the Harry Belafonte clip that did not make it to the airwaves in the fall of 1968.

The Video That Dared Not Be Shown:

As this final note from Wikipedia shows, the Smothers Brothers did receive some vindication decades later:
In 2003, the brothers were awarded the George Carlin Freedom of Expression Award from the Video Software Dealers’ Association. The award recognizes the brothers' “extraordinary comic gifts and their unfailing support of the
First Amendment.” In September 2008, during the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards, Tommy Smothers, a lead writer of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" was belatedly awarded a 1968 Emmy for Outstanding Writing In A Comedic Series. In 1968, Tommy Smothers had refused to let his name be on the list of writers nominated for the Emmy because he felt his name was too volatile, and thus when the writing staff won he was the only member not to receive the award.

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