“Whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.” Those were the words of support offered by George Harrison to Tom and Dick Smothers when he appeared as a surprise guest on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. At the time, the brothers were in a heated battle with the censors at CBS, the network that had aired their variety show since early 1967 and the network that fired them in 1969 despite an Emmy win. In the 45 years since, Tom has consistently pointed out that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was not cancelled; they were fired under a trumped-up breach of contract charge that was later found baseless when the brothers sued CBS… and won. Bittersweet justice as it probably was, CBS was also the network that brought them back to television with a number of specials in the 1980s.
At issue was the fact that the Smothers Brothers were espousing socially progressive ideas on air during a very politically contentious era. They supported rock ‘n roll and counter-culture while they denounced racism and Vietnam. They provided a national platform for the voices of Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, The Doors, Janis Ian, Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, and The Who. They had a reputation and it was completely warranted. Pete Seeger chose The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to make his first network television appearance after being blacklisted in the ’50s. For his effort, Seeger’s performance of the anti-war anthem “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was censored on its first airing, though not on subsequent appearances. In addition to Harrison’s individual nod, the Beatles gave the show their collective support with an exclusive videotaped premiere of “Hey Jude” in 1968.
It would be wrong-headed to say that the brothers didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but it is possible that they sort of stumbled into it. As Tom told Jim Peck in recent years on I Remember, “I didn’t know the show was saying anything important until they said, ‘You can’t say that.’”
Tom and Dick started performing music together in 1959 at San Francisco’s Purple Onion. Over time, the act evolved to include comedy, as well. The younger Dick was as sharp as a tack and more politically conservative than his big brother. Tom had dyslexia, though he didn’t know it at the time, and had developed a persona with a “slow” wit as a compensation mechanism in his youth. The odd couple pairing worked well for them. Political satirist Pat Paulsen started contributing pieces to the act and, eventually, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour emerged. To further evidence the brothers’ tastemaker status, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks, Don Novello, and others got their starts as writers on the show.
Indeed, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a product of and for its time. In his book on the brothers, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, David Bianculli wrote, “Yet in an era when most families still watched television together, in the same room on the same TV set, the greatest and most impressive achievement of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was that it spoke to and attracted young viewers without alienating older ones. With its humor, guest list, and high caliber of entertainment, it bridged the generation gap at a time when that gap was becoming a Grand Canyon-like chasm.”
After having their platform stripped away, the Smothers brothers lost their footing and never regained it, unlike some other notable targets of the time. As Bianculli noted, “Like Elvis Presley when he was shipped off to the army, or Muhammad Ali when he was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, the Smothers brothers were nonconformist iconoclasts, pop-culture heroes yanked from the national spotlight in their prime. Muhammad Ali became the champ again, and Elvis returned to record many more number-one hits, but Tom and Dick Smothers never again enjoyed the influence or mass popularity of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
Though we don’t have a modern-day equivalent, there are a few folks nodding and winking at the brothers through their own work, such as The Jill and Julia Show — which is a collaboration between singer/songwriter Jill Sobule and comedian Julia Sweeney — and Tenacious D— the Jack Black/Kyle Gass musical satire team. More blatantly, Stephen Colbert owes quite a debt to Pat Paulsen, right down to the tongue-in-cheek presidential campaign. So many of Paulsen’s lines could easily be mistaken for Colbert’s: “The Bill of Rights says nothing about Freedom of Hearing. This, of course, takes a lot of the fun out of Freedom of Speech.”
When the country needed a bravely dissident voice, Tom and Dick Smothers dared to speak truth to power through music and humor. They pulled no punches and pushed every boundary. A few years back, Tom addressed a crowd at the Free Speech Tribute in Aspen, saying,”I run into people 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?,” Tom continued. “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 more things change, the more they stay the same.
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.