The 2002 documentary “The Great Smothers Brothers Censorship Wars” tells the story of how one of the most popular comedy variety shows on television in the Sixties went to far and was axed by the network. Tom and Dick Smothers were a popular comedy and folk singing team: Tommy played both the guitar and the role of dullard while Dick played bass, sang the tenor parts in the arrangement, and tried unsuccessfully to keep his brother in line. “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” first aired on February 5, 1967 going up against the #1 show on television, “Bonanza.” The show finished 16th in the Nielsens and helped knock the Cartwrights out of the top spot the following season. The show was a hit with younger viewers, who liked the irreverence of the show, which poked fun at every sacred cow they could find, aided and abetted by Pat Paulsen’s “editorials.”
As this documentary shows, the Smothers Brothers were having trouble getting things past the CBS censors almost from the start. When Paulsen ran a joke campaign for the presidency, CBS kept him off the air fearing the real candidates would demand equal time, but the two key blows were an appearance by folk singing legend Pete Seger, who sang the Vietnam protest song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and a pair of comedy “sermons” by comedian David Bernstein. The technical reason for canceling the show was the failure to provide a tape on time to be cleared by the censors, but the motivation was clearly the anti-war, left-wing, and outspoken guest stars. Tommy Smothers could yell about the First Amendment all he wanted, but in the end CBS replaced the show with “Hee Haw,” a lesson that was lost on no one at the time, which was, you should remember, Richard Nixon’s first term in the White House.
The documentary is fairly balanced, with talking heads from both sides, some of which will be recognizable to young viewers (e.g., Steve Martin, a Smo Bro writer). For those of us who fondly remember Leigh French, Bob Einstein, and Mason Williams, this is a nice walk down memory lane, albeit through some bad times. “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was my favorite television show and when we left for Japan where my father was stationed it was the last television show I watched the night before the flight over. The documentary does assume that you know about the comedy of the Smothers Brothers, because that takes a back seat to the behind the camera conflicts between CBS and Tommy Smothers. Of course, in the television climate of today with what is available on cable the problems of the Smothers Brothers seems rather nostalgic, but there is still a chilling aspect to the tale when you recall the protests against the war, the assassinations of Kennedy and King, and the movement against dissent by the establishment at the end of that decade.
The great irony of course was that it was CBS that would be the network that would decide to air “All in the Family,” which both ushered in an age of “relevant” prime time programming and constituted a de facto absolution for Tommy Smothers. Unfortunately, when the Smothers Brothers were let back on the air (on NBC) they were produced by Joe Hamilton, Carol Burnett’s husband, who tried to force them into the mold of his wife’s successful comedy variety show. By the time Tommy took over the producer’s role the show was doomed by the half dozen shows he put on at the end were as fine as anything the format had seen and I am glad that when I met him several years ago I was able to tell him exactly that.
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After watching this engaging documentary, I’m left seeing both sides–it had to be a terrible headache for CBS (which was trying to please everyone and make profits) to constantly deal with Tom Smothers’ cast of writers who were weekly trying to push the envelope. It was also necessary for Tom Smothers as an artist to pursue his personal (and his writers’) vision. For that reason alone, this is a fascinating study of the times as well as personalities. Perhaps Dick Smothers said it correctly in a short scene (near the beginning) that if they had tried to say less in an episode they would’ve stayed on longer and been able to say just as much.
My only wish is that there would’ve been more actual skits and songs from the show. Perhaps someone with a little bit of intelligence will realize that they could make a lot of money by releasing the seasons on DVD. If we have seasons of Gilligan’s Island and the original Battlestar Gallatica, we should certainly have seasons of quality television such as the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Wow! I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised at how wonderful this DVD was! I wasn’t sure what to expect based on the mixed reviews here on Amazon. I loved it!
But, I must ask, where are the original shows? This DVD has enough clips (some never broadcast) that it would seem that the original series (which, oh by the way, was filmed using video rather than film cameras so the transition to digital should be SO easy!) is out there just waiting for some smart (hint, hint, hint) soul to package up, sit back and watch the dollars come flowing in!
Why isn’t this happening? (I ask rhetorically but hoping for an answer somehow!)
I encourage you to buy this video BUT, if given a choice, I would buy the originals shows first! Of course since the original shows AREN’T available . . .