The Smothers Brothers lead a TV Roundtable look at televised controversy

The Smothers Brothers lead a TV Roundtable look at televised controversy

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next eight installments focus on “controversial episodes.”

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, “Episode #3.23” (season three, episode 23; originally aired 3/30/1969)

Phil Dyess-Nugent: In television’s early years, controversy was something that happened by accident. Lucille Ball got pregnant at a point where it was unthinkable for her show to disappear from the air, or Italian-Americans who had put up with decades of unflattering stereotypes in gangster movies decided that The Untouchables was the last straw. Not many people in TV went courting controversy—except for a few people in the news divisions, like Edward R. Murrow, and we all know how that turned out. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour represents some kind of dividing line, because it’s one of the first entertainment shows I can think of that generated an audience while actively inviting controversy. 

This doesn’t seem to have been a matter of generating ink and ratings, either. CBS had hired the brothers to do a variety hour, with the idea that they might be able to appeal to younger viewers, especially those who had little use for television. This in itself seemed a fanciful notion at the time. The Smothers Brothers were folkies, likably lightweight singing comedians who would come out with their instruments and start to perform a number like “Tom Dooley” or “I Talk To The Trees” and then fall into bantering or bickering. A year before their variety show premièred, they had starred in a harmless CBS sitcom in which Tom played an angel who returned to Earth to keep a hapless eye on his brother, Dick. What CBS must not have realized was that Tommy Smothers—who played the smiling dummy in their stage act, but who was actually a hardhead with a street fighter’s nature—had been so angry about the compromises demanded of them on the sitcom that he made up his mind to do the new show the way they wanted, and to fight the censors every step of the way. And the show the brothers wanted to do was a show that kept compulsively returning to the subject of the Vietnam War, because they sincerely believed that any show that didn’t address that issue would be a crock.

This episode is the one that essentially ended the Smothers’ relationship with the network and led to the cancellation of the series. By the time of the third season, CBS had begun demanding that the brothers submit their finished episodes 10 days ahead of airtime, so that the censors would have plenty of time to comb through them for objectionable material. This episode features two guests who had two different kinds of hot-potato reputations: Jackie Mason, who had been banned from The Ed Sullivan Show for allegedly giving Sullivan the finger while on the air, and Joan Baez, whom Tommy congratulates on her “individuality” and “integrity.” He’s referring to her status as the left-wing madonna of the protest movement, and more specifically, to her refusal to pay the percentage of her income taxes that would go to the war. He’s also referring to the legal troubles of her husband, David Harris, who had refused to be inducted into the military. During her performance, Baez dedicates “Green Green Grass Of Home” to Harris, explaining that he was about to go to prison for the sake of his antiwar principles. The episode was held up for weeks while the censors decided what to do about Baez’s dedication. Their solution was that, in the version originally broadcast, Baez got to tell the world that her husband was about to go into the jug, but didn’t get to explain why. Then she sang a song that ends with the singer waking up in his cell the day of his execution.

The official story was that the show was canceled because the brothers weren’t turning the episodes in on time, but nobody ever bought that. There was a new presidential administration that was more direct about attacking the “liberal” media, the 1960s were over after having barely begun on TV, and after a series of high-profile embarrassments at the Smothers’ hands, CBS had simply had it with this shit. 

Politically and commercially, this was an outrage. Aesthetically, it’s a mixed bag. This is not the best episode of the show’s run, and the fact is that the longer the show went on, the more the strain showed. And not just the strain of fighting the network, but of trying to remain loose and funny in circumstances that were turning Tommy, in particular, into a pop-culture martyr. Even at its most ragged, this show remains fascinating to me for the way you can feel the polarizing undercurrents of the times throbbing beneath the surface—which, I know, is also part of the reason that some people now find it so dated as to be unwatchable. One irony of this episode is that Jackie Mason scores the funniest moments. Mason and Smothers have some things in common: They’re both self-defined guys who can be famously hard to get along with. But unlike Tommy, Jackie Mason has never given any evidence of caring deeply about anything more than he cares about being funny.

The cancellation of their TV series upended the brothers’ careers and turned them into sacrificial victims in the eyes of their fans and many of their show-business colleagues. They won a celebrated breach-of-contract lawsuit against the network in 1973. And in 1975, a few months after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and a few months before the première of Saturday Night Live, they were given their own prime-time comedy hour on NBC. It must have seemed as if the times had caught up with them. The announcement generated a lot of excitement, the first episode was the fourth-highest rated show on television for that week—and then, the show just died. There were awkward jokes about the fate of the brothers’ previous show, and “political” sketches, such as a Dean Martin-style roast of Uncle Sam, that suggested a half-bright high-school kid’s idea of edgy satire. A TV Guide article by Dwight Whitney was titled “The Smothers Brothers Fiasco” and included this quote from Tommy (adapted from an aphorism attributed to Pontius Pilate): “Yes, I did check my convictions at the studio gate. We had lost our platform. This was the only way we could get it back.” 

With nothing to lose, the network allowed Tommy more creative input for the last four (of 13) episodes, and he brought back regulars from the ’60s show, such as Pat Paulsen and Bob Einstein as Officer Judy, and put the focus on them doing their old shtick—an admission that, however much he may have come to believe his own hype, all he had to offer in this brave new post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world was nostalgia, long before anyone was interested in feeling nostalgic for anything to do with the ’60s (unless it was Beatles-related). 

The Brothers didn’t disappear after that—they starred in TV specials and hosted Saturday Night Live and even had another variety hour for a few weeks in 1988, when the networks were desperate for programming during a writers’ strike, and in 2002, they appeared in an excellent TV documentary about their travails at CBS, Smothered. But the 1975 series was their last chance to prove they weren’t has-beens, and having blown it, they’ve carried that stigma with them ever since. The truth is that, unlike, say, Richard Pryor (whose 1977 TV show barely made it to air in any form) or Lenny Bruce (who was lucky to even get an invitation to appear on The Steve Allen Show), the Smothers Brothers were never natural rebels. They were mainstream entertainers who happened to have their own hit show at a moment when their instincts—and not just their moral and political instincts but their highly developed sense of what their audience wanted—compelled them to talk about things that made the network shit purple. And then the moment passed.

Ryan McGee: There are ways to get subversive things slipped into art without the patrons recognizing them. However, in 1969, I’m not sure any network turned a blind eye to a single thing that aired, with the fervor over the Vietnam War polarizing the country more than ever. Leave it to the Smothers Brothers not to try to hide their antiwar sentiments but rather put them on proud display, daring CBS to not air their show. This isn’t Jim Morrison singing the word “higher” on Sullivan, a transgression that challenged decency standards in 1967. Having Joan Baez sing about her soon-to-be-imprisoned husband and Jackie Mason mock know-nothing politicians (including the eventual President Ronald Reagan) is a broadside attack on the powers that were.

I’m always fascinated when content clearly rubs up against those airing it. In my lifetime, this has taken the form of Norm MacDonald constantly mocking O.J. Simpson during his run as anchor on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” which reportedly angered NBC West Coast Entertainment President Don Ohlmeyer (who was real-life friends with Simpson). Arrested Development certainly featured some mockery of the military-industrial complex surrounding the Iraq War, but that series seemed to have its sharpest barbs aimed at Fox’s treatment of the low-rated but critically loved Bluths. It’s hard to say if our modern era is more or less polarized than 1969, but we’re almost certainly more cleaved in terms of the objects of our angst. I’m not sure many people are particularly fond of the U.S. government right now, but why they are angry is not centered around an unpopular war. Instead, it’s diffused through a myriad of very serious but somewhat isolated issues.

Maybe that type of schism matches our current television landscape, which offers more choice than ever but has split audience attention as never before. It’s not hard to imagine a show like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour making it on air today. It would probably be on a boutique network where it wouldn’t be censored—but it also might not be watched. Those that would tune in would like what they see, but perhaps find it frustrating that its content was lost in the overwhelming static that is modern culture. I love the quiet, subversive nature of what the Smothers Brothers brought to the cultural conversation. I just can’t help but wonder if such soft voices would simply be drowned out today.

So I’ll ask the rest of the Roundtable: Are the days of television programs as the potential center of a counterculture revolution over, given the modern cable landscape? If so, does the sheer variety of options give potentially explosive perspectives more room to blossom?

Genevieve Koski: Actually, Ryan, I think it is pretty hard to imagine a show like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour getting on TV today—not because of the content, but because of the form. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are both current comedy shows whose routine engagement with controversial and political issues is the main component of their appeal. (Ryan may have a point that the extent our culture is fractured now compared to 1969 might keep any one program from being the center of a counterculture movement, but I’d posit The Daily Show as one of the few shows that could conceivably hope to be.) But unlike both of those shows, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is bound by a format that isn’t specifically designed to engage those issues—and has little to no value in the current television climate. This makes it seem fairly toothless by modern standards, with its variety-show trappings softening every apparent edge to butter-knife harmlessness. But within the era and context it was aired, the show’s pointedness seems much sharper. By today’s standard, it’d be as if Jimmy Fallon opened with a staunch pro-choice monologue, and then invited Pussy Riot on to play three songs in between a few Janeane Garofalo rants.

Or at least that’s what I’d guess, being that I’m a couple decades away from being able to speak authoritatively on what constituted controversy in 1969. I’m basically going off of Mad Men and some old Very Special Episode articles here. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suppose that the perceived subversion of the Smothers Brothers’ comedy was somewhat heightened by the traditional-seeming atmosphere in which it was presented.

Speaking of presentation: I’m really glad Phil found the uncensored version for us to watch, because it’d be a shame not to get the full context of Baez’s performance, which was easily the highlight of this episode for me. That sort of extended, multi-song musical performance is extremely rare on television these days (though the proliferation of online-video supplements is changing that somewhat), and it’s striking to witness the connection Baez fosters with the audience over the course of three songs. It makes it feel much more like she’s been invited into our homes to sing, which makes the poignancy of what she’s singing that much more affecting. By today’s standards, such directness, untempered by any irony or theatrics, is quite unusual, and it’s arresting to see here.

Erik Adams: My mind is also fixed on a connection forged during the musical portion of the program, but it’s one between the performers. After Baez leaves her perch in the risers (another way The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’s in-the-round setup sets itself apart from that of other TV variety hours), she joins the Smothers onstage for a rendition of the Bob Dylan-penned, Band-recorded cut “I Shall Be Released.” During the song’s first chorus, the cameras fade to a close-up of Tommy, looking over at his guest with what appears to be a mix of awe, respect, and sympathy—and maybe, just maybe, a hint of wishful thinking. Here’s a woman who stood her ground for many years and had the good sense not to get mixed up with the kinds of people who could dismantle her soapbox; I have to wonder if the look in Tommy Smothers’ eyes isn’t regret about losing the loudest microphone that was ever placed in front of him.

I’d like to return to Phil’s opening line, because I think it’ll prove increasingly important as we move through this Roundtable theme. Some of the episodes and shows we discuss in this go-round actively courted controversy the way The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour did; others might have done so by accident. But no matter their intent, no one working on a TV show can accurately predict the kind of waves it will make once it hits the air. That’s a subject that traps a lot of interviewers: After the fact, everyone wants to know if the writer of a hot-button program or the director of a scurrilous film anticipated the way the public reacted to their work. But nine times out of 10, the answer is a qualified “no.” Because these people can’t see into the future, and even if they were expecting to offend or incite people with their new project, how that project is perceived by the world at large can be determined by an infinite number of factors. It’s just as likely to cause no reaction.

And that’s why I find that look on Tommy Smothers’ face is so damn poignant: When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was getting off the ground, he couldn’t have known the amount of grief he was about to cause himself and his brother or their insanely talented writing staff (which for this episode includes The Committee’s Carl Gottlieb as well as the co-writer of Gottlieb’s best, non-shark-related screenplay, Steve Martin). But at this point, boy, has he ever stepped in it. He has made his opinions known, and he’s been dealing with the consequences. As far as the content of this particular episode goes, it’s hard to tell if it was worth it. Baez’s performance is enthralling, and Mason gets some decent zingers in, but that IRS montage at the end of the episode is dire. The Smothers sacrificed a lot to broadcast their convictions to the widest possible audience—did that include their sense of humor as well?

Todd VanDerWerff: It’s probably worth pointing out that, like most controversial episodes of TV over the years, this episode doesn’t feel especially controversial now. The various storms that were raging when this episode aired have been safely contained and now play background roles on various Mad Men episodes. I can intellectually understand why CBS got so upset at Baez talking about why her husband was going to prison (and the edited version shown at the end of this version of the episode is hilariously awkward), but when I see it, it doesn’t really feel tumultuous. It’s just something that happened, and it feels part of a distant past. (For what it’s worth, when Baez and the brothers sing together, it’s surprisingly, hauntingly beautiful, and I think this is a part of my reaction. How could anybody get too upset at people who sing this nicely, no matter what the lyrics say?)

That’s the thing about controversial TV episodes: Over the years, they tend to win the battle of public opinion, even if the causes they support disappear into faded memory. (One of the few exceptions, I guess, is the Maude abortion episode, which is still at least somewhat controversial today, to the degree that anybody thinks about it.) The world is a constant struggle between those who yearn for change and those who say, “Hey, wait a minute,” but art tends to skew toward the change side of things because that’s just the way we’ve been conditioned to love narrative over millennia. Art is often a way to work out controversial ideas and tensions in a safe space years before they’ll become mainstream, and it’s that power that television magnifies, because of its position as an appliance within our own homes. So The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour might seem tame to me now, the reaction to it outsized, but I need to remember the fact that television’s ubiquity and, for lack of a better word, smallness is what makes its potential to introduce new ideas and concepts so huge. It’s just that this potential is so rarely seized upon.

David Sims: Todd’s right, of course. The whole episode viewed through my jaded eyes is almost cute and quaint, especially from a comedy perspective but also from a political perspective. Baez isn’t tearing up a picture of the Pope or anything, she’s just telling the audience that her husband is going to prison for ignoring the draft. But at the same time, the quaint, gentle quality of her protest makes the whole thing feel all the more earth-shattering. The way Baez talks, with a smile on her face, about objecting to “militarism in general” and how people who don’t flee the country are “gonna get busted,” imagining the well of emotion running underneath, it’s incredibly compelling to watch.

I agree with Genevieve that it blew my mind how many songs Baez gets to do. You so rarely see that kind of space afforded to a musical guest on any kind of variety show these days. The way the brothers join her on stage for the final number for “I Shall Be Released” is pretty powerful as a final definitive endorsement.

It’s also surprising to see comedians on a variety show taking such a sincere stance with Baez. There’s no deeper layer of irony or cynicism to it, something that is pretty common these days. I love The Colbert Report, but the very concept of the show’s politics is a few jokes folded in on each other. Jon Stewart’s sincere rants to camera (which usually set off choruses of applause from the Internet) are more along these lines, but even they usually come from his exhaustion with the political process. But the Smothers Brothers are so dignified on stage there. It was a classier era. I don’t know that I long for it, but it’s sure something to see.

Donna Bowman: See, I’ve got to disagree. The Baez moment has the bracing shock of its simplicity. In any day and age, but especially in our current “honor the heroes” moment (the heroes being the police and military who uphold our government with force of arms), treating criminality as an act of conscience never happens on platforms like this. Can you imagine the outcry if a Tea Party-type country star went on Leno and advocated breaking gun laws to prepare for Obama’s assault on the Second Amendment? Or a celebrity chatted with Jimmy Kimmel about plans to pass information to WikiLeaks? Making jokes that implicitly take the side of the counterculture can just barely skate by as comedy. Celebrating anti-American activity would raise an outcry no matter what the era.

The unadorned nature of the moment, as well as its still-astounding content, has a striking quality that carries through much of the rest of the episode. It was the aesthetic of the late ’60s and early ’70s that extreme artifice did not preclude absolute authenticity—was, in fact, sometimes a necessary vehicle for delivering it. We forget that the ’60s was a time of nostalgia for earlier times as well. The vaudevillian nature of these variety shows, the Catskill rhythms of the comics they featured, aren’t remnants of the passing culture; they’re revivals. We look back and see an awkward mix of the staid and the progressive. But it’s the networks that thought they could adopt the style without the substance. The artists hijacking their medium knew better.

Stray observations:

I really like the show’s in-the-round staging, with the Brothers and their guests surrounded by a surprisingly intimate-looking studio audience. But, especially when Jackie Mason is on, I do wonder how rapid the turnover must have been on this show for boom mike operators. [PDN]

Hip folkie self-parody moment: Tommy explaining that the brothers and Joan are going to do a song from her new album, by “Bobby Dylan.” [PDN]

The income-tax skits at the end include members of the legendary San Francisco improv group The Committee, such as Howard Hesseman, Carl Gottlieb (who later rewrote Peter Benchley’s script for the movie version of Benchley’s novel, Jaws), and Garry Goodrow, who would later sit in the cubicle next to mine in the polling department at CBS News. Sadly, they do not appear to have written their own material here. [PDN]

The in-the-round shooting makes it really hard for me not to fixate on the audience members as the camera jumps around—specifically what they’re wearing. There’s a girl in the front row during Mason’s performance who’s wearing an all-pink version of Peggy’s date dress from this season’s Mad Men finale, and a cardigan-bedecked grandma who looks distinctly uncomfortable seated among all the longhairs. [GK]

When the brothers join Baez for “I Shall Be Released,” it’s more than a statement of political solidarity; there’s a musical message, too. I find this kind of inclusiveness, with actual musicians welcoming people known for other talents into their songs, very touching. Of course it’s a feature of the folk movement, which always encouraged joining in and singing along, and always downplayed the distance between the performer and the audience. But it’s also a stance of the variety show going back to the times when singing cowboys hosting radio shows would ask the folks that stopped by to join them in a tune. That still survives today whenever Garrison Keillor’s deep basso rumbles along with his musical guests on A Prairie Home Companion, and I never fail to feel invited. I don’t even mind the singers joining Baez and the Smothers off-camera; they’re the angelic chorus that we all hope will support us when we sing out loud. [DB]

When the Smothers Brothers weren’t sporting ascots and Nehru jackets, they wore some snazzy double-breasted suits. Those are fashion statements that would blend right in today, unlike anything their audience was wearing. [DB]

Next week: David Sims scandalizes the U.K. all over again with Brass Eye’s “Paedogeddon” special. Then, Genevieve Koski tries not to say “pregnant” in a discussion of I Love Lucy’s “Lucy Is Enceinte.” (“Paedogeddon” is available in full on YouTube.)

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