Smothered: The Censorship Struggles Of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

Smothered: The Censorship Struggles Of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

Even for dedicated students of comedy, it can be hard to reconcile Tom and Dick Smothers' reputation for boundary-pushing satire with their antiquated, family-friendly image. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour laid the groundwork for nearly every television satire that followed it, from The Simpsons to South Park to Saturday Night Live, but the clean-cut brothers' shtick was more retro than avant-garde, more vaudeville than postmodern. As Maureen Muldaur's conventional but revelatory documentary Smothered illustrates, it was precisely that distance between the show's wholesome surface and its incendiary content that allowed the Smothers brothers to be such a revolutionary force. Just as The Simpsons and South Park can get away with bold political satire by putting it in the mouths of cartoon characters, Comedy Hour capitalized on the fact that censors and executives were more likely to accept radical content from neo-vaudevillian funsters than from angry, longhaired radicals. The driving force behind the Comedy Hour, Tom Smothers was in fact something of an angry, longhaired radical brilliantly disguised as a short-haired, yo-yo-trick-loving square; politically and artistically, Dick was the more conservative of the duo. But their show didn't start out as the political firecracker it eventually became. Already veterans of a failed sitcom, the Smothers brothers were given a time slot for a variety show opposite TV juggernaut Bonanza more out of desperation than inspiration. CBS expected the hugely popular, long-running Bonanza to trounce their show, but thanks to a canny mixture of older guests (Jack Benny, Bette Davis, George Burns) and youthful attitude, the series was a surprise hit. Emboldened by their success, Tom Smothers and head writer Mason Williams pushed the program in a more political direction. Tapping into the rebellious spirit of the era, the show attacked the Vietnam War, lampooned organized religion, provided a forum for dissenting voices like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, and gave writers Rob Reiner and Steve Martin big breaks. Smothered presents its subjects in an overwhelmingly flattering light, but it's also refreshingly clear about the role Tom played in his own comic martyrdom. The censors focused on Comedy Hour in part because of its political content, but also because Tom and his writers repeatedly baited them, all but challenging them to crack down on the show, which of course they did. Essential viewing for anyone interested in television, comedy, and popular culture, Smothered is far more lively, juicy, and engaging than its dry subtitle suggests.

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