For more than 40 years, Tom and Dick Smothers have produced description-defying humor by encompassing social satire, folk songs, sibling rivalry, and assorted yo-yo tricks. The Smothers Brothers' ultimate legacy will no doubt be dominated by its pioneering late-'60s variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which CBS canceled in 1970 despite stellar ratings. Tackling issues ranging from racial politics to the Vietnam War, and showcasing musical acts from The Beatles to Harry Belafonte to The Who, the series launched a decades-long battle with TV networks that ended with the 1989 cancellation of yet another CBS incarnation of the Comedy Hour. Today, the duo continues to tour the country, dispensing good-natured, impeccably timed comedy along with the usual assortment of songs and the work of "Yo-Yo Man" Tom Smothers. Straight-arrow younger brother Dick recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about subversion, society, and his much-discussed network woes.
The Onion: It's interesting that half of your press clippings tout The Smothers Brothers' subversiveness, while the others focus on how wholesome and family-friendly your act is. How have you managed to strike that balance over the years?
Dick Smothers: Well, I don't know. It's just that, when we were widely known during the television years, we were in our 20s, and it was the '60s. We were never subversive. We were just commenting on what was going on, just like any young person would in the '60s. That has nothing to do with your family. You still have your growth as a family, and in your personal life. We were never really radical at any point in our life. We had people like Rob Reiner and Mason Williams on the show as writers, and people caught up in the '60s were pretty much involved. As Pat Paulsen, who did editorials, said on the show, "You know, there's a lot of people who are really upset about this draft. We call them soldiers." [Laughs.] So we were just involving ourselves. I guess we were the first entertainment show that really involved itself in issues, and through the years, I think we just became what our characters were. We didn't start out to be anything, but people observe. I get asked, "What is your image?" That's a terrible question to ask anybody. I say, "How do I know? I'm in here and you're out there. You tell me."
O: Society is fairly permissive about entertainment today.
DS: Oh, it certainly is.
O: But do you think your show could happen today?
DS: Well, no, because it's in context. You have to put it back to what it was. In a general way, the show is still happening today. For example, Saturday Night Live came on after we'd been off for a few years, and that show is really nothing like The Smothers Brothers [Comedy Hour], but it's maintained similar ups and downs, and similar strengths and weaknesses, throughout the decades. A variety show couldn't happen today, just because of the mechanics of the media. There are hundreds of channels. Back then, there were three ways to get your movie or your record promoted, or whatever. The Tonight Show was the only late-night show, and it was powerful, with Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson. Now, the remote in your hand is the variety, and permissiveness in show business is permissiveness in society. It's just a mirror of what's going on. If you just stand still with your values of the '60s, your moral and ethical values, it looks like you've become more and more radically right-wing, or radically religious, or whatever, but you're not. Everything else has moved. It's funny, because we'll get people coming up to us after a show today, thanking us for doing a clean show. They never did that before, and we're doing the same nature of material. I don't understand why it has to be that way. Is that just a natural thing in life, that things just progress? Progress is an awful word for this, how about move… I don't know.
O: Has entertainment gotten more subversive, or is it just naughtier?
DS: It's naughtier. There's no subversive element. People get the false impression that television has opened up, but it hasn't. Naughty-wise, or sexuality-wise, it has, but tell me one politically relevant show on prime time on a major network. There isn't a show that criticizes the establishment, or draws really strong lines. There isn't one. Dennis Miller is pretty bright, but he's sitting at HBO. Politically Incorrect is on late-night, and it's not even a political show. It's a bunch of people screaming over each other, and the network walking around with a smug feeling about what a free medium we have, and how great it is, and how we're growing. When I grew up, I was never involved in religion or faith, but what I see out there says, "Maybe I should be." That's the way I'm going now. Where are the strong ethics and values? They change so much that it's scary. Ethics and trust and like values… Like values, I think, are what make a country strong: Yes, we're a melting pot, but we could still have similar values, and we don't.
O: Would you say that you've politically mellowed with age?
DS: No, I don't think we have at all, but our show is made to entertain. Number one, it's entertaining. I don't care how sharp you are; if you're not entertaining, you've got empty seats. We do get some comments, like, "We thought you'd be more political." I say, "Well, you thought wrong." We weren't political in our show in the '60s—I'm talking about our live show, not our TV show. We thought our TV show should be relevant to society and what was going on. It was commenting on society. One reason we took our view, and we were young at a time when most young people took that view, was that there was nothing on that side of the ledger. There was Bob Hope and establishment stuff. But when we went out and played our [live] shows, we were just playing around with folk music. We spoofed it, had fun with it. We didn't sing "funny" songs. We sang regular songs and messed around with them. Then, as the show evolved, we messed around with each other. That's what we do: We're really just two aging brothers singing and arguing, and we have very different points of view. Tommy is, I think, much more radical and probably more deep in his thoughts than I am. It probably looks like it should be the other way around. I find myself getting more political and radical, because I see people wasting their lives with stuff that isn't important. And I think you almost have to reach a certain age before you see it and believe it. That's why, when you're in trouble, you traditionally go to the elder in the group. Someone might have a 180 IQ, but he doesn't know what to do, because he has no wisdom. This old guy, who's made so many mistakes in his life and had so many successes, and sees what's going on, maybe he has a better perspective. I think that's what happens as we get older. And our show is getting a little bit like that, because it's a little bit more complex and meaningful. People come out happy. We don't pick on people. We did on the TV show, because those were political people. Those are targets that you're supposed to pick on. We had a guy write a review here in Las Vegas: "The Smothers Brothers have mellowed. It's nostalgic… You can't say they're not funny, because the audience roars, but they're not hitting the things that other people are." And I say, "Well, thank you for noticing." He may have thought that was a cutting thing, but I thought about it and decided, "No, that's exactly what we want." When we started The Smothers Brothers, Jack Paar said, "I don't know what you guys have, but I know that no one's gonna steal it." And that's a compliment.
O: For all the people who claim The Smothers Brothers as an influence, I can't really think of any similar acts.
DS: There aren't any. I can't say that we started this with the idea to be different; we started it just to be us, and we turned out to be unique. Tommy's comedic style is unique, and we've never been like anybody else. I don't want to be like an Andrew "Dice" Clay, or a Dennis Miller, or a George Carlin, or even a Jerry Seinfeld. I just want us to be Tom and Dick. I wish we could tell jokes, but we're just situational. We did 11 comedy albums, and I think 10 were live, and they were all ad-libbed. That is terribly difficult to do, and it's good that the standards of the American public were very low when we made those albums. But one time, after it was all edited, we did a lot of clipping and editing and trying to piece things together so they were funny. We [took that material and] scripted it. And no one in the world would have ever written a script like that. It was a hit album. It didn't make any sense whatsoever; you couldn't write it. When you go to a play or a movie, those things are written down, intellectually looked at and toned, and everything's all in place. It's the great comic who can make things that aren't funny on the written page funny in practice. Robin Williams can do that, and there's a small handful that can, but our relationship as Tom and Dick together has never been a political show. We comment on politics. We're not isolated. It's like if you're with your friends, kicking back with a couple of beers, or having a group over for dinner. It's not a political dinner. You're just talking about your lives. Politics is in there, ethics is in there, crime and sports are in there, women's things are in there, and those are all about what's going on today. Our conversation in our show has a bit of that. With some comics who do one-liners, you could have 100 laughs in an hour, or maybe 500 laughs. Some comics will say, "I got 10 good laughs a minute." That's how they look at it. But you come out and you've had nothing but cotton candy. Our show has some spirituality in it, and goodness. And also, we yell at each other. It's hard for me to describe what the show is. I can't describe it, just like no one can steal it. When people see us, they feel… See, if everybody still loved us, we'd play real big rooms for big, big, big checks. But, as you get older, you play a smaller room, though you still have devoted people who come and see you and make it worthwhile. They are pleased to see us, and that's about the best compliment I could make to myself. They're pleased to see it, and they enjoy it, and they're not disappointed.
O: Has there been talk of a new TV show?
DS: Yeah, but we're doing the talking. [Laughs.] It would be neat, but I don't know what form it would take. Most people would say, "Oh, it's a variety show." Well, maybe our strength isn't in that. We wouldn't want to do a sitcom unless it had a lot of meat in it. Like, I like Della Reese's show [Touched By An Angel]. I liked Michael Landon's show [Highway To Heaven]. I'd like to have substance. It doesn't have to be angels, but I want a show to be entertaining, have bite, and be uplifting at the same time. It's so easy to criticize. Most shows and most comics that are hard-hitting are criticizing everything. Even Dennis Miller and his brilliant rants… Sometimes he gets such a great roll going, and it's funny, but tell me one positive thing about it. [Laughs.] You can only take so much of that, if you surround yourself constantly with that kind of stuff. You wind up a very negative person.
O: Has there been any talk of a large-scale reissue campaign? Say, putting the original shows on DVD?
DS: We've been talking with people off and on about that, but there are union things, and with the technology available when we did the show, we can't lift the music off. It's all on one or two tracks, so there are areas where, if you use a little snippet of one thing, you may have to pay that director a royalty for the whole show. If he [worked on] five or six little snippets, he has to be paid five or six times. It can be done, I think, but they'd turn out to be so unprofitable. It may cost us. I don't know how we want to do it. Most of the shows don't stand up as full-hour shows. People edit them in their mind to think they were all great. And our last series we did, from '88 to '90, they were the better shows technically than the real big hit ones. In the old shows, the attention span of the American public was longer. Jackie Mason, for example, would go on and get seven or eight minutes. With the last show, it was like, "I don't care who you are. You get three minutes or less." Things just move, boom-boom-boom. We were proud of those later shows, but CBS didn't have any confidence in us. At that time, the network was in trouble, and they kept getting holes in their schedule, and the variety show was the quickest and easiest way to fill spots.
O: What brought you back to CBS?
DS: They asked us. We don't have any grudges, and the people who fired us were either dead or retired. You work where you can, and it's a business. What got us back was they did a 20-year reunion show, and that show got the best reviews of any show I've ever seen on television. I was shocked. It was a simple show, straight-ahead, no tricks, and it was wonderful. People adored it, so they gave us 20 shows, wanted to give us a sitcom, and they were all hot to work with us. They just… I'd talk dirty if I talked about the mentality of network executives, so I'd better not. Theirs is not a deep sincerity. Anyway, they started using us in little spots—six shows here, five shows there—and canceling the show, then rehiring us. We had to keep rehiring staff, which was really hard on everybody. We've had some great writers over the years: Lorenzo Music, who just passed away, was a writer on the show. He was the voice of Garfield later in life, and was a folksinger from the era. John Hartford wrote on the show, and he passed away recently, too.
O: There does seem to have been a rash of…
DS: Well, that's what happens when you get old. Pat Paulsen died of cancer [in 1997], which was really a shame. His humor was simple stuff; it wasn't brainy. He had the sense to satirize the style, not the words, and his stuff wears really terrific. I just knew there'd be a time when something would happen for him, like Jerry Van Dyke. He was just too good not to make a really big impact, but then he died. Steve Martin wrote for one year on the show, when he was 21. We got to see him interview [Mike] Nichols and [Elaine] May [at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival] in Aspen, and he was brilliant. I would have died interviewing these people, and he was brilliant. The man is a genius. There's great comedy, too, Nichols & May. They were absolutely sensational. We've been so lucky: They would play occasionally at the Hungry I in San Francisco, and we were in The Purple Onion across the street, and that really helped our education. We'd see Nichols & May, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce… you name the acts, and they were there. Nichols & May were brilliant, weren't they? And they still are. They grew. Tommy and I just grew closer as brothers and didn't go anywhere. [Laughs.]
O: One article I read vaguely hinted at a Smothers Brothers split.
DS: We've taken time off from each other at certain times during our career, and that's all.
O: So you're not planning to retire at any specific point?
DS: When it stops being any fun. We're slowing down and doing fewer jobs, and I'd like to do some stuff on my own. Not as a comic or anything, but I like to do inspirational and motivational stuff. I'm in a whole different lifestyle than my brother. I want to be effective somehow, and with our career and our history, and what I could relate about my life to people, I think there are people who want to hear that.