The Smothers Brothers' Anger Turns to Clarity

It hardly seems possible that TV entertainers whose repertoire included asking Mr. Bunny whether or not Easter bunnies really lay Easter eggs would be considered so controversial that they would be yanked off the air.

But that was what it was like in the sulfurous late '60s, when a spark in one place could ignite an atmosphere somewhere else, engulfing everyone in a conflagration of anxiety, suspicion and self-righteousness. "We were just at the scene of an accident, when America was searching for meaning," said Tom Smothers recently. "We were just directing traffic."

They had no idea that they would become casualties before their time.

Tom Smothers was Mr. Bunny. Dick Smothers was his earnest interrogator. The routine was a small one in their large arsenal of characterizations and sketches that filled one of the most appealing hours of variety show programming in the late '60s. The Sunday night "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" played from the 1967-68 season to 1969 until it ran aground in a squall of controversy that seems in retrospect overblown and anti-climactic. (They did book occasionally controversial guests, however, as well as making pointed references to drugs, racism, the draft and the dubiety of presidential politics.)

When and if you chance to see their 20th anniversary CBS special Wednesday (10 p.m., Channels 2 and 8), you'll probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

You will see what made them so popular. These clean-cut kids (though both have passed 50, they've hardly changed) might have been contentious nephews of "Father Knows Best." There was the smart brother who had all the conventional answers (Dick), and the dumb one who had all the disturbing questions (Tom). In a gentle and limited way--that is, in the context of sibling rivalry--their comedy pitted rectitude against iconoclasm, authority versus challenge and trouble lapping at smugness, all within the buttoned-down semblance of a middle-class family front.

In addition, in a handsomely produced and designed hour, you'll see some of the people who were part of the extended family, including Mason Williams (he plays his "Classical Gas" on guitar in front of Larry Cansler's hefty-sounding band); the presidential candidate-in-perpetuity Pat Paulsen (our show-biz equivalent to Gus Hall); Glen Campbell; Leigh French's twee Miss Goldie, who shares confidences draped in every cliche of the time; and Steve Martin (he was a writer then, and does his self-mocking celebrity turn now).

Everyone is on his or her good behavior; but everyone was then, too. At least at first. In the Smothers Brothers, who had razor-sharp timing and filled the small compass of their routine with perpetual surprise, CBS had at last found an act that could convoy an audience through its Bermuda Triangle of Sunday night viewing--the 9 to 10 p.m. slot, when most of the rest of the country preferred to settle itself in front of "Bonanza's" Ponderosa on NBC.

Meanwhile, CBS had accidentally discovered a powerful new market--the young. But to the Smothers Brothers, who were 30 and 31 at the time, the young became more than a target audience; they became a constituency. Out with the Limelighters. In with the Doors. The brothers may have looked like post-graduates of Ding Dong School, but they had an ear for the groundswell of change that was sweeping the country with such mounting velocity that for the first time in living memory, a sitting President could be virtually deposed as the Lyndon Johnson presidency toppled under the weight of anti-Vietnam protest.

Neither of the Smothers Brothers was overtly political. They did have rebellious sympathies however, and the issue of censorship became the flashpoint between the show and the network. Tom Smothers in particular felt that CBS' Program Practices Department was too slow to pick up on the changes in a generation turned out of a gutted Camelot. The network, in the meantime, had its own antennae out for the conservative counterrevolution in which President Nixon was threatening to turn the FCC onto the media like the battleship Potemkin. Their differences spilled into the newspapers. In April of 1969, the show was canceled.

Tom was fairly devastated.

"We weren't political," he said, over lunch a few days after the taping. "We did have a sense of ethics, about the U-2 incident, and voting registration. But we weren't political. They politicized us. We had no strategy. We were winging it the whole time. Harry Belafonte said to me: 'Don't leave your platform. Don't lose your cool.' I thought CBS would call us in the next week to start up the show again. When they didn't, you think the sadness and pain will last forever." (The brothers did get a summertime show on ABC, which failed, and as far as TV is concerned, they dropped out of sight.)

Dick, who is much more pragmatic of the two, was a little more adept at taking it all in stride; he was able to throw himself into his hobbies, such as car racing, yachting, and starting up a winery.

"Tommy's head wasn't into working until we got our lawsuit settled in 1973," he said (they received a favorable verdict in a breach of contract suit). "I had a good time. I had amassed some money and moved to Mammoth. Tommy's different. Dad was not good to Mom during her pregnancy with Tom. He wasn't sure he really wanted a family at that point. He was much happier when I came along. I think Tommy inherited that anxiety."

Dick cast a watchful glance across the table at his brother. At one time, Tom was considered the athlete of the pair, an anxious, driven perfectionist. (Producer Ken Kragen, who has rejoined the brothers after what he terms "A 20-year hiatus," said: "Last week Tom got on me a little. I laid it out. He said he was sorry and called to apologize the next day.")

Now it's Tom who looks pale and drawn while Dick, puffed up somewhat from weight-lifting and seigneurial hosting at his winery, beams with a faintly rubicund glow like one of those immaculate young men called on for witness in an evangelical TV show. They had two funerals to attend to in the course of their interview schedule, that of their mother, and of a close friend. So it was understandable that Tom's face occasionally took on the injured expression that in another context would be comical, and that Dick should be a touch peremptory.

"We felt a sense of purpose," Tom said ruminatively. "It was nice to be on TV and be able to think. But we were young. I lost perspective that last year. I forget that satire

ridicules style, not content. Pat Paulsen was right; he satirized the style.

"We could feel something else bigger was coming down around us. The conservative position was getting hard. I made sure that everything we did went on a memo. I wanted to be legal, to protect my brother. But we were playing hardball and the game was changing around us. It took me three years to get my sense of humor back. For a while, everything had to be 'relevant.' Then one time I saw Jane Fonda. She seemed so strident. I said, 'That's it! I've lost my sense of humor.' I would never have made it through this if it hadn't been for my brother."

"If things seem more gray now, that doesn't mean a loss of focus; it's a gain of focus," Dick said.

"We came back, but we had nowhere to go. We quit the act in '76 because it wasn't fun anymore."

"I was a man with no sense," Tom said. "Just a wound-up dude out of control. I did a film called 'Another Fine Mess.' I didn't see the whole thing for a long time--the cosmic joke that says 'take this job and shove it.' My friends could see it in my face. It wasn't drink or drugs. I was just a man without a job."

"I've read philosophy," said Dick. "I've read about the human condition. It doesn't change anything. People kill each other in the name of wanting to change the world. You can't do a show with that in mind. If all the sand in the desert is time, how big are we? We think we're so important. We should take ourselves and others seriously, but not that seriously."

So it is that the Smothers Brothers learned firsthand how America treats its true rebels; that is, those who don't live so long that finally they're venerated for their sheer toughness of spirit. Everyone sees things differently now. Tom remembers Joan Baez as recently saying: "It's so hard now to tell the good guys from the bad guys." Kragen remembers a 1975 incident when Tom heckled Jane Fonda while she was making a speech. "Ten years later she said: 'We all learn,' " Kragen recalled.

After they went their separate professional ways, each went into acting. Tom did "Play It Again, Sam" in dinner theater. Dick did "Not Now, Darling" (the headline for one review read "Not Now, Dickie"). They reunited for "I Love My Wife" on Broadway before separating again. Last Christmas, Tom was doing 'Sam' and feeling lonely. They had been talking about resurrecting the act for 1 1/2 years. As luck would have it, the call to do the coming special came within the week.

"Without a show, life is out of balance," said Dick. "You can have your family. You can have your hobbies. But without work, you're missing something. We've all learned. The American public isn't as naive as it was 20 years ago."

"We have our craft down," said Tom. "It's diamond-hard. I know that if we get one more shot, it'll be fun again."

Time will only tell if their audience will share the sentiment, but judging from the winsomeness of their Magnavox ads, and from their reception by the studio audience, America is ready for another look at the '60s sunshine boys.

"Do you think they can come back?" someone asked. "Will they find a new audience?" Who knows? After lunch, they walked west down a slight incline along Sunset Boulevard before crossing the street, where the bleached January sunlight caught their diminishing figures. Both wore herringbone tweed jackets. Even to a distant observer, the slope of their shoulders, their gait, and their side-by-side closeness were unmistakably those of brothers. No matter what happens, they'll always have that.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World