Tom Smothers Made the Variety Show Cool: ‘I Didn’t Want to Do the Standard Bullshit’

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“Variety shows are complicated,” Tom Smothers told Rolling Stone in 2015. The occasion was the launch of Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, the ultimately short-lived attempt to revive the long-standing song-dance-and-skits format for TV.

Few knew how thorny such undertakings could be than Smothers, who died this week at age 88. With his brother Dick, he injected topical anti-war humor and rock guests like the Who and George Harrison into prime time on the legendary Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969), a daring approach that ultimately led to its cancellation. With the imminent launch of Harris’ show in 2015, Smothers spoke with Rolling Stone about the state of the format and his own history with it. Here is the complete, never-before-published conversation.

What’s your take on the variety show format? There was only one real variety show I recall, in the classic sense: The Ed Sullivan Show. He wasn’t a personality, but he loved talent. You had to be a good performer to be on that show. Then you had Carol Burnett, which was a sketch show. Steve Allen. Flip Wilson. Laugh-in was a unique piece too.

Variety shows look simple but to get the attention of people, you have to have something special and keep moving pretty rapidly. You have to integrate yourself with the guest stars. Every one of them you have to service a different way, and write sketches a certain way. It’s pretty stressful.

What were the origins of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour?It wasn’t a pitch. These producers, Saul Ilson and Ernest Chambers, came to us and said, “Do you want to do a variety show? We need someone for this slot, for six months.” And we said, “Yeah, of course.” So there was no pitch. I said I didn’t want to do the standard bullshit. I was so upset about the sitcom [the quickly canceled and generic Smothers Brothers Show] that I wanted control. And they said, “You have it.” We wanted the sketches to be more relevant. We’d bring on the guests and do a sketch now and then. The only thing they said was, “Don’t use the F word.”

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Did you hint at any of the political aspect to come? Or did they now know that was coming? I didn’t know it was coming. [Laughs] We reflected what was happening. It was 1968, 1969. There was the Vietnam War. In the middle of all this stuff going on, you couldn’t help but start to reflect in the show. And we were the only show that did it at that time.

The theme song of the show sounded like something you might hear on any old-school variety show, which was sort of subversive. That was a funny thing, because I remember we brought in the song that Mason Williams and Nancy Ames had written. And we said, “We’d like this to be our theme song.” They said, “No, no, no, you got to have something like Bob Hope and ‘Thanks for the Memories,’ something that memorable.” We thought, “Oh, Christ.” That was the first argument we had.

What about booking rock bands? You had the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield and so many more. Did you get any grief for that at the time?No, none at all. Occasionally, something would come up, like when Sonny and Cher were on and there was this big controversy. They could see her nipples through her dress. They wanted her to put bandages over them. Jefferson Airplane came out and Grace Slick did “Crown of Creation” in blackface. I don’t know why. No one said a thing. It was one of those things where you did it and no one gave a fuck.

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You also got away with a lot of veiled pot jokes, calling it tea and so on. Oh, yeah.

Again, did the censors flag any of that?Yeah. We kept making up things for it, like “Mary Jane” and a couple of different names I’ve forgotten. And we had “Goldie Keif,” who did the weather report. She said, “If you have unsightly roaches around the office, send them in — we’ll take care of them.” And we got rolled-up joints in the mail from the kids.

The only thing is that we thought the show was pointed towards college-age and white-collar intellectual types. Then they told us that we were Number One with 11- to 15-year-old boys and 12- to 14-year-old girls or something. We weren’t looking for that at all. There were not many sexual references — mostly hippie stuff. Those kids were a little bit ahead. They caught on to it. And the rock groups, they loved.

Were the Who the loudest band on the show?Well, they were that night, with the three [explosive] charges in the drums. Bette Davis was on that show.

Was she watching the Who?Yeah, she was right there.

Boy, everybody was shocked. I thought someone was going to be killed with that shrapnel because the drum had disintegrated with all those little adjustment pegs on it. When I I heard that [explosion], we had to keep going and I just ran over, and Pete Townshend looked very funny. Every time I see the film of it, he’s banging on his guitar and taking it over his head and then smashing it on the stage floor. That’s when his head was down, right in front of the drum. When the thing went off, he was getting ready to make the third hit, and it might have injured him pretty badly.

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So many of the variety shows that followed yours in the Seventies, like the Donny and Marie Osmond show, had essentially no political humor at all. How did you feel about that change?It was, “Look what happened to the Smothers Brothers,” you know? But at the same time, there was All in the Family and Saturday Night Live. So it was fine. The variety show became bland in prime time. Now it seems like the award shows became variety shows. And those talent shows, like The Voice and America’s Got Talent, all those different things. Those are all variety shows, basically, aren’t they? But they’re not variety shows in the sense that I remember them — as precise and wonderfully presented, with top professional acts and stuff.

When you look back on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour being canceled for being too controversial, does it still make you angry?Oh, no. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to us in hindsight. It took us off the air for a while. Then we primarily worked in concerts and stuff. We didn’t wear out our welcome.

Talking about those issues sounds so quaint now. You couldn’t say this or that, like with Pete Seeger [whose first rendition of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was cut from the show] and Joan Baez [who dedicated a song to her then husband David Harris, a draft resister]. Now you turn on the cable news and there are people saying anything they want to say. Poor Lenny Bruce is dead and now it’s standard conversation. Everybody’s got that microphone now.