Appreciation: Tom Smothers, dead at 86, knew his artistic legacy with the Smothers Brothers: ‘We were unique’

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Tom Smothers, who died Tuesday from cancer at the age of 86, was a folk music-playing comedian, not a rock ‘n’ roll star. But the CBS TV show he and his brother Dick co-hosted from 1967 to 1969, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” hosted such top rock acts as The Doors, Cream, Jefferson Airplane and The Who, whose infamous 1967 performance on the show was capped by a pyrotechnic mishap that saw Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s hair catch fire and part of Keith Moon’s drum set explode.

In June 1969, Tom Smothers and former San Diego music author Paul Williams — the founder of the pioneering rock-music periodical Crawdaddy! — joined LSD guru Timothy Leary, poet Allen Ginsberg and others on the John Lennon and Yoko Ono-led recording of the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance.”

Smothers and Lennon both played acoustic guitar on the song. Lennon’s fellow Beatle, George Harrison, had been a guest on a a November 1968 episode of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” that also featured Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan.

But by the time of Tom Smothers’ 1985 interview with the San Diego Union — which previewed an multi-day Escondido performance run by him and his brother at what was then known as the Wild Animal Park — Tom, then 48, was coming to terms with being middle-aged.

“I was watching the Phil Donahue show,” he said. “They were talking about MDMA, the ecstasy drug, and I — who used to be on the cutting edge and hung out with the same people as (Jimi) Hendrix and (Janis) Joplin — had never even heard of it!”

Despite their clean-cut demeanor in the 1960s, Tom and Dick Smothers were at the time perceived as a threat to the political establishment and social order by executives at CBS, who regarded their show as a subversive platform for anti-Vietnam war statements and pro-counterculture messages. Tom Smothers rebuffed such contentions in his 1985 interview.

“Neither one of us was consciously trying to alter anything,” he said. “We were reflectors and we were at the scene of the accident. I never considered us to be a threat to the security of the U.S.”

“If they would have gotten off my case at CBS, I probably wouldn’t have made such a big deal of it. I was very naive and idealistic, and when they said you can’t say this or do that, I reacted. The show reflected more of my viewpoint than Dick’s. In a small way, Dickie and I were microcosms of the political viewpoints of the country. He’s more conservative and practical, and I’m more emotional and idealistic.”

The Smothers Brothers’ first San Diego headlining concert of note, a 1964 performance at Russ Auditorium, preceded the launch of their TV show by three years. Their most recent area appearance appears to have been a 2009 date at California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

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“Our shows have no political content now, although it has a positive philosophy and point of view,” Tom said in his 1985 interview. “We assume there’s a greater awareness now, and we assume people know politicians lie and cheat. So to point that out seems redundant.”

Here is the San Diego Union’s complete 1985 interview with Tom Smothers.

The spotlight still manages to follow Smothers Brothers — Music, comedy, controversy and now, even wine

BY GEORGE VARGAAug. 2, 1985 The San Diego Union

Some people think there’s a big difference between producing vintage comedy and vintage wine, but not Tom Smothers.

“Making wine is so close to show biz,” insists the older half of the Smothers Brothers, the once-controversial comedy and music duo that now earns almost as much critical favor for their Smothers Brothers Wine from their Northern California vineyard as they once did for their heady brand of humor.

“Wine, like comedy, is subjective,” he continues. “Either people like your wine — or your songs, or your comedy — or they don’t. Each is a creative process that you really have to keep at, and you’re only as good as your last effort. We started (making wine) in 1977 and we’ve won a lot of awards and gotten a lot of respect within the wine industry.

“The first time we won the wine sweepstakes at the Los Angeles County Fair, Dick and I were doing a play in New York and I couldn’t believe it when the results came out. There was a headline in the Los Angeles Times that read: ‘Small Smothers Brothers vineyard wins competition.’ There’s always something that one of us does that attracts attention. Dickie used to race cars, and that got us in the sports pages of newspapers.

“Now — making wine — it’s another cycle of attention. And even in our failed TV attempts (following the 1969 cancellation of the brothers’ first TV series) and the four or five movies we made, which were not very good, we were never out of the public’s mind. It was partly nostalgia and the fact that we’ve been working our butts off.”

The Smothers Brothers maintain a busy schedule by nearly any standards, performing around the country an average of nine months a year. They will appear, before an at least partially captive audience, at 7:30 p.m., today through Sunday, at the Wild Animal Park’s Mahala Amphitheater.

“It’s amazing to look back and realize we’ve been in this business for 27 years,” says Tom, who — at 48 — is two years older than his brother Dick. “When we started out, Dick considered this a summer job, and I never had any idea we’d have this kind of longevity. In retrospect, we weren’t very good at first, but we were unique.”

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The sons of an Army colonel and his wife, the Smothers Brothers were born on a military base in New York. After briefly living in the Philippines – from where they were evacuated immediately following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor – the brothers spent the remainder of their adolescence and young adulthood in California. It was here that their concept of a comedy-music duo began to evolve and, later, ferment.

“We had a musical group called the Casual Quartet in Redondo,” says Tom. “Musically, our biggest influences were the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte because we could handle their tunes. Comedically, my first influence was George Gobel. If you’re unsure of yourself, the thing to do is to make other people unsure and be as disruptive as possible, and I learned to do that in school.”

The Smothers Brothers made their professional debut in Aspen, Colo., in 1959, and later became regulars at San Francisco’s famed Purple Onion club. In 1961 they appeared on the “Tonight Show,” then hosted by Jack Paar, and it wasn’t much longer before the image of the two satirical siblings — guitarist Tom and bassist Dick — became etched in the consciousness of a generation transformed by the social and political upheaval of the ‘60s.

“Our growing political consciousness happened almost the same time we began our CBS TV series in 1967,” says Tom. “There was no place for the Vietnam War when we got on TV. Then it burst out, and you were either for or against it. Hawks and doves. It seems so long ago.”

The Smothers Brothers’ antiwar stance, while generally tame even then, incited considerable controversy. In hindsight, their relatively mild protestations about the Vietnam War and other issues seem simply to have mirrored changing public sentiment.

“It was definitely blown out of proportion,” agrees Tom. “Neither one of us was consciously trying to alter anything. We were reflectors and we were at the scene of the accident. I never considered us to be a threat to the security of the U.S.

“If they would have gotten off my case at CBS, I probably wouldn’t have made such a big deal of it. I was very naive and idealistic, and when they said you can’t say this or do that, I reacted. The show reflected more of my viewpoint than Dick’s. In a small way, Dickie and I were microcosms of the political viewpoints of the country. He’s more conservative and practical, and I’m more emotional and idealistic.

“The uniqueness of our relationship is that you can’t fake this kind of relation. Being family is part of it; it’s close and symbiotic … we have made disagreement into an art form. Our relation is like an old marriage: a lot of fighting, a lot of good times and no sex!”

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Politics, however, was not the only source of friction between the Smothers Brothers and the CBS executives who eventually canceled their series in 1969. (The brothers sued, claiming censorship, and were eventually awarded a $916,000 settlement.)

“From the beginning there was a problem,” says Tom. “One was when we had Elaine May as a guest, and we did a skit on censorship. The word ‘breast’ came up and we weren’t allowed to use it. We had problems because they had given us complete artistic and creative control of the show. It was given to us because they didn’t think the program had a chance in hell. I think it’s necessary to be ruthless if you’re looking for excellence in art, and I used to be very intolerant.

“I used to freak out if one lighting cue was missed … “ he chuckles softly … “and now we’re playing the Wild Animal Park! Last time we played there two years ago they told us we were the only act to get the giraffes’ attention!”

Smothers describes the brothers’ current act as “60 percent comedy, 40 percent music.” The controversial subject matter of the past, he says, is just that — past.

“Our shows have no political content now, although it has a positive philosophy and point of view,” he explains. “We assume there’s a greater awareness now, and we assume people know politicians lie and cheat. So to point that out seems redundant.”

Both Smothers brothers have continued to mirror the changing times, if much less prominently than before. As for many ‘60s activists, the ‘70s were a time of retreat and introspection for the brothers in which their initial attempts to recapture their earlier success were frustrated. A stint on Broadway in the late ‘70s gave a boost to their sagging careers, and today —with divorces and other personal and social upheavals behind them — the Smothers Brothers have not only weathered the times, but prospered as well.

“I have one observation,” says Tom. “It’s not very profound, but I told someone that I know I’m middle-aged because I listen to a lot of classical music. They said that doesn’t mean that I’m middle-aged. I said, ‘Yeah, but I listen to it with the volume down real low.’

“Another instance is that I was watching the Phil Donahue show. They were talking about MDMA, the ecstasy drug, and I, who used to be on the cutting edge and hung out with the same people as (Jimi) Hendrix and (Janis) Joplin, had never even heard of it!”