Smothers, Thomas ("Tom") and Smothers, Richard ("Dick")

Smothers, Thomas ("Tom") and Smothers, Richard ("Dick")

SMOTHERS, Thomas (“Tom”) (b. 2 February 1937 in New York City), and Richard (“Dick”) SMOTHERS (b. 20 November 1939 in New York City), folk-singing and comedy duo whose 1960s television show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour enjoyed a controversial three-year run before cancellation because of its political content.

The Smothers brothers (along with their younger sister) were the children of Major Thomas Bolyn Smothers, Jr., and Ruth Smothers. In 1941 Major Smothers was assigned to the Philippines. His family accompanied him, but they were evacuated to the United States with the outbreak of World War II. The major was captured at Bataan, and he died aboard a prisoner-of-war ship destined for Japan. Ruth Smothers moved the family to her hometown of Redondo Beach, California, where she found employment in an aircraft factory. Busy at work and reportedly married five times, she had little time for her children, who grew up largely unsupervised.

Both Tom and Dick Smothers graduated from Redondo Beach Union High School. Tom attended San Jose State College, where he was joined by his younger brother in 1957. More interested in music than academics, guitar-strumming Tom taught Dick to play the double bass. They played before college crowds at local venues before getting their first major break at the Purple Onion, a nightclub in San Francisco. In April 1959 they were scheduled to open for a flamenco dancer, but when the dancer suffered a twisted ankle shortly before showtime, the folk singers filled in with a comedy routine that delighted patrons, resulting in a thirty-six-week run.

By early 1961 the Smothers brothers were drawing crowds and positive notices for their performances at the Blue Angel in New York City. Jack Paar, the host of National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television’s The Tonight Show, caught their act and booked them for an appearance. This led to a series of early 1960s guest spots on television variety shows, such as The Steve Allen Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Jack Benny Show. Meanwhile the brothers continued a successful recording and touring career with their blend of folk music and self-effacing humor in which Dick played the straight man to his stammering brother Tom, who always claimed that Mom loved his younger brother best.

Their commercial success, especially with the college crowds television executives wanted to entice, led Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television to create The Smothers Brothers Show. The situation comedy premiered on 17 September 1965 and featured Tom as an angel whose well-intended divine interventions made life difficult for his brother, Dick. After a successful beginning the show’s ratings deteriorated, the brothers feuded with the producer, Phil Sharp, and Tom developed an ulcer. The series was not renewed for a second season, but CBS executives still believed the Smothers brothers had television potential if afforded the proper vehicle.

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Accordingly, the brothers were given an opportunity to host a variety show to air on Sunday evenings opposite Bonanza, NBC’s popular Western. The thought among officials at CBS was that the Smothers brothers might be able to attract youthful viewers not drawn to the more traditional Bonanza. The executives received more than they expected on 5 February 1967, when the premier of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour pulled 36 percent of the available audience to Bonanza‘s 26 percent share. Although ratings slipped somewhat during ensuing weeks, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was one of the top twenty shows on television.

During this initial season the Smothers brothers played it safe, seeking the approval of both younger and older viewers on opposing sides of the growing cultural division in America during the 1960s. This was perhaps best symbolized by the show’s closing credits, which featured both a traditional uniformed marching band playing John Philip Sousa tunes and a group of shaggy-haired protesters carrying signs. Guest stars included conventional vocalists such as Jim Nabors as well as the voices of alienated youth such as the band Buffalo Springfield. An admiring Time magazine piece praised the Smothers brothers as “hippies with haircuts.”

However, during the show’s second season, Tom, the major creative force behind the series and the more politicized of the brothers, began to push the envelope, incorporating more political satire into each episode. Tom’s identification with the youth culture and antiestablishment views became increasingly apparent. For the second-season premiere on 10 September 1967 the brothers invited former blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger to perform. Seeger sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an allegorical commentary on the Vietnam War that included the lyrics “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy / and the big fool says to push on.” CBS executives insisted the lyrics were disrespectful to President Lyndon Johnson, and the performance was censored. Following a public outcry Seeger was invited back to perform the song without network interference.

Nevertheless, during the second season the Smothers brothers continued to battle network censors. In addition to finding a sketch on sex education unacceptable, the network guardians of morality axed a skit in which Tom and guest star Elaine May played motion picture censors objecting to the use of the word breast in a dinner table conversation scene. Recurring characters on the show also caused censors discomfort. The comedian David Steinberg antagonized some CBS affiliates with a series of “sacrilegious” sermonettes. The comedian Leigh French created the “hippie chick” character Goldie O’Keefe who, with her “Share a little tea with Goldie” segment, parodied television advice shows for women. The sketches were full of innuendoes dealing with drug use, including drug code words such as tea, roaches, and goldie. Yet there was little censorship of this material, perhaps because the censors from an older generation failed to comprehend the hipster humor. CBS officials seemed much more threatened by overt political material. The network took the unprecedented step of requiring the Smothers brothers to make advance copies of each episode available for review by affiliate stations.

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Sprouting moustaches and longer hair, the Smothers brothers again tangled with the network on the show’s third-season premiere in September 1968. Guest star Harry Belafonte’s calypso piece “Don’t Stop the Carnival” was a critical account of the violence at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August. While Belafonte performed, footage of the violent convention confrontations played in the background. CBS refused to air the five-minute segment. Instead, the network sold this extra five minutes of advertising time to the Republican Party, which ran a spot for Richard Nixon’s presidential bid. Another famous spot on the show featured the perennial presidential candidate Pat Paulsen. His parody of campaign shenanigans struck a nerve with many viewers.

The third season also witnessed frequent sketches critical of television censors, creating a more confrontational environment between CBS and the Smothers brothers. On 9 March 1969 CBS pulled the entire episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour when guest star Joan Baez dedicated a song to her husband, David Harris, who was serving a prison term for draft resistance. The network relented and aired the episode with Baez’s introduction deleted. But CBS wanted no more of the Smothers brothers. On 3 April 1969 Robert D. Wood, the president of CBS, informed Tom Smothers that because an acceptable broadcast tape was not submitted in time for review by the Program Practices Department and affiliated stations, the contract between the Smothers brothers and the network was terminated. Failing ratings made the decision easier for CBS. By overtly identifying with the antiestablishment youth culture the Smothers brothers had evidently lost older viewers. After starting the 1968-1969 television season as the seventh most popular show with a 37 percent share of the audience, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had dropped to twenty-fourth place by March 1969, and Bonanza had rebounded to third place in the Nielsen ratings. Despite a public uproar led by Tom, the network was unrelenting, although the Smotherses did eventually win a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal.

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Although the Smotherses continued a lucrative recording and concert career, they were never able to recoup their position in prime-time television. In 1970 they were given a summer variety series on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television network. However, the controversy with CBS seemed to have taken something out of the brothers, who lacked their political edge, and the series was not picked up for the fall season. A 1975 variety show on NBC did not last a full season. Twenty years after their cancellation, CBS aired a Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour special that enjoyed decent ratings, and the Smothers were rewarded with a new series that was canceled after the 1990 season. While unable to regain a slot in prime time (an area still closed to political satire), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1966-1969) paved the way for such television parody as Saturday Night Live and Politically Incorrect.

Dick Smothers has been married three times. In September 1959 he married the former Linda Miller, and they had three children. His second wife was Lorraine, whom he married in 1986, and his third Denby Franklin, whom he married on 4 January 1997. He has six children in all. Tom Smothers was married in 1963 to Stephanie Owen; the couple had one child before a 1967 divorce. He married a second time, then most recently married Marcy Carriker, a television producer, on 9 September 1990; they had two children. Tom and Dick share an enthusiasm for automobiles and auto racing.

The confrontation between the Smothers brothers and CBS television is well developed in Aniko Bodroghkozy, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the Youth Rebellion,” in Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin, eds., The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict (1997); Robert Mertz, CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye (1975); and Bert Spector, “A Clash of Cultures: The Smothers Brothers vs. CBS Television,” in John E. O’Connor, ed., American History/American Television (1983). All episodes of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour are available at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles, California.

Ron Briley