All in the family — An interview with Tom Smothers

All in the family

An interview with Tom Smothers

February 24, 2005

In 1959 Tom and Dick Smothers began as a singing duo before evolving into one of the most enduring comedic teams of all time. “Mom always liked you best” was Tom’s most often repeated charge in the long-running, put-on feud with brother Dick. Their first national television appearance was on Jack Paar’s show in 1961. In 1967, CBS decided to give the Smothers Brothers a shot at the “kamikaze hour,” the 9 p.m. time slot opposite NBC’s “Bonanza.” Nine shows had gone down in flames attempting to break “Bonanza’s” seemingly insurmountable hold on television ratings. CBS hoped that “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” would appeal to a younger audience, but Tom and Dick assumed that they would fail as others had. According to Maureen Muldaur’s documentary Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the team had nothing to lose, but the brothers hoped to get at least half a season out of the deal and then “go fishing in Mexico” the rest of the year.

If Tom Smothers was going down, he was going down throwing his best punches. He demanded that the network give him complete creative control. The result was an hour of political satire that caught network executives and the nation off-guard. The reactionary youth movement of the 1960s had been defined by hippies, Black Panthers, and other insurgent characters, so no one expected a pair of short-haired, clean-shaven brothers to take on the Vietnam War, racial integration, and other social issues of the day. The show reached number one in the ratings as CBS observed with horror the subversive monster it had unleashed. Frank Stanton, the president of the network, often watched the program with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House, which resulted in Monday morning messages to Tom and Dick to tone down the controversy. By the second season, CBS was censoring the show and eventually canceled it halfway through the third year because a script was supposedly turned in too late to be reviewed. The brothers later won a $30-million lawsuit against CBS for breach of contract.

The Smothers Brothers: Tom and Dick. (click for larger version)

In 1988, CBS invited the brothers to do a “Comedy Hour” reunion. The network requested that the pair be as cutting edge and controversial as they had been two decades earlier, but Tom and Dick refused to comply. They decided to stick to just being funny. The Smothers Brothers will appear with the Alabama Symphony on Thursday, March 3 at the BJCC Concert Hall. Tom Smothers even promised to perform his astonishing yo-yo tricks.

No one expected a pair of short-haired, clean-shaven brothers to take on the Vietnam War, racial integration, and other social issues of the day. When “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” reached number one in the ratings as CBS observed with horror the subversive monster it had unleashed.

B&W: I’m having trouble picturing the Smothers Brothers performing with a symphony.

Tom Smothers:
We do about eight or 10 symphonies a year, and we think they are the most fun of all the jobs we do. We do about 75 to 100 dates a year.

B&W: What makes the symphony dates so much fun?

Smothers: There’s something about the formality of a symphony. For a comedian, the easiest place to get a laugh without any effort is a schoolroom, courtroom, or a symphony hall (laughs). There’s something formal about it, and comedy kind of breaks that little formality. We always put monitors in back so that they [symphony members] can hear the dialogue and stuff—and I always turn around and look, and they are always laughing. They have the best time. It’s like having an audience behind us and an audience in front of us.

Are you and Dick the longest-running comedy team?

Smothers: We are the longest-lived comedy team in history. That form is very difficult to do. The kids today all do stand-up, you know . . . Being in a comedy team is like a marriage. It’s very complicated, and that’s why they don’t last very long, ’cause you get in each other’s face (laughs). Dicky and I had couples’ counseling about six years ago. Eighteen hours of these people. It cleared up a lot of stuff. [The therapist] said, “Stop treating each other like brothers and grow up, and treat each other like professionals.” Someone asked, “How do you guys get along?” Dicky said, “Well. It’s like an old marriage. A lot of fighting and no sex.”

B&W: I used to feel sorry for Dick because you were the one getting all the laughs. Did he ever want to be the funny guy?

Smothers: We’ve tried it before, but he’s very comfortable with being the straight man. In the early days, I got more attention than he did. The comic always did. It was 1978 or ’79, and we were watching Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis, and I realized the straight man does most of the talking. Bud Abbott is doing all the talking, and that’s where the balance came in. If the audience believes the straight man, they’ll believe the comic. In the early days of vaudeville, the straight man was paid more money because it was a skilled position. It was the most difficult one, because a good straight man can bring people out of the audience and up on the stage and get laughs off of them. So Dicky and I understand that now, so there’s no problem with who recognizes his place. He’s basically keeps the tempo; he’s the rhythm section for the comedy. And he’s really good. Dicky ranks up there with Bud Abbott and Dean Martin and Dan Rowan and George Burns. He’s really that good.

Were you two ever tempted to work as a more raunchy act?

Smothers: Never. We started in the era of working clean, so it was very easy to keep it going. And now it’s darn near a point of difference—there’s not that many comedians that work clean. We get the same laughs but even better, and don’t have to use the F-word. Offstage, when I’m not working, sometimes I say, “What the f**k’s going on here? Give me the f**king hammer. Who f**ked this up?” Because that’s the way I talk when I’ve had a couple of drinks. My wife goes, “Ooohhh.” I’ve got a nine-year old and an 11-year old. Occasionally I’ll let out a word. I’ve got a swear jar. It’s got about 150 bucks in it now.

We started in 1959, we were fired in 1969, so we had 10 years of unparalleled success. Everything we did was ripe. And then in the ’70s, we could hardly get a job after that. We were untouchable.

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” had an impressive list of writers (Mason Williams, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Bob Einstein, among others). I only knew Mason Williams for writing and performing the song “Classical Gas.”

Smothers: We [introduced] that song on the air. He’s also the one who wrote the Smothers Brothers theme. He was a major moral compass for me. We were roommates at the time we started the show. We were both single and we’ve got a television show, and Mason would read the script and he’d say, “That’s bullshit.” Then I’d go to the meeting and pretend it was all my idea. I’d go, “This doesn’t seem to work.” The whole thing was that we were trying to make some comedy that was at least relevant or had some factual background or something of interest or educational or something, so we tried to insert that kind of stuff into the “Comedy Hour.” Bob Einstein [comedian Albert Brooks' older brother, who is better known as comedic stuntman of sorts, Super Dave] was 21, Rob Reiner was 21. We had all these young writers. Dicky was 29, I was 30 during that time. It was a fun time; it made an impression. We started in 1959, we were fired in 1969, so we had 10 years of unparalleled success. Everything we did was ripe. And then in the ’70s, we called [those years] the dark ages (laughs). We could hardly get a job after that. We were untouchable. Very little eye contact in Hollywood. So we all moved away, and Dicky started a winery up in Sonoma, in northern California. He started racing cars and I did some theater. Then we started doing dinner theater, and then we ended up doing a Broadway show for about two years. And then we started working again in 1980 as The Smothers Brothers. It was like starting from scratch, but there was a residual respect that we got from that firing. We never wore out our welcome because we were on for so short a time. Then the winery started happening, so we’re in the food section (laughs). Then when we went to court with CBS, we were in the legal section. Then we would occasionally get another television show, so it was a pretty good career.

The show had an unusual mix of music. You’d have the Jefferson Airplane one week and Kate Smith the next.

Smothers: (Laughs) We had a rare opportunity to have one foot in the past. So we got the Jimmy Durantes and the Kate Smiths and Betty Davis. So we always had those rock groups and contemporary groups and classic old traditional stars, which was a great combination. We loved that. Music was our first thing. Dicky and I started off as musicians first, and the comedy just slowly edged its way in. And then when the Kingston Trio started working, folk music started happening. And I said, “Oh boy, this is really good stuff. Good stories.” So that’s when the comedy started happening, and Dicky started talking a little more and a little more, and pretty soon there was the comedy team.

Were you as shocked as everyone else when The Who played the “Comedy Hour” and Keith Moon got blown off his drum kit at the end of “My Generation”?

Smothers: (Laughing) It was a surprise to everybody. The union guy put the charge in, then Keith Moon went and put another charge in, and the first charge hadn’t gone off. There were three charges in that thing. So when that went off, man . . . Peter Townshend still can’t hear (laughs).

B&W: Was it prearranged when Townshend smashed your acoustic guitar?

Yeah, I knew he was going to do that. We bought a much less expensive guitar that looked like mine. His ears were ringing, and I was looking around to see if anybody was injured. He staggered over to me because he knew he was supposed to take my guitar (laughs). And it looks so real because I was distracted, I was so concerned. When it first happened, I thought Moon’s drum had exploded, but now I look back and it didn’t. There were limiters on the microphones or else it would have blown out all the mics and everything.”

The current FCC crackdown is focused on profanity, exposed breasts, and other things of a suggestive nature more so than the political comedy that got you and Dick fired by CBS. Do you see any parallels at all?

Smothers: During the time that we were on in 1968 and ’69, there was a Senator Pastori, who was a raving, crazy man about the terrible stuff that was going on in television back then (laughs). So when we were on, we couldn’t say the words “sex education,” we couldn’t use the word “pregnant.” All the censorship was set up, basically, to protect the people from bad words and sexual innuendos. We didn’t do that. We were talking politics. So on April 4, 1969, we were fired from our show. We were fired for our viewpoints on Vietnam. People would come up to us before this last FCC and Janet Jackson stuff happened, and ask, ‘Don’t you wish you were on television, because now you can say anything you want?’ There’s that illusion that sexual content and violence and scatological talk is freedom. But there was nothing being said except sophomoric focus on the crotch. People would say, ‘We’re free, we’re free!’ and I would say, ‘No, no. Political criticism and satire since that time has been relegated to the fringes of television, which is cable, “Saturday Night Live,” at 11 o’clock where the viewing audience is way, way down and [the show] doesn’t create a big issue.’ So things have gone backwards, I think . . . The thing that offends me the most is that Howard Stern has become the poster boy for First Amendment rights. What a crock. Of all the people to pick, a guy that just talks about lesbians and tits and ass and stuff, and that’s the free speech thing? What a contradiction of values (laughs). I was at one time a poster boy for First Amendment rights. I was chosen. I didn’t volunteer.

B&W: Were you and Dick constantly getting pressure from CBS to tone down the controversy on the show?

Smothers: Oh, yeah. It was constant. I didn’t even know I was saying anything important until they said, “You better stop.” It’s amazing. It’s been over 35 years since that show was on the air. It was only on for two and a half seasons, but it made a pretty big impression. Because it’s still a point of conversation. I look back on these old shows and I kind of cringe a little bit. We did some shows in ’88 and ’89 for CBS where we introduced the Yo-Yo Man and stuff, and that was some of the best work that Dicky and I have ever done, next to our albums. The performances on the original show were not up to snuff, because I was so busy producing and worrying about other stuff. Everything except Dicky and I.

B&W: What was the final straw that made CBS cancel the show?

Smothers: David Steinberg did a sermonette . . . But it would have been something else. Nixon had just gotten elected and wasn’t going to listen to The Smothers Brothers criticize Vietnam policy (laughs). We became a threat (laughs) . . . The truth is what you persuade other people to believe. I’m so depressed. (Speaking in a weary voice). People aren’t thinking clear. But I’m kind of a liberal progressive, so I’m always on the other point of view, and I haven’t changed. I just turned 68 two days ago on Groundhog Day. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Old age is anyone 20 years older than you.”

B&W: I’ve seen photographs of Richard Nixon at the Grand Ole Opry playing with a yo-yo, and he looked like he was pretty good. Would the Yo-Yo Man philosophy apply to Nixon?

Smothers: (laughs) Well, yeah . . . The philosophy is basically a perserverence. And the yo-yo, if you miss it, you just get right back on and you keep practicing. Your failures are what head you toward success. Around the World [a yo-yo trick] is like you go out every day and do stuff, and sometimes we fail and we have to try it again and never quit. It’s got a nice philosophy to it. The Yo-Yo Man does not talk, and Dick is kind of the play-by-play announcer. So with the yo yo, I don’t make every trick every time the first time sometimes. Dicky will say, “Oh, the Yo-Yo Man is out of his groove. Come on, Yo-Yo Man, concentrate. Don’t give up. Tom has made a lot of mistakes; he’s learning a lot. He’s working on his doctorate (laughs).”

B&W: Did you and Dick make Nixon’s enemies list?

Smothers: No, we were his first success. It was after that he said, “Hey, let’s make a list.” The plumbers were setting us up with drug busts and all kinds of stuff. It was dirty. I didn’t know what hardball was. It was right after we were fired. We were also doing a movie; it was called Another Nice Mess. This was 1970, and it was a movie with Rich Little and a guy named Herb Bolen, and we dressed them up to look exactly like Nixon and Agnew. But they talked and acted like Laurel and Hardy, and Nixon was always looking at Agnew and going (imitates Oliver Hardy), “That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.” So out of the midst of that, I had a friend who was a former Marine and later worked at the CIA who called me and said, “Tom, I met a guy down at the federal building who asked me, ‘Do you know Tommy Smothers?’” And my friend said, “Yeah.” The guy then said, “I thought I’d tell you that if he’s a friend of yours, there’s a drug bust being set up for him. Tell him to have someone with him at all times, have his car sent to the car wash everyday.” So I got the word, and I started looking up all my friends and let them know that they better clean up their act. So I’m supposed to be on a plane coming up to San Francisco where I was living with my grandfather at the time. I missed the flight. I was busy doing some editing. At about nine o’clock, he called and said, “There’s a bunch of guys here, federal and state narcotics people going through the house.” That was an exciting time of my life. I hid out for a week. I had smoked some grass, but my house was clean as a whistle because I was warned in advance.

B&W: Would you like to have another TV show to take on the conservative establishment these days?

Smothers: It’s not the conservative establishment; it’s a question of fairness and common sense. When you look at stuff and kind of criticize things that don’t make sense, it doesn’t matter what side it comes from—left or right. The problem is that we’re at the age now where we’re age-discriminated against. We’re a little too old. They have MTV for the kids. When are they going to get a network for the adults so we can have some interesting and smart stuff? Then we’d be on!

B&W: I read that you have a lot of respect for Ralph Nader. Did you take issue with him when liberals complained that he drew electoral votes away from Gore?

Smothers: No. I happen to have more than respect for him. He’s one of the rarest people in the world. He never compromised standing up for the little people. His whole thing is standing up for the consumer. Where everybody jumped on him for supposedly throwing the election to Bush, that’s all bullshit. People ask, “Why would you vote for Nader? He’s not going to win.” I say, “Well, when you vote for a Republican or a Democrat, one of them’s not going to win either.” You vote for what you believe in. You never hear him yell, you never hear him talk dirty, you never hear him get angry with people. He keeps this real calm demeanor, and he makes absolute sense. I haven’t voted for a Republican or Democrat in 18 years. Both those parties are so corrupt now. It’s a joke. I mean, they’re all bought and paid for by corporations.

B&W: What’s it going to take to break the stronghold the two parties have on American politics?

Smothers: It’s going to take a revolution (laughs). I think the biggest problem is that since the media has become so consolidated . . . I think we should make an amendment to the Constitution, the First Amendment—freedom of speech—we should add “freedom of hearing.” Some smart things are being said, but we don’t get to hear them. They don’t come out through the microphone. So this country remains ignorant. You have to really get out there and dig to find the truth. I’m still pissed off. But it’s not in our show. Our show’s pretty darned middle-of-the-road. It’s a family show, and we make a few social comments in there that aren’t pointed enough, but people get it.

B&W: Lots of people are referring to the war in Iraq as another Vietnam.

Smothers: Well, it is! It is. What was the Vietnam war about? Well, we’re going to stop the domino thing. And over in someone else’s country, fighting for the hearts and minds. And we’re going the same way. There’s no exit strategy. Rumsfeld and McNamara are the same people. And they look alike, too! It’s amazing how collective memory just went away. You saw it coming from a mile away . . . God, you know when the Dixie Chicks said that thing about Bush? They disappeared. No stations would play them. People are scared to death. You can see this totalitarian thing, militarism. If anybody questions anything, it’s treason. We’ve gotta keep our sense of humor, because last time I lost it for about two years. I was just a dreadfully dull dude (laughs). Finally, I saw Jane Fonda on television one time and she was just . . . eyes all crossed and angry. I was watching her and I said, “Oh man, I’m starting to look like that. I better stop that. Find the joke again (laughs).” &

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