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Blast From The Past -
December 2011 / January 2012


BLAST FROM THE PAST -
* (Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012) CBS WARS PT.1 - SMOTHERING THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS
* (Sept. / Oct. 2011) HOLLYWOOD ROUNDTABLE ON CIVIL RIGHTS - AUG. 28, 1963

THE CBS WARS: PT 1
SMOTHERING "SMO-BRO": THE SMOTHERS        BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR"


      All networks battle over show content - yes, even pay networks like HBO, SHOWTIME and AMC, don‘t kid yourself.  But the censorship wars of CBS have over the years emerged as the most famous, … or infamous; at the very least certainly the most headline grabbing.  In the early days of 1950’s live television, up and comers like John Frankenheimer, Paddy Cheyevsky, Rod Serling and Reginald Rose butted heads with the network and sponsors over depictions of racial injustice and political corruption while producing a slew of live television plays, the social themes of which still resonate today.  Some of this is covered in Pts. 1 & 2 of our own THE INHERENT POWER OF GENRE series.  In the 1970s Norman Lear’s CBS-based series ALL IN THE FAMILY, GOOD TIMES, THE JEFFERSONS and MAUDE would be groundbreaking in their frank examinations of homosexuality, drug use, sexual harassment, poverty, gender roles, and the struggle for civil rights -  all of it executed (shockingly to some) in a humorous manner during prime time.  And of course the legal battles waged for and towards the network's pioneering news series 60 MINUTES would become the stuff of TV legend.  


      It’s easy today to look back with the benefit of historical hindsight, wag a disapproving finger, and deride network executives of the era as “conservative, free speech quashing bastards!”.  But it’s never that simple … or even fair.  For if CBS had not been daring and experimental enough to allow many of these shows on the air in the first place, the censorship battles never would have occurred.  Founded by William S. Paley in 1928 (when he purchased 16 radio stations then combined them into the “Columbia Broadcasting System”) CBS as a television entity was in it’s early days the most prestigious among the “Big Three”, earning the moniker “the Tiffany Network” because of the quality of it’s programming.  That cache with audiences and (especially) sponsors gave “Tiff” latitude in breaking new ground, sometimes intentionally and at other times by mere coincidence of a show and the era in which it debuted meeting at a fortuitous social nexus.   Such was the case of our first entry in “THE CBS WARS”, the censorship battles of THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR. 

     Long before THE DAILY SHOW,  REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER or even SNL's "WEEKEND UPDATE", THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR brought laughs, music and a truckload of biting political commentary and satire to TV audiences of the late 1960s / early 70s - an audience who'd had a belly full of racial and gender discrimination, government corruption and a very unpopular war in Vietnam.  With a staff of iconoclastic up and coming writers including Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Mason Williams and Carl Gottlieb, the show's sense of humor was trenchant enough to inflame the personal animosity of both the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon Presidential administrations, put CBS in the FCC hot seat, and trigger a high court battle between the show's creators and it's own network over it's eventual cancellation.   

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     “They were both very clean cut college-looking kids.  They wore those blazers and they looked very non-threatening.  They looked like the boys next door.  They couldn’t hurt you.  You’d want them to date your daughters and all that stuff.  And I think because of that, they were able to get away with a lot.  And thank God they were”. 

                    - Rob Reiner: Writer, Season 3


“MOM ALWAYS LIKED YOU BEST!”


     Tom and Dick Smothers were born in 1937 and 1939 (respectively) - both on Governors Island in New York Harbor, where their father, a U.S. Army officer, was stationed.  They took to music early; then when their father died in action during WW2, their mother moved the family to Los Angeles.  They'd grow up involved in the west coast music scene, years later become part of the folk group The Casual Quintet, then make their debut as a music and comedy duo in 1959.  The structure of their "concert" routine was that of two sibling folk singers (Tom the "slower" of the pair and the comedic "pitchman", and his older brother Dick the "superior" straight man) who'd constantly interrupt their songs to argue; Tom's climactic catch phrase being "Mom always liked you best!"

(1961)  
 

     After a series of popular club appearances and record albums (most notably THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS AT THE PURPLE ONION - 1961) they made their TV debut on THE JACK PAAR SHOW later that same year.  This would led to their own Friday night sitcom on CBS - a one season non-success called THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW (1965 - '66) which featured Tom as an angel come back to earth to watch over his “groovy swingin’ bachelor” brother Dick.  And while their first failed foray into TV land would seem to hold little promise for future success in the medium, their increasing popularity with the younger concert going crowd throughout the rest of the decade was remembered by CBS V.P. of Programming Mike Dann, when he needed a young "David" to go up against prime time's reigning "Goliath" - NBC's legendary western juggernaut BONANZA, at the time in the eighth of it's eventual fourteen year run.    

 BONANZA (NBC, 1959 - '73)

    Known at the time as the “Kamikaze Time Slot”, any show running Sunday at 9:PM against BONANZA was guaranteed to fail, as the recent THE GARY MOORE SHOW had done after only a half season.  As Dann didn’t have time to get a new filmed series into the slot, he made an offer to Tom Smothers for a variety show, hoping the Brothers' new found youth popularity would siphon at least a few under 20 yr. old viewers from the Ponderosa.  When Tom brought the offer to his brother and their staff, no one expected their show to survive, in some respects not even Tom and Dick.  But their adventurous logic ended up being, if they went on against BONANZA and got crushed, so what?  No one would expect them to beat such a powerhouse.  But if they went on and won, then they’d sure make one hell of a news story.  

Mason Williams (circa 1966) 

    Both Tom and Dick would be the creative leadership of the show, but Tom’s more aggressive business acumen certainly stamped THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR from the get-go.  At the start he demanded full creative control including the ability to hire their own writing staff as opposed to one given by the network - as was often the norm.  As no one at the network thought their show had the proverbial "snowball's chance in hell", the execs agreed, and Mason Williams was hired as head writer. 

      Around the same time THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR was getting off the ground, Williams (a musician, poet, TV writer and stand up comic) won two Grammy Awards for his guitar single “Classical Gas”.  Known by all not just for his musical mastery, but also for his socio-political slant, it was this Tom wanted for their show, something to separate it and make it just a little more “hip” than most of what was presently on the airwaves. 

     “One thing you have to remember about the Smothers Brothers is they were a product of their time.  They came of age in the Eisenhower era, and some of their material and some of their attitudes where shaped in a much friendlier, less threatening time”. 

                    Carl Gottlieb - Writer, Season 3


  SEASON ONE: THE GOOD TIMES ROLL

     Things began swimmingly for all the first half of Season One.  Debuting as a mid-season replacement Sunday February 5, 1967, THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR proved a success out of the starting gate, appealing to both conservative middle America (guests such as George Burns, Danny Thomas and Jimmy Durante helped considerably) as well as younger more counter-culture audiences; which is precisely what Dann and CBS had hoped for if not actually expected.


     A few humorous socio-political barbs peppered many of the original episodes, but it was slyly integrated entertainingly into the larger patchwork of traditional comedic sketch routines, and as such was nothing the networks or sponsors considered threatening or problematic.  It was presently good natured fun which proved to be a Nielsons hit; and as long as it continued to climb weekly in the ratings, no one wished to rock the creative boat. 


play audio clip
: "Less vs. More ..." (Tom & Dick)



play audio clip:
"McNamara's..." (Tom & Dick )



   
THE UNLIKELY CANDIDATE:

  Every comedy sketch show has it’s “breakout” star.  Early SNL gave the world John Belushi then Eddie Murphy.  IN LIVING COLOR - Jim Carrey, and THE DAILY SHOW - Steve Carrell.  From THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR the world came to know, love (and learn from) comedian Pat Paulsen.   Described by Tom Smothers as "a wonderful 'put-on' artist", Paulsen was a veteran performer with the Brothers, having toured with them on numerous occasions before the launch of their TV series. 

 
The deadpan Paulsen - father of the satirical news format   
  

     Born in 1927, Paulsen was a Marine Corps vet who, after WW2, had worked a number of odd jobs until a stint with a sketch trio (“The Ric-y-Tic Players”) led him to comedy.  As a solo guitar playing humorist he worked many of the same clubs and venues as Tom and Dick, which eventually lead to him joining them on a few of their gigs.  When CBS offered the Brothers their own show, Paulsen became an important part of it, providing deadpan hilarious “news commentaries” at various intervals.  His at time time innovative “news desk” format would later be imitated by SNL’s “Weekend Update” segments as well as lifted for the entire structure of Comedy Central's THE DAILY SHOW.   

                                                         play audio clip:
"Gun Control Editorial" (Pat Paulsen) 
                                                        



     “The ‘Pat Paulsen For President’ campaign was one of the most exciting and successful satirical things the show had.  He was also one of the primary colors as our characters.  He was the strongest defined color.  Whenever you’re in trouble, put Pat Paulson in a sketch and ‘boom!’ it opened up."


                                           Tom Smothers


      Wanting to shed light on the political process from within, head writer Mason Williams and Paulsen struck upon the idea of a fictitious Presidential campaign with a Mark Twain-ish satirical bite.  Over the course of a number of episodes Paulsen had a “secret” which was eventually revealed to be his fun for the office of the President of the United States.  The “campaign” (and the world wide news it spawned - some positive; some negative) had the desired effect of educating the general public on the strengths and weaknesses of the American electoral system.  So much so that even after the demise of the show, Paulsen would officially enter elections in 1972, ‘80, ‘88, ‘92 and ‘96.  Often on the ballot as a “protest vote” for disgruntled citizens, Paulsen would come in second to George Bush at the 1992 Republican Party Primary in North Dakota, and he’d receive 921 votes (1%, second only to Bill Clinton) at the Democratic New Hampshire Primary in ’96. 

Candidate Paulsen: The "Two-Faced" Politician



     Known for his own brand of biting humor, former Attorney General and 1968 Democratic front running Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, consented to a humorous TV interview with Tom Smothers and opposing "candidate" Pat Paulsen in early 1968.




    
      Paulsen’s satire, as piercing as it was, was directed at social and political hypocrisy in general, as was the satirical nature of the entire show.   When topics became a bit more specific, the love affair between the Smothers Brothers and it’s network began to sour. 


BREWING A STORM IN A TEA CUP:

      The first discordant note came nine episodes into the first season and was centered around a skit co-starring comedian Elaine May.  Tom had informed Mason Williams that he wanted their show to "shake things up a bit" and May was game to go along for the ride.   At the time best known for her improvisational comedy pairing with Mike Nichols, May would years later go on to write and/or direct a slew of popular films including A NEW LEAF-’71, THE HEARTBREAK KID-'72,  HEAVEN CAN WAIT-’78, THE BIRDCAGE-’96 and PRIMARY COLORS-’98.  The SMOTHERS BROTHERS sketch was a barb on a subject every TV entertainer had encountered at one time or another, run-ins with a network’s  “Standards and Practices” board.  In the skit Tom and Elaine played network censors watching something (which the audience never saw) and reacting strongly to it.  That’s it.  While hinted to be something of a sexual nature, for all intents and purposes it was left to viewers to decide what it was specifically which was so offensive to the two censors and why.
 
Elaine May and Tom play network censors   

     The skit was cut from the show without explanation by CBS.  As the creators couldn't understand why the routine was axed (it contained no questionable language, political slant or even borderline sexuality or innuendo) and were never given an explanation by the network, it became a demeaning and condescending slap in the face to a group which had been promised creative license.  Over the years it's been speculated by some that at the time networks didn't want audiences to even be aware such as thing as a body of "approved and unapproved content" arbiters existed.  But whatever the reason, it was the Sunday night prime time version of the first shot at Fort Sumter, igniting a Civil War between a network and it's show.

      At first the show creators struck back creatively.  Tom used the press to express his displeasure, and this had the effect of making the public want to tune in to the show next week to see what would happen.  What viewers were treated to was a new routine with Tom and Dick before the studio audience promising to show them the skit which was disallowed.  This they did by holding the skit’s script up before the audience, flipping through it’s pages and telling them where the best bits were and where and when they should be laughing.  It was a clever bit of creative protest but only the beginning of a new wave of material which would now intentionally push the limits of content and commentary. 


    The show introduced a new character, played by comedy improvisational actress Leigh French, in the form of a Berkley-esque hippy who’d use double entendre words and phrases of which younger members of the audience were familiar, but which would sail over the heads of the older generation … including the heads of many in Standards and Practices.  Her most popular routine was as (stoned) hippy-housewife host of “Share A Little Tea With Goldie”, a homemaker show wherein after her customary greeting of "Hi(gh)! ... and glad of it", she'd encourage viewers to do things such as  “cleaning out the roaches hiding in their cabinets”, then (with a big smile on her face) thank them for sending all of their unused “roaches” to her. 





SEASON TWO: WAR IN VIETNAM AND AT CBS ... WITH MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT

     1968 was a traumatic and banner year in American history.  The year’s first six months alone had seen the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy; and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam had convinced many the current war was a no win scenario from which the U.S. needed to find a way to extricate itself.  Then in early August a series of riots between Chicago Police (with National Guard) and protestors had rocked the Democratic National Committee Convention.  CBS news men Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were even roughed up by the police within convention hall.  In such a climate the time for polite commentary was over.  So much so that a series of SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR Season 2 musical guests managed to stoke the ire of not only a large portion of the conservative public, but that of President Lyndon Johnson himself.


Riot at the Democratic National Committee Convention - Chicago, August 1968

      Tom, Dick and actor/comedian/musician George Segal together performed a guitar/bass/bango diddy called “Draft Dodger Rag” which raised a few eyebrows.  And in January ‘68, the Brothers joined with British star of stage and screen Robert Morse (HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING) on the Broadway-esque “The Peace Song:

                                  “… I’m upset and angry and eager for peace;

                                              I’ll kill anybody who doesn’t love peace;

If you really want peace, we could have it today;
If all of our enemies could see things my way;

                   Convince them with soldiers and a bombing increase;

                                       We might wipe out mankind, but at last we’ll have peace …”

      After such performances a slew of negative letters would regularly greet the show’s stars, staff and network; and to a degree they expected it.  But no one was prepared for the mountain of hate mail which flooded CBS’s New York offices after the appearance of controversial folk singer/songwriter Pete Seeger. 

  Pete Seeger performs on THE SMOTHERS BROS. 

      Famous for penning songs which have become staples of the Americana pop culture lexicon (“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had A Hammer”, “Turn, Turn, Turn”), Seeger was equally (if not more) famous for his civil rights, environmental and anti-war activism.  During the McCarthy era he had refused to “name names”, was found to be “in contempt of court” and sentenced to ten years in prison - a sentence which was eventually overturned by an appeals court.  Seeger had satirically attacked Lyndon Johnson in his 1966 cover of “Beans In His Ears” (implying this was perhaps why the President could not hear what everyone was saying to him about the war).  But his 1967 song “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” (about a captain nicknamed “the Big Fool” who drowns while leading a platoon) was a much more direct commentary.  

      “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is the entertainment industry adage.  And as THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS was a ratings powerhouse -  the “David” which had taken down BONANZA’s “Goliath”, CBS was still willing to grant the series some it’s edgier indulgences … within certain limitations.  The network originally agreed to Seeger's appearance on the show.  But after the final lines of  his performance of "The Big Muddy" -  “Every time I read the paper / those old feelings come on / We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on, an obvious allegorical reference to Johnson’s escalation of the war, the network changed it’s mind and pulled the performance from it’s intended September ‘67 episode slot.  Because of the huge amount of resultant publicity (both positive and negative) they actually reversed their cancellation decision and reinstated the song when Seeger returned to the show in January ‘68.  The broadcast generated over 30,000 protest letters.

Frank Stanton - LBJ's "Man at CBS"  

      At the time CBS President Frank Stanton had a close (and some say slightly unethical) relationship with the Johnson White House.  In a 2002 interview, political and media journalist David Halberstam (“The Powers That Be"-1979, “The Next Century”-1991) explained how Stanton was originally intended to be the broadcast industry’s liaison to the Presidential administration, but instead ended up being “Johnson’s man at CBS”.  Former CBS VP Mike Dann recalled how often on Sunday nights Johnson and Stanton would watch the SMOTHERS BROTHERS at the White House, then later that night or early Monday morning Dann would receive a call from Washington, D.C. asking who the hell was in charge of the show’s decision making process.  

      Dann would also recall how at this time the SMOTHERS BROTHERS show, while successful, wasn’t the only thing on the network’s plate, and therefore it’s censorship issues didn’t loom in the eyes of some execs as much as it did in those of the show’s creative staff.  At worse the memos between Standards & Practices and subsequent responses from the Brothers and their writers (their creative “pushing back” and stories in the press) was akin to troublesome mosquitoes which wouldn’t allow you to sleep.  Two things would soon change this - 1) a dip in ratings, and 2) the growing fear that a peeved White House could, and if pushed enough would (via the FCC - Federal Communications Commission) clamp down on the network’s broadcasting license. 

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