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Smothering "Smo-Bro"
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  A young Steve Martin joins the creative team


      During the summer of ‘68, head scribe Mason Williams had been impressed with and hired (from his own pocket) a talented and outrageous young comedy writer named Steve Martin.  Famous today as legendary stand up, actor, playwright, occasional Oscar host and all around "Wild and Crazy Guy!", at the time he was taken onto THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS creative team Martin was a complete unknown.  Constantly searching theaters and clubs, Williams that year also picked up two more writers - Rob Reiner and Carl Gottlieb, from the San Francisco based improv group The Committee, the same group in which they’d discovered Leigh French during Season 1.   

      The new bloods brought a rabid socio-political agenda which the Brothers and Williams loved.  In fact Reiner, 21 yrs. old, and at the time the youngest writer on a network series, made the others look conservative in comparison.  Williams recalled Reiner being the most “in your face” kind of radical.  And Tom Smothers recalled ALL IN THE FAMILY’s future “meathead” good-naturedly prodding everyone on to edgier material by not wanting any of them to be seen as “cop outs”.   Feeling a little more heat from the network (transferred down from the White House), the Brothers and their staff decided to reciprocate by raising the thermostat a few more notches themselves.  

      A contemporary “who’s who” line up of music legends of the day graced the stages of THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR during the course of it’s run - among them The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Ray Charles; Peter, Paul & Mary, George Harrison, Janis Ian, Cass Elliot, the aforementioned Pete Seeger, and in an infamous appearance The Who.  Infamous (and now TV legend) because at the climax of their performance of "My Generation", when the band destroys their instruments and Keith Moon's kick drum explodes, the planned detonation (the drum overloaded with too many explosives) was larger than anticipated - causing cymbal shrapnel to knock  Moon to the floor and the impact blast to permanently damage Pete Townsend's hearing. 

     The "Smo-Bro Show" was also one of the first times the world got a look at what one day would be called the "music video", with the prime time broadcasts of the Beatles' “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”.  Legendary rock guitarist Jimmy Hendrix even dedicated “I Don’t Live Today” to the Smothers Brothers during a particularly “energetic” concert at the LA Forum.  Needless to say, there were more than a few raised eyebrows and floods of protest letters converging on CBS’s New York studio headquarters as a result.  Not quite what the network had expected when first inviting the fine, upstanding, blazer-suited, boys-next-door, folk performers to the Tiffany Network two years prior. 

 Aftermath of The Who's 1967 "My Generation" SMOTHERS BROTHERS appearance: Moon
on the floor, Daltrey checking on him, and Townshend busy smashing Tommy Smother's guitar

   Tom and Dick spoof The Who
      At any rate, in spite of that roster of politically active stage talent, the most deliberately? incendiary episodes of Season Three (and arguably the entire series) ended up being those starring musical guests Harry Belfonte and Joan Baez, and comedian David Steinberg.  Their individual  guest spots would indirectly but ultimately lead to a series of events which would doom the show to cancellation.

      Even today, while networks may own many of the local stations on which their shows are broadcast, a great many stations carrying their shows are still independent, locally owned  “affiliates” who maintain the right to air or not air at their discretion certain broadcasts within their region.  In some instances the local affiliates even reserve the right to edit and/or alter show content .  The flood of protests following Pete Seeger’s appearance on THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR exacerbated the concerns of numerous local affiliates (especially those in more conservative rural communities) and made them considerably less willing to accept blindly the content networks were presenting.  Networks often reserve the right to demand their content providers (show creators and runners) present their finished weekly episodes days in advance for preview; and CBS now demanded this of the Smothers Brothers team.  

The BONANZA spoof "Bonanzarosa" starring Harry Belefonte and Cass Elliot

     Singer and Civil Rights activist Harry Belefonte was the featured guest on the Season Three opening episode.  And while a western skit in which he appeared with The Mamas & The Papa's Cass Elliot survived relatively unscathed (two lines were removed in the BONANZAROSA spoof) one entire other sequence was deleted by the network as being too controversial - a musical number in which Belefonte sang the island celebratory song “Lord, Don’t Stop The Carnival” against a backdrop montage of images of riots at the Aug. ’68 Democratic National Committee Convention.

Belfonte reflects on THE SMOTHERS BROS. and civil liberties in America of the 1960s

Joan Baez performs "A Song For David" (1969)   
     Later that same season activist / folk singer Joan Baez appeared on the show (the episode originally intended to air March 9, 1969) performing “A Song For David” in reference to the prison term her then husband David Harris was serving for refusing the U.S. Vietnam draft.  The entire episode was canned that night and a rerun broadcast in it’s place, the network stating at the time it was done so because the content providers had not submitted the episode in time to be previewed.  When the episode did finally air two months later, Baez song remained, but her explanation as to why her husband was imprisoned had been crudely and obviously edited out by censors.


   Steinberg's "Disguised As A Normal Person" (1970)
     On March 14, 1969 the Brothers received a letter from CBS stating the network would pick up their show for the 1969 - 1970 broadcast season, to which a somewhat surprised Tom Smothers responded, "If you really don't want to pick it up, let us go and we'll go somewhere else".   But no, the network chose to exercise it's option. 

     Looking back many of the creative team now admit the cause of fighting censorship had taken over from the desire to put out an entertaining show.  In a 2002 interview "Goldie" herself, Leigh French said:

     "The censorship issue became obsessive because it became like somebody who just had to win.  And it didn't become anymore about the material or the humor or the issues, it became about ... minding". 

     By this time producers Ken Kragen and Ken Fritz, who had often served as buffers between the creative and executive sides, were off the show, and Tom Smothers himself was chief producer - a principal creator now butting heads one on one with the network.  

     The Final straw for CBS was the latest in a series of “sermon” skits by stand-up comedian David Steinberg.  Later lauded by the New York Times as "a cross between Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce", as well as going on to direct award winning episodes of TV shows such as SEINFELD,  FRIENDS and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, winning back to back Emmys for writing on the 63rd and 64th Oscar broadcasts, and being second only to Bob Hope in appearances on THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON, in 1969 Steinberg was a popular observational circuit comedian who'd caught the eye of Tom and Dick Smothers.  His controversial satirical thrust at the time (as evidenced in his 1968 comedy album "THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING GOD") was the skewering of the hypocrisy evident in many organized religions.

      After Steinberg took his “Moses and the Burning Bush” sermon / skit prime time on THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR the previous season, CBS was inundated with an avalanche of protest and hate mail rivaling that after Peter Seeger’s appearance.  And numerous affiliates refused to air the show outright.  Around the same time Richard Nixon was in the White House, and just as THE SMO-BRO HOUR was openly hostile to "Tricky Dick" (in a satirical manner) so was the 37th President of the United States none too keen about what he perceived to be the variety show’s incessant criticism of his administration. 

  CBS Headquarters New York
     On March 22, 1969 (just over a week after THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS was picked up for the Fourth Season) Show # 226 was taped.  Scheduled to air on April 6, 1969 it contained another David Steinberg sermonette - the subject matter this time being Christian and Jewish interpretations of the story of Jonah and how one group tends to grab the other by it's "Testaments".  CBS required the review tape in the Wednesday before the show was to air;  and when it wasn't in by Thursday, a meeting was called for the network heads in which former VP of programming Mike Dann remembers the network's attorney gleefully exclaiming "We've got them!", referring to a reason to finally pull the plug on the Smothers Brothers show. 

     The increasingly "preachy at the expense of funny" tone of the show had begun to cause a slip in ratings.  Steinberg's original "Moses and the Burning Bush" sermonette had caused thousands of outraged letters to flood the offices of CBS and the FCC.  And the Nixon administration (no fan of the BROTHERS show) was ready to use that FCC as it's bludgeon against CBS.  Many execs at the network felt it was time to teach the rebellious young creators a lesson, though why they opted to re-up the show for a Fourth Season in the first place rather than let it go has never been satisfactorily explained.  The attorney's "three gleeful words" however would come back to haunt CBS. 

     The tape of show # 226 reached CBS' New York offices on Friday April 4th.  The executives viewed it, decided the new Steinberg sermonette was wholly inappropriate, then officially sent a letter to Tom, Dick, their staff and attorneys that they were cancelling their contract based on:

     "Failure of delivery of an acceptable program as a substantial and material breach of your    obligation to us ...", and also that the delivered show # 226:

     "Contains a monolog which in our opinion would be considered to be irreverent and offensive by a large segment of our audience ... The agreement between you and us is terminated".

     David Steinberg recalled reading a front page New York Times story about another "Steinberg" (or so he thought was another, after all why would he be on the Times front page?) who turned out to be him, and how he had been the cause of the SMOTHERS BROTHERS being taken off the air.   The battle with CBS was far from over however.  In September of 1969, the Brothers and their attorneys filed six separate suits on Civil and Constitutional grounds against CBS, asking for $31 million in damages and punitive fees, admittedly by those involved to be a broad net of a suit to cast as legally a contracted show has no "Consititutional" speech rights per se other than those given to it by their contract holder - in this case CBS.  
Mike Dann       

      Three years later the trial "Smothers Brothers vs. Columbia Braoadcasting System" went before the United States District Court, Central District Of California, and was essentially Tom Smothers' word against that of CBS.  The best bet for a win by the Brothers was to prove "Breach of Contract" by the network.  Ken Paulson - Executive Director of The First Amendment Center concurred, saying:

     "In order to win on a First Amendment theory you would have to prove that the government pressured CBS to take the show off the air.  And we haven't seen that smoking gun" 

     In a 2002 interview Nicholas Johnson, FCC Commissioner from 1966 - '73 (during the time of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations) added:

     "It's important to make the point that the only people who really have defacto First Amendment rights are the people who own the media.  So no newspaper editor, no entertainer has any First Amendment rights except those which the owner wishes to bestow upon them - and honor is a matter of grace, but not as a matter of rights.  So in that sense there was no censorship issue here"

While no First Amendment "smoking gun" existed, former programming VP Mike Dann (who had left CBS in 1970) had given the Brothers' legal team another one, when under oath he'd quoted the network attorney's three gleeful words "We've got them!" (from the executive's meeting in April of '69) as proof CBS was looking for a way out of their contract.  The jury found in favor of the Brothers based on "Breah of Contract", and while the punitive damages paid were only just under $1 million, their newest "David and Goliath" victory story (their second one after taking down BONANZA) once again made the world news the following day. 


Former SMOTHERS BROTHERS writer Steve Martin presents Tom with a 40 yr. belated Emmy statuette
at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards (Sept. 21, 2008)

     Later in 1969, after the SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR was cancelled, the show's writing staff won a creative victory when they took home the 1968 Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing In A Comedic Series.  At the time Tom had taken his name off the ballot list, fearing he was too controversial and his inclusion would hinder the chances of a win for the others.  In September 2008 however, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences corrected history by awarding Tom a belated Emmy statuette at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony. 
     In 1988 CBS (under new leadership) asked the Brothers to do 20 year reunion special, and they agreed, reuniting the old gang including Pat Paulsen, Steve Martin, Mason Williams, Rob Reiner, Leigh French and others for THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR 20TH REUNION SHOW.   Actually asked by the network this time to be controversial and topical, everyone just wanted to have fun this time around.   The legacy of the original SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR would continue over forty years into today. 

   Rowan & Martin's LAUGH-IN (NBC, 1968 - '73)
      * In January 1968, NBC would debut their own variety series ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN with a structure patterned after the "Smo-Bro" Show: two hosts (one the "slower" funny pitch man; the other the more conservative straight man), contemporary music and social commentary.  LAUGH-IN's commentary managed to remain general and not specifically topical, and as such they managed to not only make stars out of performers such as Goldie Hawn, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin and announcer Gary Owens, but to also pull in cameo appearances the likes of President Richard Nixon shouting the show's popular hippy catch-phrase "Sock it to me!" 


     Over the years other shows would borrow both significantly - both structurally and thematically, from the SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR.  Among them SNL's "Weekend Update" News segments (very much patterned after Pat Paulsen's "Commentaries"), REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER, and THE DAILY SHOW with it's "Smo-Bro"-like satirical news format.

     * Head writer MASON WILLIAMS continued on with numerous other shows including THE GLENN CAMPBELL GOODTIME HOUR (1969 - '72) and even as head writer for a short time on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1980, but left after repeatedly clashing with producer Jean Doumanian.  He also continued his music career, releasing numerous albums (including Mannheim Steamroller's CLASSICAL GAS - with a new version of his own famous song) and appearing in various concerts and films.  He remains an outspoken environmentalist. 

     * ROB REINER would go on to fame as "Meathead" Mike Stivic in CBS' long running ALL IN THE FAMILY sitcom, then begin a career as popular feature film director with the beloved mock-umentary THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984).  His other films as director include STAND BY ME-'86, THE PRINCESS BRIDE-'87, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY-'89,  MISERY-'90, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT-'95 and GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI-'96.   

     * STEVE MARTIN moved from comedy writing to stand-up performing in the early 1970s, and through a series of comedy albums, sold-out concert performances and numerous appearances on SNL became one of the most popular American comedians of all time.  He moved into films with THE JERK-'79, DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID-'82, THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS-'83 and ROXANNE-'87; then later channeled his creative energies into more mature characters such as those in PARENTHOOD-'89, GRAND CANYON-'91 and NOVACAINE-'01.  As a playwright his works include PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE AND OTHER PLAYS-'96 and THE UNDERPANTS-'02.  He's also written the novella SHOPGIRL-2000, the children's book LATE FOR SCHOOL-2010 and numerous screenplays.    

     * As mentioned earlier, after the demise of the SMOTHERS BROTHERS show, PAT 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.  During the first season of SESAME STREET (1969 - '70) he became popular with a generation of children as one of the first in a long line of celebrities over the years to recite (with a little difficulty) the alphabet.  He also hosted his own ABC TV series PAT PAULSEN'S HALF HOUR OF COMEDY (Jan. '70 - April '70).  He died of complications from colon and brain cancer and pneumonia in April 1997.


      * Tom and Dick Smothers continued touring until a final "Farewell" appearance at the Orleans Hotel / Casino, Las Vegas in May 2010.   Over the years they've taken numerous cameos in various television series and films for fans of their original variety series who have themselves since became show runners and film makers. 

- In 1995 Tom appeared as a Nevada state Senator in Martin Scorcese's crime drama CASINO;

      - In 2005 Dick was featured in the TV movie ONCE UPON A MATTRESS;

      - They both appeared in the 2005 comedy documentary THE ARISTOCRATS; and ...

      - Both also appeared individually in Steven Soderberg's fact-based 2009 comedy THE INFORMANT!

      - In 1991 they also provided the (uncredited) singing voices to the IN LIVING COLOR Smother's
        Brothers spoof sketch "Tom and Tom - The Brothers Brothers at the Country Club" (1991);

     In 1993 E! Network rebroadcasts the original SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR episodes with additional intro interviews with Tom and Dick, and interspersed interviews with various other members of the creative team.  Then in 2009 Time-Life would make selections of the original series available through a series of "Best Of The Smothers Brothers" DVD box sets released according to Seasons.  At present the sets consists of selected skits from various episodes.  To date a complete set featuring the entire episodes has yet to be issued. 

     Long live the comedy and socio-political cojones of the blazer-suited "boy next door" Goliath slayers;

                                                          ... give it up for the Smothers Brothers.

                                                                                                                                             CEJ - December 2011

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