'Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' Premiered 50 Years Ago

Feb 3, 2017

Fifty years ago, the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" changed television when it premiered on CBS Feb. 5, 1967.

Brothers Tom and Dick Smothers had performed their mix of sibling rivalry comedy ("Mom liked you best!") and folk songs on TV through the 1960s. So CBS gave them a variety hour to follow the popular "Ed Sullivan Show." Sullivan himself introduced the show's premiere, saying the Smothers Brothers "are typical American kids, average in every way." 

Smothers Brothers in 1965.
Credit William Morris Agency

What he didn't know – and what made the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" so much fun to watch during three tumultuous seasons -- was that their cutting anti-establishment humor was typical of the American kids in the streets protesting the war in Vietnam.

The Smothers made fun of the government, politics, religion and everything else. When they had to battle CBS censors over their jokes and sketches, they made fun of their CBS bosses and censors too.

Unknown comedian/folk singer Pat Paulsen appeared in a variety of comic roles (a marching band drummer, a parking attendant, etc.) before becoming the show's dead-pan editorial spokesman reading satirical essays on immigration, gun control, postal service reform, education and other topics. That led to Paulsen launching a satirical campaign for president in 1968. See some of his best lines in my blog last year, "Where's Pat Paulsen When You Need Him?"

They were "Dangerously Funny," to quote the title of a 2009 book about the show written by TV critic David Bianculli.  For three years, "the 'Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' was about as topical, influential, and important as a TV show could get," Bianculli wrote.

The brothers surrounded themselves with brilliant minds behind the cameras. Scripts and sketches were written by Steve Martin, Mason Williams, Allan Blye, Rob Reiner, Lorenzo Music ("Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Bob Newhart Show") Saul Ilson ("Billy Crystal Comedy Hour"), Stan Burns ("Carol Burnett Show"), Bob Einsten ("Super Dave Osborne") and David Steinberg. Martin and Einstein and others periodically would appear on air, in addition to crazy sidekicks Leigh French ("Share a Little Tea with Goldie") and Paulsen.

Sometimes it was just good, clean, goofy fun. Like when a motorcycle cop (Einstein) interrupted pianist Liberace playing Chopin's "Minute Waltz" and asked, "You know how fast you were playing?"

Judy Collins sings with the brothers on a 1967 show.
Credit CBS Television

Often a "Smothers Brothers" show would provide an eclectic mix of Hollywood legends (Jack Benny, George Burns, Danny Thomas, Jimmy Durante, Edgar Bergen, Sid Caesar, Bette Davis, Kate Smith,  Agnes Morehead, Moms Mabley, Tallulah Bankhead, Harry Belafonte, Mickey Rooney) with the hottest rock and pop music stars (The Doors, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Byrds, George Harrison, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).

Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Effie Clinker with Tom Smothers in 1967.
Credit CBS Television

"The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" was an instant hit. It was a Top 20 the first two seasons, and dropped to No. 27 its third and final season.

After months of fights over the program's content, CBS canceled the show on April 3, 1969. The cancelation made the front page of the New York Times, and Walter Cronkite's "CBS Evening News."

According to Bianculli, Tom Smothers had already received a fourth-season renewal for the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" when CBS pulled the plug.  Tom's reaction to the news was: "Fired, not canceled."

If you love the Smothers Brothers, buy a copy of "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on Amazon.

There's still hope that "Dangerously Funny" will be adapted for the big screen. George Clooney and Grant Heslov bought rights to the book for Sony Pictures in December 2011, and hired a couple of writers to do a script. Bianculli tells me that Clooney's company "continues to option it. (So) it’s not dead yet."