“It was a variety show that had some social comment in it.” — Dick Smothers
Politics and comedy seem to go hand-in-hand these days as seen with shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. In the 1960s, a height of political and social movements in U.S. history, this combination was harder to find. The emphasis then was entertainment over politics, escape over strife, on the airwaves. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour challenged that expectation, according to Maureen Muldaur’s 2002 documentary Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Smothered explores the challenges Tom and Dick Smothers faced in bringing political commentary into their one-hour variety show. The documentary begins with a brief biography of the brothers that emphasizes how they are “all American.” It quickly segues into the production and its history. The show began in 1967 with a 9 p.m. Sunday time slot on CBS — directly in competition with the very popular Bonanza. After all, the nine shows previous had failed.
The documentary then shows how The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour attempted to make its political commentary and the stonewalling they got from CBS, even though the network did give them creative control.
The show provided a balance of mainstream entertainment with counterculture representation. For example, Joan Baez performed, as did Harry Belafonte. Other performers included Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, and Simon and Garfunkel.
A controversial choice of performer was Pete Seeger and his singing of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” A former member of the communist party who eventually was blacklisted, Seeger was allowed to perform the song. The broadcast generated about 30,000 pieces of mail in response.
The counterculture movement appeared in more than just music, however. Leigh French played a hippie, but her double entendres appealed both to members of the stoner culture and to those unaware of the double meaning behind “roaches” in the house.
The political commentary appeared in staged segments as well. One feature was titled, “An Editorial.” One editorial about gun control says, “Let’s preserve our freedom to kill.” Pat Paulson became a candidate for president in a great example of political satire. David Steinberg performed two “sermons,” addressing the Bible in a way never before done on television.
Their first run-in with the network’s censorship of the show happened in the ninth episode of the first season. In a segment Tommy Smothers and Elaine May watch a show (which we cannot see since it is off screen), and they laugh and censor it. Not having a sense of humor themselves, the CBS brass censored it.
Instead of just taking the network’s word and moving on, Tommy first went to the press to air this strife with CBS. Second, he showed the sketch on the show, anyway — well, the script of it, that is, which made for a fine tongue-in-cheek joke.
Another segment featured Harry Belafonte singing “Don’t Stop the Carnival” against a backdrop of actual footage from the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. CBS pulled this one, too.
In the end the nervous network demanded to see show episodes the Wednesday before the Sunday airdate. Affiliates had the option not to air a particular episode, and many chose not to do so. Show number 226 was late for its Wednesday deadline, and this gave CBS executives the excuse they needed to cancel the show before its fourth season.
The Smothers Brothers sued CBS and won. The show also won an Emmy that year even though it was already canceled. Despite the tensions, CBS invited the brothers to do a reunion special 20 years later.
If you want a good example of how to do a proper documentary, Smothered is it. Muldaur got all the right sources for interviews for this piece, including not only the brothers themselves and some of the show’s writers and crew (Rob Reiner and Steve Martin both work for them), but also with former CBS executives and even an FCC president. She goes a step further by making sure to provide just the right amount of contextual history, with commentary from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam about those contentious times. In general, if a segment was mentioned, the star appearing it in also gave an interview, such as Seeger, and Baez, Belafonte.
The archival footage also functions well. Much of the footage comes from the show itself, and it features segments not shown on the air. Other footage helps illustrate the political and social movements of the time, such as the Vietnam War and the war protests. Additional materials include CBS internal memos and newspaper headlines.
According to Halberstam, “Hard times make for good comedy.” The Smothers Brothers certainly proved this statement true, though their show also showed the struggles performers faced when trying to merge politics and comedy.