Sunday Night, after Ed Sullivan and competing with Bonanza
December 6, 2017 2:35 AM   Subscribe

50 years ago, the hot new TV show was "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour". Many of the people involved (Tom, Dick, the producers, writers Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Mason 'Classical Gas' Williams, Bob Einstein before Super Dave, and a host of others) have contributed to an 'oral history' of the show, most famous for being cancelled after 3 seasons for being "too controversial".

Before the Comedy Hour, the Brothers Smothers were a successful music/comedy act, playing traditional folk songs and Tom, the Fool of the duo (like Laurel to Hardy, Costello to Abbott and Gracie Allen to George Burns) interrupting and getting into weird digressions like "pumas in the crevasses"

They messed with all the songs they could with an acoustic guitar and an upright bass, from Marching to Pretoria to a song about a vat of chocolate.

Their most famous 'bit' involved Tom plaintively saying to Dick "Mom Always Liked You Best", which was ultimately settled when the Brothers' real-life mother appeared on the show. They also mentioned their father.

Before the Comedy Hour, they did a short-lived sitcom, of which little survives (fortunately).

But a lot of full episodes of the Comedy Hour are on YouTube, including the never-broadcast episode that prompted CBS to kill the show and fire the Brothers, with Laugh-In's Dan Rowan guesting solo (Dick Martin was the Fool of that duo) and David Steinberg's "infamous sermon sketch".

And a previous controversial episode where a segment was censored that was about the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots accompanying a song by Harry Belafonte. (Although there was a lot other controversial content in this one)

Other notable moments from the show:
The performance by The Who that ended with a larger-than-intended explosion that partially deafened Keith Moon.
Steve Martin's TV debut as a standup comic/bad magician.
Pat Paulsen for President
posted by oneswellfoop (24 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Bobbie Gentry's lovely live rendition of her iconic "Ode To Billy Joe", from the Smo-Bros show, is a clip I watch about once a month or so.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:44 AM on December 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would never have guessed that Super Dave and Albert Brooks are brothers.
posted by pracowity at 4:01 AM on December 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

For further detail, David Bianculli wrote an entire book on the history of the show: Dangerously Funny.
Highly recommended.
posted by cheshyre at 4:07 AM on December 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

Wonderful post, but to be pedantic it was Townsend, right beside the drums, who lost a big chunk of his hearing in one ear due to the explosion.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 4:07 AM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I saw the Smothers Brothers live act in 1963 at The Bitter End (I think) and they were great, lampooning the folkie scene at the time. They were visibly annoyed by the fact that the club allowed their waiters to push drinks during the performance and snarked about it on stage. I thought that was pretty cool. Then, a few years later, my wife and I used to watch their show. Bonanza? Ho-hum. We'd seen that as kids (e.g., younger kids than we were at the time) and were sick of Hoss and Little Joe and Adam. The Smothers Brothers had a great TV show but no one was surprised when it was taken off the air. That's the way things were then. Now, of course, it's a completely different situation.
posted by CCBC at 4:18 AM on December 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

"Editorials evolved into candidacy, making him the first celebrity to run for president, but not the last."

Someone has forgotten that Gracie Allen ran for President under the "Surprise Party" well before him.
posted by xingcat at 5:46 AM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

It was revived for the 1988–1989 season, too. Presumably as part of the Summer of Love 20th anniversary orgy of nostalgia / navelgazing / self-congratulation.

I do remember quite enjoying the revival though.
posted by entropicamericana at 5:56 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I remember watching the revival and seeing Yo Yo Man and begging my parents for a yo yo after that. I have a kid on the playground a bloody nose when I did "around the world" once.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:15 AM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Why didn't you beg for a cello after seeing Yo Yo Ma on television?

Oh wait. Nevermind.
posted by hippybear at 6:20 AM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

You know who else is Albert Brooks' brother? Marty Funkhouser!
posted by chonched out at 6:21 AM on December 6, 2017

AND the father of Bob Einstein and Albert Brooks was Harry Einstein, who was famous on radio as Parkyakarkus, and whose greatest joke was naming his son Albert Einstein.
posted by briank at 7:52 AM on December 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

I did enjoy the initial bit of the revival where the Brothers rode a hot air balloon in to avoid shots from the CBS Cannon.
posted by m@f at 8:20 AM on December 6, 2017

Mason 'Classical Gas' Williams,

the world premiere of that must've been somewhat of a mindblowing moment ... though I suppose 1968 was full of those.
posted by philip-random at 9:22 AM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Big Smothers fan here; I have 3 of their first 4 albums. The Brothers were able to be so great at goofing around, I always thought, because in reality they truly were expert singers /musicians. They had the sibling harmony thing going, from years spent growing up together, that worked really well.

Tommy, supposedly the 'dopey' guy, was anything but; he ended up involved in two of the seminal music moments of the late 60’s: as an organizer of the Monterey Pop Festival, he introduced Otis Redding onto the stage for what one writer calls "the 20 Best Minutes of Pop Music Ever," and – on guitar – was the only other musician in the Montreal hotel room when John Lennon et al performed Give Peace A Chance.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:40 AM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I forgot how much I enjoyed those two. There was also a charming resemblance between them and the Van Dyke brothers.
posted by qwip at 12:09 PM on December 6, 2017

It's tangential to his career and this post, but I always appreciated the way Scorsese cast Dick as a US Senator in Casino (not to mention the cameos of other 1960's Las Vegas icons as casino executives, etc.) It was a very sharp casting decision, and the contrast between (my understanding of) the man and the character he was portraying was great.
posted by mosk at 4:04 PM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

and if you're wondering why Dick Smothers gets tends to get less notice, he was more concerned with driving cars very fast
posted by philip-random at 4:08 PM on December 6, 2017

Scorsese cast Dick as a US Senator in Casino

Not just a Senator, but (fictionalized) Harry Reid.

[edit: all the casting in Casino was amazing, from Don Rickles to Joe Bob Briggs.]
posted by Guy Smiley at 5:01 PM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite shows as a kid and I still have memories of watching it Sunday nights.
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:32 PM on December 6, 2017

Watching the cancelled show made me realize how deep my bubble is. I watched the show with my whole family every Sunday night, and on Monday morning we'd all talk about it on the school bus. Everyone I knew loved it (and also Laugh-In, which was on Wednesday nights IIRC). So as far as I was concerned there really was nothing terribly controversial about the show or about being against the Vietnam war and all of this was pretty mainstream. I was annoyed that they were cancelled, and nothing that followed had the same edge as The Smothers Brothers, but I never felt shocked by the show.

There was a point in the early 2000s when I was living in England and people kept asking me why Americans were so conservative and I was totally perplexed.
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:33 PM on December 6, 2017

When I was a widdle kid, my anti-rock-and-roll parents only allowed me to buy obviously children's records and 'certain' comedy records (basically non-jewish white comedians working 'clean'). The Smothers Brothers were specifically approved, so I ended up owning all the SmoBro albums. When the sitcom came on, I watched it every week for its 13 week run, but was mostly disappointed and confused. Tommy didn't really act like Tommy should; "Are you supposed to change like that when you die and go to heaven?" Also the "lost at sea" premise to 10-year-old me was just a dumb euphemism (before I even knew the word euphemism). They were also strict about my bedtime - I lost a season of Original Star Trek when it moved to 10PM. But when the Comedy Hour premiered at 9PM Sunday, 11½-year-old me badgered them to let me stay up past my school night curfew and they agreed. There was a lot on that show my parents would not approve of but they weren't staying up with me so I mostly avoided trouble and learned a lot about politics, rock music and how to protest injustice... subtly.

There was so much more I could've added to the original post... I pretty much fell into a hole with all the episodes on YouTube and what I'd planned to post on Monday got finished in the wee hours of Wednesday. A lot of the musical performances from the show are on the Tube too: Donovan doing "Atlantis", The Doors (with an elaborate intro), the cast of Hair (fully clothed, of course), Ike & Tina Turner (not necessarily in that order), Jefferson Airplane, the mostly forgotten Hello People, and on the more conservative side, The Association and the man who anchored their summer replacement and became their permanent replacement, Glen Campbell.

I also saw a lot of other 'post-mortems' and memorials for the show, but I stuck with the recently published one for the great assemblage of relevant contributors and the full 50-year perspective. But here's a 200-item YT playlist for those who also wish to fall into the Smothers Brothers hole.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:25 PM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

In this video from 2006 or thereabouts, Mason Williams talks a little about writing the Smothers Brothers theme song. He performs it, and then does a version of "Those Were the Days" about the show.
posted by bryon at 2:38 AM on December 7, 2017

The one bit that I would love to see again, to see if it is really as funny as my 9-year-old self thought it was, at the time, is the one where Tommy Smothers is supposed to be filming a commercial and it is simply multiple takes of him saying "WOW! That sure doesn't TASTE like tomato juice!" He says it a bit differently each time and I can remember laughing harder than I ever had in my life. Have never seen it again, since the original broadcast.
posted by spock at 7:36 AM on December 11, 2017

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