Before the Colbert Report, before Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and before Saturday Night Live, as the United States wrenched its socio-political way through the tail end of the Johnson Presidency and the start of Richard M. Nixon’s term in office, there aired a prime time comedy/variety show that grabbed the rug under this country’s status quo and gave it a firm, playful tug. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour wasn’t enough of a tug to cause a bone-breaking fall, but it was enough to rock its balance.
And rock, it did. In 1967, Tom and Dick Smothers were a couple of clean cut young men noted for their comedy/folk song stand up routines, so CBS felt safe in signing them into a slot opposite NBC’s wildly popular Western, Bonanza. With writers such as Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Roger Mason and top quality guests such as The Doors, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, Jonathan Winters, Liberace, Judy Collins and Donovan; The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour proved to be far more popular than CBS believed it would be, and continued through the spring of 1969.
The Smothers Brothers surprised CBS in other ways too. Back in those days, it was rare to see African American musicians perform on prime time television. Racial segregation was enforced in the US Southern States until 1965 and the civil rights movement battled to protect people of color all through the 1960s. Against CBS’ counsel, the Smothers Brothers repeatedly featured black artists such as the Ike and Tina Turner Review, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte and Nancy Wilson. The Smothers Brothers regularly challenged bigotry, closed mindedness, the Vietnam War and underfunding for education. They passionately supported comedian Pat Paulson’s 1968 Presidential bid.
Censorship was a constant challenge for the Smothers Brothers. As a child, I remember my family gathering in the living room to watch their comedy hour. We would be enjoying one of David Steinberg or Pat Paulsen’s stand up performances, only to hear it interrupted by a blaring “be-e-ep.” I’d turn to my Dad, who would roll his eyes and mutter, “Nixon” under his breath. These comedians weren’t censored due to swearing—but due to their political and social commentary.
The Smothers Brothers, their guests and writers fought back against the CBS censors. Roger Mason, the show’s lead writer and composer and performer of the instrumental hit Classical Gas, recited his poem The Censor on the show, sitting on a stool, cradling his guitar and pointing a pair of scissors directly at the camera.
In the monologue that led CBS to cancel the program, David Steinberg discussed the Biblical story of Jonah. He said, “as they have been known to do from time to time, the Gentiles grabbed the Jew by the Old Testament and threw him off the boat.” This thinly veiled double-barreled reference to male genitalia and historical persecution of the Jews during prime time was the final straw for CBS. That episode did not air, and the Smothers Brothers show was canceled.
If you would like to see that and some of the other fine (uncensored) episodes from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’s third and final season, just come to the Sueltenfuss Library where you can check out the four volume DVD set, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, PN1992.8.C66 S66 2008. You will not only be entertained, but you’ll truly taste the flavor of the 1960s.