The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Fifty Years After Getting the Pink Slip

The late 1960s and early 1970s might have contained the most diverse television shows than any other era. In 1968, there were the rural comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; there were the standard sitcoms, My Three Sons, Get Smart, That Girl, Bewitched; there were the remains of a few westerns including The High Chaparral, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; there were crime and thrillers such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mission Impossible; there was the crime/western in The Wild, Wild West, there were gameshows on at night including Let’s Make a Deal, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game; there were sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Land of the Giants; family shows like Lassie; and even Lawrence Welk.

In addition, there were a couple of shows that were a bit edgier and introduced more  provocative concepts and themes. The Mod Squad featured three teens who were helping solve crimes in lieu of jail time, and then there was the almost-impossible-to-describe Laugh In.

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Similar to Laugh In was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which also debuted in 1967 featuring Tom and Dick Smothers. It had more of a variety format to it but it had the same topical and satirical humor.

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The Who

In addition to poking fun at politics, the war, religion, and current issues, you could tune in to the Smothers Brothers for some of the best and sometimes controversial music in the industry. Performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Cream, Pete Seeger, and The Doors appeared on the show.

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Jefferson Airplane

The show aired Sunday nights against Bonanza on NBC; ABC aired The Sunday Night Movie in its first season and Hee Haw in its second season.

The series had some of the best writers on television: Alan Blye, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mason Williams. Reiner and Martin both commented on the show in an interview by Marc Freeman in the Hollywood Reporter 11-25-2017 (“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at 50: The Rise and Fall of a Ground-Breaking Variety Show”).  

Reiner relayed that “you had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.”

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Martin elaborated “When you have the power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say ‘You can’t say that.’ It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.”

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Jack Benny

In addition to the musical acts, hundreds of celebrities appeared on the show between 1967 and 1969, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Shirley Jones, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas and Jonathan Winters, along with so many others.

Part of the show was the brothers’ ongoing sibling rivalry about whom their parents liked best. They also began to add political satire and ribald humor. Pat Paulsen delivered mock editorials about current topics such as the draft and gun control, and in 1968 he had a mock presidential campaign.

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Pat Paulsen for president

Church sermon sketches poked fun at religion. The show lampooned many of the values older Americans valued, often delivering anti-establishment and pro-drug humor. No one was given an exception, and the show lambasted the military, the police, the religious right, and the government.

Battles over content were ongoing with the network. The network pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” They nixed Harry Belafonte’s song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” because it had a video collage behind him of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.

Younger viewers were tuning in, and despite the conflicts, the show was picked up for a second season. The network insisted they receive a copy of the show at least ten days in advance for editing. In April of 1969, William Paley canceled the show without notice. Some sources contend it was canceled by CBS president Robert Wood. Some sources cite the issue with unacceptable deadlines and others mention Tom Smothers lobbying the FCC and members of Congress over corporate censorship that brought about the firing. The brothers filed a breach of contract suit against the network and after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in their favor, awarding them $776,300.

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Here’s a typical joke from the show that was not as controversial.

Tom: You can tell who’s running the country by how much clothes people wear, see?

Dick: Do you mean that some people can afford more clothes on, and some people have . . . less on? Is that what you mean?

Tom: That’s right.

Dick: I don’t understand.

Tom: See, the ordinary people, you’d say that the ordinary people are the less-ons.

Dick: So, who’s running the country?

Tom: The morons.

The Smothers Brothers elicited humor that was as topical, influential, and critical as anyone had ever heard before on television. Fifty years later, both the network and the brothers realized everyone over-reacted. If the Smothers Brothers had tried to play by the rules a bit, they would not have lost their platform to continue to help change what they saw as a messed-up culture.

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The CBS executives felt the program created too much controversy. In their defense, politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, exerted a lot of pressure on the network. Remember this was a time of three networks and ads are what produced the profits to fund shows. The network received a boatload of hate mail daily about the program and, when viewers begin talking boycotting advertisers, executives sit up a bit straighter and listen.

The Smothers Brothers Show, a less controversial series, debuted in 1975. They had two specials on NBC later and another CBS series in 1988 but never regained the influence they had in the sixties. However, the show did help pave the way for a future that permitted, and later embraced, shows with controversy beginning with All in the Family, continuing with Saturday Night Live, and recently seen on shows such hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Although the comedy spouted on the show would seem quite tame by today’s standards, the show had an important part in the history of television and the rights of free speech.

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I have seen some DVDs out there from this show, but they are pricey. Recently I saw season two going for $190. I do see Laugh In on Decades quite often, so perhaps The Smothers Brothers might show up somewhere too, although I’m not sure this show would hold up as well as Laugh In, but the musical performances would be fun to see.

Good Luck with Your MOUTH: Remembering Kaye Ballard

As we take time to remember some of our favorite television stars who passed away this year, Kaye Ballard definitely comes to mind.

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Apparently, no one was surprised to learn that Catherine Gloria Ballota planned on a career in entertainment. Born in Cleveland in 1925, she was performing by age 5 and was known as the class clown. At age 16 she performed in a Cleveland USO stage production of Stage Door Canteen and began perfecting impressions of stars for her comedy act.

At the young age of 18, she received a job touring with Spike Jones and His Orchestra as the featured vocalist and flute/tuba player. When that gig ended in 1945, she made her way to New York and appeared on Broadway in Three to Make Ready in 1946. While appearing in other musicals, she earned a reputation in the nightclub circuit as a comedian/singer. She traveled around the country with her act, popping up in clubs such as The Bon Soir in New York, The Hungry i in San Francisco, and Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago. One of her catch phrases was something her mother often said to her, “Good luck with your MOUTH.”

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During the 1950s and 1960s, she began appearing on variety and talk shows. You would tune in and find her with Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Perry Como, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson. In fact, she appeared on The Tonight Show 150 times. She continued her Broadway career during these two decades as well. She made a name for herself playing Helen of Troy in The Golden Apple in 1954. This same year she recorded “Fly Me to the Moon,” a song Frank Sinatra would make famous. She also was part of the casts of Wonderful Town (1958), Carnival (1961), and Cole Porter Revisited (1965).

In 1957 Julie Andrews starred in a live telecast of Cinderella, the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of the fairy tale. Ballard, along with Alice Ghostley, played the wicked stepsisters. It was at this time that Hollywood brought Ballard to Los Angeles. She was one of the comic foils, playing the friend of Jane Powell’s character in The Girl Most Likely. Although she would appear in several movies during her career, television is where she was best known.

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The Girl Most Likely with Jane Powell

In 1964 she played a teacher for models on The Patty Duke Show. In 1967 she was offered one of the leads, Kaye Buell, in The Mothers-in-Law. The other lead was played by Eve Arden as Eve Hubbard. When Kaye’s son married Eve’s daughter, it caused conflict between the neighboring families, especially with their kids living in the garage. The two families had very different lifestyles. Herb Hubbard was a wealthy attorney and his wife was a champion athlete and very organized. Roger Buell was a television writer and Kaye a stay-at-home mom who is a lazy housekeeper and very unorganized. Desi Arnaz produced the show which lasted two seasons.

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With Eve Arden

The show followed The Wonderful World of Disney and preceded Bonanza but never received the ratings the network hoped for. Desi agreed to pay most of the stars $2000 per week with the intent of giving them a $250 raise the second year. Because the show was not as successful as everyone thought it would be, the network agreed to renew it on the condition that all expenses, including salaries, were frozen. With the exception of Roger Carmel, all the cast members agreed to freeze their salaries. He refused, so he was replaced with Richard Deacon. With the change in the cast, the ratings went down even further, and the show was not renewed for a third year.

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Kaye was asked if she thought the $250 raise was a joke, and Kaye said she and Eve didn’t care about the money. They wanted to keep doing the show. At the time, Arden was making $5000 a week. The show was originally written for Arden and Ann Southern but the networks felt they were too much alike, so Ballard was brought in. Kaye couldn’t get over actors receiving one or two million dollars an episode a couple decades later.

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A long-time friendship developed between Ballard and Arden during the filming of the show. Ballard fondly remembered her co-star, “Eve was a joy to work with, and we never had an unpleasant moment. . . She could read a script once and know it almost completely.”

Another long friendship was made when Kaye worked with Shelley Winters on a film in 1964. Kaye relayed that when Shelley was cast in The Poseidon Adventure, she “used my (Kaye’s) pool to practice swimming underwater because the studio wouldn’t let her rehearse until they started shooting. She was a great swimmer but ruined all my flashlights by swimming with them.”

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The 1970s found Kaye very busy. From 1970-1972 she was a regular on The Doris Day Show, playing restaurant owner Angie Pallucci. The series took some liberties with format. The first two years had Doris moving back to her dad’s ranch to raise her kids after the death of her husband. The third season found Doris and her dad and kids living in an apartment above the Pallucci’s restaurant. In the fifth and final season, the kids, dad, and the Palluccis all disappeared and were never mentioned!

In 1971 she guest starred on her friend’s show, Here’s Lucy. In 1970 Ballard purchased Ball and Arnaz’s home after their divorce. She would live there the rest of her life. Her friend Lucy would often stop by and talked about Desi whom she never quite got over.

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Ballard won the trifecta in the seventies, appearing on Love American Style, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat. She accepted a handful of random roles on television shows after The Doris Day Show ended. You might have seen her on Police Story or Trapper John MD.

The 1990-1991 season found Kaye trying her hand at a situation comedy one more time. The show was called What a Dummy. This show did stretch reality a bit. Ed and Polly Branningan inherit his uncle’s trunk of props which includes his dummy Buzz who has been in the trunk for 50 years. Buzz can think and talk and likes to give the family his unsolicited advice. Ballard was Mrs. Tavalony, their next-door neighbor. No surprise that it was cancelled after 24 episodes.

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In 1995, Ballard was rewarded with a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.

Kaye continued to take a few movies now and then, but most of her time was spent on the stage. In 2005, she went on the road in Nunsense. She also accepted roles in The Pirates of Penzance, High Spirits, Funny Girl, The Full Monty, and The Odd Couple.

In 2006, Kaye added author to her resume, publishing an autobiography, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.

In 2015, Kaye announced her official retirement. She was interviewed by Nick Thomas that same year and talked about writing a second book. She explained to Thomas that she never married but did not have any regrets. “I was engaged four times, but couldn’t give my all to a marriage or wanted children unless I could give them my complete attention. But I’ve got to meet so many great people because of my career. Who could regret that?”

One of those great people was Mother Teresa whom she met in 1992. Kaye discussed that meeting: “I’m an Irish Catholic girl, so it was a thrill. I went to her private quarters where she was having breakfast –a piece of cheese, half an apple and some toast—and we drank Sanka together. She spoke in English, simply and quietly, and was just so modest and humble.”

Although she survived breast cancer, Kaye passed away at age 93 at her home from kidney cancer in January.

Kaye Ballard, ca. 1958
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The girl from Cleveland with the MOUTH had a long, successful, and interesting career. In her own words, “I’m one of the lucky ones. People get Master’s Degrees and they say, ‘I don’t know what I wanted to do.’ I always knew what I wanted to do. Isn’t that nice?”

I have to agree; it was nice for her and even nicer for those of us she entertained.

July is the Perfect Time for Berry Picking

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Ken Berry was born in Moline, IL in 1933. After watching a group perform when he was 13, he decided he wanted to be a dancer. He loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, especially Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, and On the Town. At 16, he traveled with the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, performing in small towns for 15 months.

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He went into the army at Fort Bragg and was in the artillery. He was then moved to an entertainment division under Leonard Nimoy. During his second year, he won the All-Army Talent competition which allowed him to appear on Ed Sullivan in 1948. Nimoy encouraged him to move to Los Angeles where he made some connections for Berry. Both 20th Century Fox and Universal offered him jobs and he accepted the Universal contract.  In 1956, he opened for Abbott and Costello for their stage act. In 1957, Berry enrolled in Falcon Studios to study acting. He worked at the Cabaret Theater, making $11 per week. The same year he won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Show.

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In 1958, he received an opportunity to join the Billy Barnes Revue. While in the Billy Barnes Revue, Berry met Jackie Joseph, and they married in 1960. His work in the BBR led to several lucrative connections. Lucille Ball saw him and offered him a job with Desilu Studios for $50 per week. Carol Burnett also watched a performance and had him on her variety show. (In 1972, she would offer him the co-starring role with her in Once Upon a Mattress, a television movie.)

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The first Desilu show he had a regular role on was the Ann Sothern Show. On the air from 1958-1961, Ann played Katy O’Connor who worked at a New York hotel. Originally, Mr. Macauley (Ernest Truex) was her boss, but he was berated by his controlling wife (Reta Shaw). Katy’s best friend from her previous show Private Secretary, which aired from 1953-1957, was Ann Tyrrell as Vi.  In this show, her name is Olive. The format wasn’t working, so Mr. Macauley the hotel owner, was transferred to Calcutta and James Devrey (Don Porter also from Private Secretary) took over.  Ratings improved, and the show was renewed for another season. During this season, Louis Nye was introduced as a funny dentist in the hotel who dates and marries Olive, and Berry played bellboy Woody Hamilton, replacing Jack Mullaney.  Most of the episodes revolve around the staff and guests of the hotel. As in Private Secretary, there is a lingering romance between Mr. Devrey and Katy throughout the run of the show. The ratings fell drastically in 1961 after the show was moved to Thursdays, and the network cancelled it.

In 1961, Berry obtained a job with Dr. Kildare, appearing in 25 episodes as Dr. John Kapish. Richard Chamberlin starred in the series about a doctor working in an urban hospital under his mentor Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Raymond Massey). In the third season, Dr. Kildare was promoted to resident and the series centered on his patients. The show aired until 1966, but Berry left the show in 1964. This was one of the shows that paved the way for Marcus Welby, MD and the medical dramas today including ER and Gray’s Anatomy.

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He also appeared on several shows in the early 1960s: The Jim Backus Show, Hennesey, Ensign O’Toole, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and No Time for Sergeants, among others.

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In 1965, he was offered the lead in F-Troop. The show was set during the Civil War.  Berry played Will Parmenter.  At a critical moment during the Battle of Appomattox, Will gets credit for the defeat.  He is a private and was sent to get his commanding officer’s laundry. He was sneezing continuously, but the men thought he was saying “Charge,” so they did.  They won a decisive battle, and Will was promoted for his quick decision-making skills and bravery. He was then promoted to Fort Courage.

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The cast had a crazy bunch of characters. The NCOs at the fort, Sergeant O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch) are always scheming to raise money. The Hekawis tribe, with Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova) worked on shady business deals with them. Although the officers manipulate Will, they are also protective of him. Melody Patterson plays Jane Thrift, Will’s girlfriend, who is always pressuring him to propose. The show relied on a lot of puns, slapstick, and running gags.

When F-Troop was cancelled two years later, Berry headlined the cast of Mayberry RFD as widower Sam Jones because Andy Griffith was leaving the show. Since Andy and Helen had married and moved away, Aunt Bee became Sam’s housekeeper. Sam and his son were introduced in Griffith’s final season when Sam is elected to the town council. Arlene Golonka plays Millie, Sam’s love interest. The show was rated as high as 4th and only as low as 15th, so it continued to pull in good ratings, but in 1971, the show was cancelled in the general “rural house cleaning” that the network performed getting rid of any shows such as Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, etc.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, he was on 14 shows including The Danny Thomas Show, The Lucy Show, Love American Style, The Brady Bunch, and The Love Boat.

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The network developed a show Ken Berry WOW, a variety show that lasted five episodes that Berry was not wowed with. In 1973, Sherwood Schwartz wrote a pilot for a Brady Bunch spinoff called Kelly’s Kids. The concept of the show was that Berry adopts three boys, one white, one African American, and one Asian. No network showed an interest in the show.

One of the most unusual jobs he had occurred in 1976.  An album called “Ken Berry RFD,” where he sang, backed by a full orchestra, was released. He and Joseph divorced that same year. Joseph later remarried and continued to have a long and full career.  She appeared on a variety of sitcoms including Designing Women, Full House, Newhart, Love American Style, Petticoat Junction, That Girl, Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, F-Troop, and the Andy Griffith Show. She also had a productive movie career, including Gremlins, The Cheyenne Social Club, With Six You Get Eggroll, Who’s Minding the Mint, and Little Shop of Horrors.

Taking a break from television, Ken went on the road, performing in stock shows around the country.  He also played Caesar’s Palace between Andy Griffith and Jerry Van Dyke.

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He returned to television to join the cast of Mama’s Family with Vickie Lawrence. The show derived from a skit on the Carol Burnett Show which led to a TV movie called Eunice. It featured the Harper family and their neighbors and friends. The matriarch is Thelma Harper (Lawrence) who speaks her mind freely. She is hot tempered and sarcastic, but she loves her family as she berates them. And they typically deserve a berating. They move back in with her and are happy to have her clean and cook for them as well.

For the first season and part of the second, the show was on NBC. Thelma lives with her spinster sister Fran (Rue McClanahan) who is a journalist. After Thelma’s daughter-in-law leaves her family, they move in with Thelma. Her son Vint began a relationship with Thelma’s next-door neighbor Naomi Oates (Dorothy Lyman). Her children from the Burnett sketch, Ellen (Betty White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with hubby Ed (Harvey Korman) are seen during this time.

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The show was cancelled after two years and went into syndication.  The reruns were so popular, 100 new episodes were ordered. A new set had to be constructed and some cast adjustments were made as well. Lawrence, Berry and Lyman were the only original characters on this new version. Since White and McClanahan were now starring on The Golden Girls, and Burnette and Korman chose not to return, a new character was created. Mitchel (Allan Kayser) was Eunice’s son who was always getting into trouble. Another addition was Beverly Archer who played Iola Boylen, Thelma’s neighbor and best friend.

Once Mama’s Family was cancelled the second time, Berry traveled around the country, appearing in “The Music Man”, “Gene Kelly’s Salute to Broadway”, and “I Do I Do” with Loretta Swit. He also went back to television for brief appearances on several shows including CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Gimme a Break, Small Wonder, Golden Girls, The New Batman, and Maggie Winters.

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Berry also appeared in six movies including Two for Seesaw (1962), The Lively Set (1964), Hello Down There (1969), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Guardian of the Wilderness (1976), and The Cat from Outer Space (1978).

Guardian of the Wilderness was based on the life of Galen Clark who convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Yosemite Park the first public land grant. It covers a series of unusual adventures Clark had as he battled lumber companies to save wilderness land.  One of my favorite quintessential 1960s movies was Hello Down There.  Tony Randall and Janet Leigh star.  Randall is an architect who creates an underwater home.  To prove a family could live there, he cajoles his family to moving there for the summer.  His kids are in a band so they force him to take the entire band or no one.  Charlotte Rae is their housekeeper. Berry plays a rare role for him as the bad guy.

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Early in his career, Ken appeared in a variety of commercials. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, he was the spokesman for Kinney Shoes.

He appeared in two game shows, Hollywood Squares and Tattletales.  He also starred as himself on a variety of shows including Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Leslie Uggams, Jim Nabors, Julie Andrews, Sonny and Cher, Dean Martin, Laugh In, and Mike Douglas.

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Berry retired in 1999. Berry loves cars and was an avid motorcyclist and camper.

Although Berry was never in a hugely successful series, he had a long and full career that any actor would be proud of.  Hopefully his well-deserved retirement has been fun and full of memories.

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