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.

Mabel Albertson: What a Character!

As we wind up our What a Character series, it seemed fitting to end with Mabel Albertson, perhaps the most recognizable of our character actors. She is often remembered for playing the mother of well-known characters. Mabel was born in Massachusetts in 1901. Her mother, who was a stock actress, helped support the family by working in a shoe factory. Mabel’s brother Jack would also become a famous actor.

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Mabel knew she wanted to get involved in the entertainment business at a young age. When she was 13, she played the piano for $5 a performance. She graduated from the New England School of Speech and Expression.

Albertson began working in stock, vaudeville, and night clubs and appeared with Jimmy Durante. Eventually she moved to California where she became involved with the Pasadena Playhouse where Charles Lane got his start.

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Mabel married Austin Ripley, and they had a son in 1926, but their marriage soon dissolved. Mabel decided to pursue a career in film. Although she would have credits for 27 movies during her career, her film career was not what she hoped for. So, she switched gears and tried out radio. During the 1930s, she co-starred with Phil Baker on The Armour Hour and from 1936-37, she was in Dress Rehearsal with Pinky Lee. She also did some writing for the show.

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All The Fine Young Cannibals

In 1937 Mabel married writer Ken Englund who adopted her son George. He began writing for Paramount Pictures and later would be hired by RKO, Columbia Studios, 20th Century Fox, and The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

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Burns and Allen

Although her husband’s career was made on the big screen, her career really took off when television made its appearance. Her first role on the small screen was on the Chevron Theater in 1952. During the 1950s, she appeared in 21 different shows. Although many of her roles were on the playhouse and theater shows, she also showed up on Burns and Allen, Topper, December Bride, Bachelor Father, Jack Benny, and Have Gun Will Travel. In 1955, she was offered a role in Those Whiting Girls. She played the girls’ mother. The show was on the air until 1957.

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Those Whiting Girls

Mabel became the “face” of television sitcom mothers. She played Phyllis Stephens, Darrin’s mother on Bewitched and often said “Frank, take me home, I’m getting a sick headache.” Her husband wrote several Bewitched episodes (season 1, episodes 25 and 30).

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Bewitched

She played Mabel, Paul Lynde’s mother-in-law on The Paul Lynde Show; she was the mother of Marilyn’s boyfriend on The Munsters, as well as Alice’s mother on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Fans of That Girl will remember her as Don Hollister’s mother, and she was seen on The Andy Griffith Show as Howard Sprague’s mother. Her last mother role was on the New Dick Van Dyke Show as his mom.

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That Girl

Her greatest success was in the 1960s when she appeared in 39 television shows, including Perry Mason; Ben Casey; My Three Sons; Hazel; Ozzie and Harriet; The Wild, Wild West; Daniel Boone; Gomer Pyle USMC; Love American Style; and Gunsmoke. A review for her performance on Gunsmoke is posted by jlthornb5110 on imdb.

The review states that her role of Kate Heller is one “of the standout episodes of the series with Miss Mabel Albertson giving what is nothing less than the performance of a lifetime. Beautifully written by Kate Hite, this is a powerful presentation and one in which Albertson truly shines. The climax is absolutely soul shattering and among the most dramatically emotional ever filmed for television. Miss Albertson plays it with a sensitivity and an incredible insight you will never forget. The character of Kate Heller is heartbreaking but quietly strong, a survivor of the psychological brutality of loneliness in the old west and the violence that was part of existence. Mabel Albertson gives the character everything she has within her, brings her to life, and makes her one of the most unforgettable personalities to ever appear on Gunsmoke or any other television series in history.”

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The Tom Ewell Show

She was offered a role as a permanent cast member in The Tom Ewell Show in 1960. The premise of the show is that real estate agent Tom Potter played by Ewell must learn to live in a household of females including his wife, his three girls and his mother-in-law Irene played by Albertson. Even their dog, Mitzi, was a girl. Although Mabel’s brother Jack would be best remembered for his role on Chico and the Man, he appeared on this series with his sister in 1960. The series aired 32 episodes before it was canceled.

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Jack Albertson

I’m not sure where she found time for Broadway during this decade, but she was in The Egg in 1962 and Xmas in Las Vegas in 1965.

While her career began to slow down in the seventies, she was still quite busy, appearing in The Doris Day Show, Ironside, Marcus Welby, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, among others. She appeared in an episode of Arnie with her brother in 1970. She also worked with her daughter-in-law, Cloris Leachman, in the movie Pete and Tillie in 1974.

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Frank, I feel a headache coming on

Her family continued to attract talented actors. Her granddaughter-in-law was actress Sharon Stone.

In 1975, Mabel was forced to retire. Her memory was beginning to fail, and she was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. She passed away from the illness in 1982.

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Like Milton Frome, I was both sad and disappointed to learn how little information there was about Mabel Albertson. I thought I would learn more about her working relationships considering she had a fifty-year career and played iconic mother roles on so many well-loved shows.

As we wrap of this edition of What a Character! series, my hope is that you recognize and acknowledge these actors when you see them when tuning in to your favorite classic shows and remember how much they contributed to our television history. Personally, to keep Mabel’s memory alive, I think any time we are having a family situation, I will turn to my husband and whisper, “Frank, take me home, I’m getting a sick headache.”

Make Room for Daddy: The Show That Persevered

As we wind up our salute to fathers during Father’s Day month, we finish with Make Room for Daddy. This iconic show doesn’t get the respect that I Love Lucy did, but it is one of the first iconic family sitcoms. This sitcom had to survive cast changes, network moves, and ratings fluctuations.

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The show debuted on ABC in 1953. In 1957, it moved to CBS until 1964 when it went off the air. Danny Williams (Danny Thomas), a nightclub singer and comedian, tries to balance his work life with his family life. Danny obviously loves his children but is not an overly affectionate dad and is just as likely to tell his son Rusty, “I love you, you little jerk.”

In March of 1953, Thomas singed a contract for the show and picked Desilu Studios for filming because of their three-camera method. Several of the working titles for the show were “The Children’s Hour” and “Here Comes Daddy.”

The title of the show was from a Thomas family joke. Whenever Danny was away for work, his children had the run of the house. They slept in the master bedroom with their mother, even putting clothes in the dresser there, so when he came home from a tour or a filming, he told them it was time to spread out and “make room for daddy.”

Danny has three children (two in seasons 1-4 and three in seasons 5 and after): Terry (Sherry Jackson and later Penney Parker), Linda (Lelani Sorenson, then Angela Cartwright), and Rusty (Rusty Hamer). The first three seasons his wife Margaret was played by Jean Hagen. They had Terry and Rusty. Louise (Louise Beavers) was their maid. When Beavers passed away, Amanda Randolph took over the role. Terry was later played by Penney Parker. Mary Tyler Moore auditioned for the role, but Danny felt Mary’s nose did not match his as well as Parker’s.

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The show was filmed live before 300 people, so there was a lot of pressure on the younger kids to know their lines. All three children continued in successful acting careers after the show. (Unfortunately, Hamer had a harder time finding good roles as an adult and committed suicide at 42. Cartwright left acting to focus on a career as a photographer.  Jackson continued acting.)

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With Danny Thomas’s connections, you can imagine the quality of guest stars this show was able to feature. Some of the bigger names include Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Durante, Shirley Jones, and Dinah Shore. If you looked at a Who’s Who in Comedy Sitcoms, you would find a huge percentage of them on this show.

Like many shows from this era, the original sponsor was The American Tobacco Company, advertising its brands like Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Tareyton.

While the theme song went through variations during the run of the show, it was always a version of “Danny Boy.”

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The show was popular and did well in the ratings but had not made the top 30 after three years. Jean Hagen decided to leave the show.

At the beginning of the fourth season, the title changed to The Danny Thomas Show. Thomas and producer Sheldon Leonard were trying to decide how to explain Hagen’s absence. Divorce was not acceptable and filling the same role with another actress didn’t seem like a good option either. They decided to have her die between seasons.

The emphasis of the show now switched to Danny being a widower. The family moved from their home to an apartment. Danny dated occasionally and almost got engaged to singer before learning she didn’t like children. The ratings were declining with the new format, so it was decided to have Danny marry again.

Mary Wickes played the role of Liz O’Neal, Danny’s press agent from 1955-1957.

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Mary Wickes in the background

At the end of the 1957 season, Rusty becomes ill, and Danny hires Kathy O’Hara (Marjorie Lord) as his nurse. Kathy was a widow with a young girl (Lelani Sorenson). Danny and the kids both fall in love with her and they become engaged in the season finale. ABC cancelled the show, but NBC was looking for a show to take over the spot of I Love Lucy which was ending its production, so they took it over and put it on the schedule for the fall of 1957.

The first episode of the fifth season “Lose Me in Las Vegas” centered on Danny and Kathy who had married an were on their honeymoon. Angela Cartwright took over the role of Kathy’s daughter from Sorenson. Danny adopted Linda. The family moved into a larger apartment. The ratings skyrocketed, and it was the number 2 show by the end of the season.

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Sherry Jackson decided to leave the show during season six, and her absence was explained by her going to a school in Paris. Jackson had a five-year contract which she honored. She and Hagen had been very close, and Jackson wanted to leave when Hagen did, but Hagen only had a three-year contract.

In season seven, Terry comes back, now played by Penney Parker. During the season she gets engaged and eventually marries Pat (Pat Harrington Jr.), a friend of Danny’s. Terry and Pat move to California and are rarely mentioned afterward.

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Make Room for Daddy might have had the first spinoff of a character not in the cast. In one of the episodes from 1960, “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” Danny is pulled over in Mayberry and is detained in the jail. Sheriff Andy Taylor is featured in the show, and The Andy Griffith Show was created.

“The Danny Thomas Show” (aka “Make Room for Daddy”) Pat Carroll, Sid Melton circa 1950s Photo by Gabi Rona

For the final two seasons, Danny and Kathy traveled for much of the series. They toured Europe while Rusty and Linda stayed home with Danny’s manager Charlie (Sid Melton) and his wife Bunny (Pat Carroll). Thomas decided to retire from the show in 1964. The show ended on a high note, still ranking number nine.

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Although the show ended in 1964, NBC brought back the main cast of Thomas, Lord, Cartwright, Hamer, Jackson, Randolph, and Hans Conried, Uncle Tonoose, to star in a two-hour reunion special, The Danny Thomas TV Family Reunion.  Having a reunion show was another first accomplished by this sitcom.

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In 1969, CBS created their own reunion special, titled Make Room for Grandaddy. It had such high ratings that CBS put it on the schedule, but Thomas didn’t like the time slot and pulled the show.

In 1970, ABC tried again. Sherry Jackson again was Terry, but her husband now was Bill; what happened to Pat? Terry had a six-year-old son Michael (Michael Hughes) whom Terry left with Danny and Kathy (still played by Thomas and Lord) to join Bill, a soldier stationed overseas. The show only lasted one year. One of the reasons given was that Sheldon Leonard was no longer controlling the scripts and actors, and the show was moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays during the season.

The show was so popular with kids that a comic book series was developed.

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As I mentioned, this show does not get the credit it deserves. While Danny tended to be short-tempered and Kathy was the voice of reason, the scripts for the entire series were well written and realistic. It had an extremely talented cast. Unlike some series, the children really carried the show. The children acted like children, not mature adults, in most ways, but they created great characters and were very funny. Rusty always had a viewpoint on any given situation. Their moments are the ones that make this show so memorable. Many of the episodes center around the kids. A typical example is “Casanova Junior ” : Rusty hasn’t asked a girl to the school dance because he has no confidence. Danny gives him some pointers and now the girls are falling all over themselves to go out with Rusty. The only problem is Rusty, he’s gone from no confidence to treating the girls badly and Danny is not happy about it.

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The show ended in the top ten. It created the first sitcom spinoff of a non-cast member and the first reunion movie. I specify “non-cast” member because December Bride included Pete Porter in its cast, and he talked about his wife Gladys. Later the show Pete and Gladys was created.

Despite the challenges it faced with cast members coming and going, the change from ABC to NBC, and the characters growing up on the show with changed the dynamics of the series, the show continued to garner great ratings and was given a second life in a new series in Make Room for Grandaddy. Along with The Donna Reed Show, it was one of the trend-setting family sitcoms from the 1950s and ’60s.