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.

The Not-So Odd Couple

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Today we look at a show that never received its due credit post production.  Unless you watched Kate and Allie, you might never have heard of the show. Yet, it had two major female stars in Jane Curtin and Susan St. James. It ran for six seasons. It was in the top 20 until the last season. The series was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows of 1984. The show won at least four Emmys and had many nominations.

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Sort of a female Odd Couple, the premise of the show is that Allie Lowell (Curtin) divorces her husband, a doctor, after he was having an affair. They have a son and a daughter. She moves to New York to live with her childhood friend Kate McArdle who is also divorced raising a daughter. Her ex is a part-time actor. Allie’s son Chip is played by Lowell Frederick Koehler and her daughter Jennie by Allison Smith. Kate’s daughter Emma is played by Ari Meyers.

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A lot of stars appeared on the show including Wendie Malick, Dylan Walsh, Andrea Martin, David Groh, Holland Taylor, Patricia Richardson, Barbara Barrie, Ben Stiller Lindsay Wagner, Ricki Lake, and Debra Jo Rupp. Dick Cavett, Dick Butkus, and Joe Namath all played themselves. A fun trivia fact is that Kelsey Grammar had his series acting debut. He played a man who had a blind date with Kate but hit it off with Allie while waiting for Kate to get ready. When he and Kate don’t have a connection, he then asks Allie out, but she spends the entire evening talking about her ex-husband and her divorce.

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John Loeffler sings the theme song, “Along Comes a Friend” composed by Ralph Schuckett. During the first season, Loeffler appeared as a piano teacher in one of the shows. Bill Persky, well respected in television, was the director for the first five years. Persky directed other shows such as That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Alice and Who’s the Boss. He was the producer for the entire run of That Girl as well. The last season was directed by Linda Day.

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Sherry Coben created the show. She got the idea after attending a high school reunion.  She noticed that the divorced women seemed to relate to each other and received encouragement from each other, so she thought it would make a great show. The working title for the show was “Two Mommies.”

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Kate is free spirited while Allie is more traditional. When the show first begins, Kate is a travel agent, so Allie decides to stay home and take care of the domestic duties for the three kids. At the beginning of the fifth season when the kids are older, Kate quits her job, and Kate and Allie start their own catering company. They both date off and on; the finale for season 5 shows Allie marrying Bob Barsky (Sam Freed), a sportscaster. They get their own apartment for season 6, but the ratings declined so the writers found Bob a new job that required a lot of travel, so Kate moved in with the couple.  The concept never worked because she seemed to be intruding on the newlyweds’ privacy. By this time Kate’s daughter Emma had left the house. In real life, Meyers left the series to attend Yale, but she was in the opening credits and appeared on the show at least once.

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Kate never marries but she has several serious relationships. She dates plumber Ted Bartelo (Greg Salata) during Season 2 but they break up at the end of the year. He re-enters her life in Season 5, but things just don’t work out.

Allie’s husband Charles (Paul Hecht) marries Claire, played by Wendie Malick during the run of the show.

Each episode began with Allie and Kate having a conversation. It reveals how close they were and introduced the episode. At the end of the show, the theme song played and another discussion between the two brought closure to the issue.

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The week the show debuted, it was number four in the ratings. It was consistently in the top 20 for the first five seasons. Persky left after five seasons once Allie married because he felt that the show had accomplished what it set out to do. Allie has learned more about herself, become confident in taking care of herself and relying on her friends to help her navigate life. She now is able to enter a new relationship as a stronger and more independent person. After the drastic changes of Allie getting married and the kids beginning to leave the nest, the ratings declined during Season 6. At the end of the year it was cancelled.

Two of the funniest shows were a parody of I Love Lucy and the episode when the girls go on the Dick Cavett Show.

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St. James and Curtin were friends. St. James’ husband Bob Ebersol worked on Saturday Night Live, which Curtin left in 1980. The two starred in The High Cost of Living, a movie from 1980.

After the show was over, Curtin had several other series including Working it Out and Crumbs which both lasted an unlucky 13 episodes and Third Rock from the Sun, a huge hit and long-running show. Recently she has appeared on The Good Wife and The Librarians.

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St. James was best known for her roles in The Name of the Game, McMillan and Wife, a variety of movies, and an appearance on M*A*S*H.

In an interview with People in June of 2006, St. James said on the show “Jane ran a serious poker game with the kids and crew like Triple Card Cowboy or Blackjack Over Easy.” It sounded like a fun set to work on.

St. James was happy to take on the show because it allowed her to continue living in Connecticut with Dick and their five children. Her TV kids became friends with her own children. Ari Meyers said “I loved Susan . . . I went to her house many times and hung out with her kids.”

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The series spawned two spin-offs but neither went anywhere. Roxie starred Andrea Martin. It aired in April 1987, but after two episodes it was cancelled. Late Bloomer was a season replacement to star Lindsay Wagner, but the show was scrapped before its debut on the air.

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Kate and Allie’s first two seasons were released on DVD in May of 2006, but I don’t think any other seasons have been packaged. The lack of DVD presence and the fact that reruns never ran on a major station keep the show from being remembered. Take some time to watch an episode or two on YouTube and enjoy the camaraderie of these two stars.

 

The White Stuff

It’s hard to imagine anyone with a more versatile or longer-lasting occupation than Betty White.  During her career, she’s starred in 12 sitcoms, had recurring roles on 17 shows, and appeared in another 45 series. In addition, she was in 14 movies; 18 movies made for television; and 305 different shows as herself, including 326 episodes of Match Game, 85 guest spots on the $10,000 Pyramid, 52 appearances on Entertainment Tonight, and 40 times on To Tell the Truth.

Born January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, Betty was an only child.  Her family moved to California when she was quite young. Her original goal was to become a Park Ranger, but that career was closed to women at that time.  She started her entertainment career in radio, because she was told she was not photogenic. When World War II broke out, she joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was briefly married to Dick Barker, a pilot; they married and divorced in 1945.  In 1947 she married Lane Allan, an agent, but they divorced in 1949.

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Her career took a major leap in 1952 when Life with Elizabeth was picked up by the network. Betty was the star and producer of the show from 1952-1955. Her show gave her total control both behind and in front of the camera.  She was the first woman to produce a sitcom. She was only 28 years old and living with her parents when this opportunity presented itself.

During the 1950s Betty would also star in the sitcom Date with the Angels, as Vickie Angel.  Vickie and her husband, an insurance salesmen, involved their friends and neighbors in a variety of comic situations. She also appeared on variety shows such as Jack Paar Tonight, as well as The Betty White Show, a talk show.  In 1956, she began an alliance with the Tournament of Roses parade which she co-hosted for 19 years.

The 1960s found her starring in her first movie, Advise and Consent in 1962, portraying Kansas senator Elizabeth Ames Adams. She also began her long partnership with game shows, earning the title, “First Lady of Game Shows.” It was when she appeared on Password that she met her third husband, Allen Ludden, who was the host.  They married in 1963 and were happily living life until his death in 1981. (Note: Wisconsin claims Allen Ludden because he was born in Mineral Point in 1917.)

In the 1970s, Betty re-entered the television series realm.  She guest-starred on the Mary Tyler Moore Show during its fourth season as television host Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker. She was such a hit that she became a regular for the rest of the series’ run. In 1977, she and Georgia Engel starred in The Betty White Show (not to be confused with the talk show in the 1950s) which only lasted one season. Because of her affiliation with the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Tournament of Roses replaced her as host, and she then took on the task of co-hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade for ten years.

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In the 1980s, at age 60, Betty’s career continued to steamroll. She became a regular on Mama’s Family, which aired from 1983-86. In 1985, she accepted the role of Rose Nyland on The Golden Girls.  Originally slated for the part of Blanche, it was suggested that Rue McClanahan and Betty switch roles to keep from becoming typecast.  The role of Rose Nyland kept her busy through 1993.  Golden Girls ended production in 1992; the next season, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White reprised their roles for one season on Golden Palace.

During the 1990s, Betty continued her television work. She had a regular role on Maybe This Time where she played Shirley Wallace, a much-married woman, who pushes her daughter, recently divorced, into a relationship, when she just wants to run the family coffee shop and avoid dating altogether. She also was in all 30 episodes of Ladies Man, where she again plays the mother of the main character. He is trying to raise a daughter from his first marriage and a daughter from his current marriage while dealing with a wife, and ex-wife, and a mother.

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As the new century turned over in 2000, at 78, Betty just continued to add to her acting credits.  She had regular roles on Boston Legal and The Bold and the Beautiful.  She also starred in Hot in Cleveland for its entire five-year run. She continued appearing on a variety of television shows during that decade.

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During her career, she was nominated for 21 primetime Emmys and won five. She also won 2 daytime Emmys. She is the only woman to be nominated in every comedy category. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Betty loves animals and is an advocate for many animal associations including the Los Angeles Zoo, the Morris Animal Foundation, and the African Wildlife Foundation. She received the Humane Award in 1987 and had a plaque installed near the gorilla exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo to commemorate her work there.

BETTY WHITE

It’s hard to know what she will attempt next. She was the oldest person to host Saturday Night Live which she did in 2010. She appeared on the original Tonight Show with Jack Paar and has appeared with Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. She has been on the Howard Stern Show, the Simpsons, and one of my favorites, Madame’s Place. She has guest starred in both comedies and dramas. She produced Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, where senior citizens played pranks on younger people.

Considering her real name is Betty, not Elizabeth, it’s ironic that her first television role was in Life with Elizabeth and her first movie was portraying Elizabeth Ames Adams.

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At 95, how has she kept so young?  If you ask her co-stars from Hot in Cleveland, they will tell you that she survives on hot dogs, French fries, Diet Coke, and red licorice.  Who am I to argue?

One of her best awards came in 2010 when she was made an Honorary Forest Ranger.  Considering that in 1940 that field was closed to her, when she received her honorary title, one-third of forest rangers were women.

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When asked about why she loves performing, Betty said, “To be able to talk to that camera—the camera became your best friend. You’re looking into that little camera lens and they’re looking into your soul, because they’re right into your eyes. You can’t be phony. You can’t fake it.”

No one has ever accused Betty White of being a fake or a phony.  Everyone she comes in contact with seems to love her. The camera was her best friend, but we all became her friends through those camera portrayals.

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What a wonderful personality.  What a wonderful career.  What a wonderful legacy.