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.

I’m Feeling A Little Looney!

Today we get to explore one of my favorite animation sitcoms.  If you wait long enough, everything comes back into style. In looking at new movies which will debut in the next few years, we have remakes coming of A Star is Born, Dirty Dancing, and Hitchcock’s classic The Birds. All-white kitchens that were popular in the 1950s have returned.  One of the photos below is from the 1960s and one is from the past year.  Can you tell which is which?

In my opinion, most of the reboots are lackluster and not nearly as good as the originals. Case in point is the Parent Trap.  The original Disney version with Hayley Mills is much better than the remake with Lindsay Lohan.   Sometimes a gem is created.  Father of the Bride with Steve Martin and Diane Keaton is just as entertaining, if not better, than the original.

 

From 1930 through 1969, Warner Brothers produced tons of Looney Tunes cartoons – the golden age being 1944-1964. Many of us grew up with these cartoons and watched them in syndication with our kids. In 1996, many of these characters were featured in Space Jam, and a new generation of fans was created. In May of 2011, Warner Brothers again debuted Looney Tunes. Created by Spike Brandt and Tom Cervone, 52 episodes were produced in two seasons of shows that ran until August of 2014 on The Cartoon network. in reading the reviews of the shows and perusing blogs about the show, many people felt cheated by this new adaptation and considered it a betrayal of the Looney Tunes branding.  I, on the other hand, loved them.

 

In 2011, the gang had grown up just as I had.  Bugs Bunny lived in a wealthy, middle-class neighborhood.  He made his fortune inventing a new carrot peeler; he even won a Nobel prize. The 30-minute sitcom included adult-oriented humor and dialogue-driven scripts, but it also appealed to kids. We had three different generations watching it at our house and everyone enjoyed it.

 

Bugs has a great sense of humor.  He is extremely patient which is good because Daffy now lives with him.  Their relationship is a cross between Felix and Oscar on The Odd Couple and George and Jerry on Seinfeld. Daffy tries a variety of get-rich quick schemes but none of them pan out.  He can’t hold a job.  He is either fired for incompetence, or he quits from laziness.  He is constantly making trouble for Bugs with his friends and neighbors. Daffy is self-focused and rude to everyone.  However, he truly wants to be a good friend and his heart sometimes gets in the way of his hare-brained schemes, no pun intended. Both characters are voiced by Jeff Bergman.

 

The rest of the Looney Tunes characters are also in the show. Porky (voiced by Bob Bergen) is highly intelligent and interested in culture.  Daffy often tries to manipulate him. Porky quit his boring corporate job and opened his own catering service. He also serves on the city council.   We see Porky writing and performing opera on episodes.

 

Speedy Gonzales (played by Fred Armisen) runs a pizza joint called Pizzarriba.  The rest of the cast often dines there.

 

Several minor characters are Bugs’ neighbors.  Yosemite Sam (Maurice LaMarche voices him) lives next door and causes no end of problems for Bugs who tolerates him almost as well as he does Daffy. Granny lives across the street with Tweety. Voiced by the amazing June Foray, Granny was an allied spy during World War II and now teaches piano. I’m not sure of all the details but apparently the show did not have permission to use the witch Hazel so Lezah who looks identical to her lives down the street (voiced by Roz Ryan).

Elmer Fudd shows up now and again as a local news reporter.

 

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Lola, who appeared in Space Jam, is again Bug’s girlfriend. She is a bit scatter-brained and fast talking, but likable. (Kristen Wiig plays Lola.)

 

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Daffy also has a long-suffering girlfriend, Tina.  Tina is a female duck who works at The Copy Place. She’s very practical, and tries to get Daffy to grow up and become responsible. (Tina was voiced by Jennifer Esposito and Annie Mumolo.)

 

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There is a bit of a Friends-like atmosphere about the show. The characters have character flaws, but they are all likable and fun loving. The plots feature adult problems and issues:  dating, careers, fulfilling dreams, and mundane chores like going to the DMV.

 

There are three episodes that stand out for me as my favorites.

Newspaper Thief (2011) and Spread Those Wings and Fly (2013) are two shows that feature a lot of the humor that makes this show so much fun.

In Newspaper Thief, Daffy accuses the neighbors of stealing his newspaper. Bugs lectures him, and they plan a dinner party for Daffy to apologize.  Instead of apologizing, he gets Porky to help him set up a trap to capture the thief. There are some great one-liners in the show.

 

In Spread Those Wings and Fly, Daffy and Porky go to hear a motivational speaker. Daffy is a skeptic and wants nothing to do with it. Of course, he is reeled in and buys books and motivational tapes. Porky understands the goal is to fly by pursuing your dreams, but Daffy takes it literally.  He takes flying lessons, planning on becoming a pilot.  He is terrible and wrecks the plane. He then becomes a stewardess, wearing high heels and is dressed like a female, even though Bugs explains guys can be flight attendants now.  He quits when he realizes he literally flies back and forth to a city and doesn’t get any time to sight see. The ending of the show has everyone invited to Porky’s opera debut.  Porky has pursued his dream of singing and performs for his friends.  He is amazing, but Daffy totally misses the talent and complains about him the entire time.  Before they leave, the camera pans to Daffy’s feet and shows him still wearing the high heels.  He tells Bugs he likes the height they give him.

 

My favorite show though is Best Friend Redux. Bug’s best friend Rodney, whom he met at Camp when they were young,  comes to visit for a couple of days. Daffy tries to figure out if he or Rodney is Bug’s best friend. Bugs tells him adults don’t have best friends; they just have friends. Daffy tries to make Bugs jealous by hanging out with Porky.  When that doesn’t work, and he gets bored listening to Bugs and Rodney reminisce, Daffy steals Lezah’s time machine.  He goes back to camp and convinces Rodney to go home because they overbooked. It works, although Little Porky who was at the camp in another cabin gets brought back to the future. Daffy takes him to the adult Porky’s house and drops him off.  He goes home only to realize that Bugs doesn’t know him.  Lezah explains Daffy can’t change history without changing the present.  She said because Bugs never met Rodney, he never met Daffy because he meets Daffy at the post office mailing a letter to Rodney. Daffy realizes his error and goes back in time, taking little Porky with him. He stops Rodney’s bus and takes him back to camp to introduce him to Bugs. Then he puts Little Porky into their cabin instead of the boring one he was supposed to be in. At the end of the show, Rodney realizes why Daffy looks familiar.  He says he looks like their camp director, Chuck Winnanatke which confuses Bugs who says that was not the camp director’s name. Daffy quickly gets them to change the subject.

 

It seems like most people love or hate this reboot of Looney Tunes.  Take a day this winter and have a Looney Tunes fest.  Both seasons are available on DVD. You can revisit your nostalgic youth while enjoying the show from an adult point of view. I’d love to hear what you think of the show.