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.

Danger Will Robinson: Lost in Space Revisited

Airing in 1965, Lost in Space follows the travels of a family whose ship is off course, traveling through outer space. The show was on the air for three seasons, producing 84 episodes.

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The premise of the show was that in 1997, earth becomes overpopulated. Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams); his wife Maureen (June Lockheart); and their kids, Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Billy Mumy) are selected to go to the third planet in the Alpha Centauri star system to establish a new colony. Major Don West (Mark Goddard) is also accompanying them. Doctor Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) an enemy government agent is sent to sabotage the mission. He becomes trapped on the ship after he reprograms the robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld), altering the course for the spaceship, the Jupiter 2. The group is now lost and trying to find their way back home. During the course of the show, Smith becomes less sinister. It was no secret that the show was a science fiction version of Swiss Family Robinson.

The pilot, created by Irwin Allen, was titled “No Place to Hide.” A ship called the Gemini 12 was supposed to take a family on a 98-year journey to a new planet. When an asteroid knocks the shop off course, the family must try to find their way back. CBS bought the series, choosing Lost in Space over another new show, Star Trek. Dr. Smith and the Robinsons’ robot were added to the cast and the ship was renamed Jupiter 2.

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Dr. Robinson was an astrophysicist who specialized in planetary geology. Williams who played the part was a well-known actor who had starred in the show Zorro. He thought his lead role would be a dramatic part, but the show became increasingly campy like Batman, and Williams’ role was more of a supporting character than a star. He was bitter about the turn of events and when the show was cancelled, he moved to Argentina where Zorro was popular and never acted again.

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Maureen Robinson was also a doctor; she was a biochemist who also performed housewife duties such as preparing meals and tending the garden. Her chores were not too taxing though because the “auto-matic laundry” took seconds to clean, iron, fold, and package clothing in plastic bags. The dishwasher also did a load in seconds. In addition to the hydroponic garden maintained by Maureen, the crew had protein pills available that would substitute for food during emergencies. One fun fact I learned about Lockhart was that she had the largest parking spot on the 20th Century Fox lot because she often drove a 1923 Seagrave fire truck.

West was the pilot of the Jupiter 2 and the only crew member who could land the ship.

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Judy is the oldest child. Being the oldest, she was allowed a more glamorous wardrobe and hairstyle. There was always the undercurrent that she and West would get together. Penny is eleven and loves animals and classical music. She finds a pet similar to a chimpanzee which she named “Bloop.” Will is nine and the youngest member of the family, but he is a genius when it comes to electronics and computer technology.

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Dr. Smith is an expert in cybernetics. Carroll O’Connor, Jack Elam, and Victor Buono were all considered for the part of Dr. Smith. Smith was only supposed to be a guest star but became the best-loved character in the show. Harris rewrote many of his lines that he considered boring. He redefined his character as an attention-getting egoist with a flamboyant style and arrogant dialogue.

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The Robot is an M-3, Model B9, General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Robot which had no name. It did have superhuman strength and weaponry that was futuristic in nature. It can display human characteristics such as laughter, sadness, and mockery.

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The robot was designed by Robert Kinoshita. It cost $75,000 to produce and weighed more than 200 pounds. Kinoshita also designed Robby the Robot for the Forbidden Planet in 1956. The Lost in Space robot was a Burroughs B-205. It had a flashing light and large reel-to-reel tape drives. It could be seen in a variety of movies and television shows, including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964), Batman (1966), The Land of the Giants (1968), and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).

A number of stars chose to appear on the show including Werner Klemperer, Kurt Russell, Wally Cox, Lyle Waggoner, Arte Johnson, Hans Conried, and Daniel J. Travanti.

The pilot and many shows from season one used Bernard Herrmann’s score from The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1951 film. John Williams wrote the opening and closing themes for the show. Season three used a faster tempo version and the opening featured live action shots of the cast. The theme music is unforgettable, and although I haven’t seen the show since its original airing until recently, I immediately remembered the entire score.

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In season one, the ship crashes on an alien world, later identified as Priplanus. The crew spends most of the season on the planet, surviving many adventures. Most of the episodes emphasize the daily life of the Robinsons adjusting to their new conditions. The show was on Wednesday nights against The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Patty Duke Show on ABC and The Virginian on NBC.

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In season two, the ship is repaired and launched into space. Priplanus is destroyed after a series of earthquakes. Eventually, the spaceship lands on another planet and is delayed there. The show became campier during this time because it was scheduled against Batman for a second year. Costumes were brighter and the show was filmed in color. Most of the plots featured outlandish villains. More emphasis was placed on Will, Dr. Smith, and the robot and serious science fiction was sacrificed. Like season one, each episode ended with a cliff hanger.

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Season three shows the Jupiter 2 travelling through space visiting a new setting on each episode. A space pod allows transportation between the ship and the planets they explore. Humor was still a mainstay of the show and the crew encountered space hippies, pirates, intergalactic zoos, and ice princesses. The cliff hanger disappeared, and the robot would show highlights from the upcoming episode before the closing credits. The show continued its slot on Wednesdays and was still on opposite The Virginian on NBC but also The Avengers on ABC

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The show was probably best known for its technology and futuristic props. The Jupiter 2 was a two-deck spacecraft, nuclear powered. It used “deutronium” for fuel. The crew slept in Murphy beds. A laboratory was also designed as part of the spaceship. The characters could travel between two levels by an electronic glide tube elevator or a ladder. The ship could be entered or exited through an airlock on the upper deck or landing struts on the lower deck.

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The crew traveled on the Chariot. It had six bucket seats for passengers, a radio transceiver, a public address system, a rack holding laser rifles, and interior spotlights.

The crew members could use a jet pack, the Bell Rocket Belt. The robot ran air and soil tests. He could detect threats with his scanner and produce a smoke screen for protection. He could understand speech and speak to the crew. He claimed he could read minds by translating thought waves back into words.

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One of the things Lost In Space is best remembered for is the catchphrase, “Danger Will Robinson.” What is funny is that it was only used one time in the series. Smith also had several lines he is remembered for: “Oh, the pain, the pain” and “Never fear, Smith is here” are two of them. He also was famous for his alliterative phrases such as “Bubble-headed booby,” “Cackling Cacophony,” “Tin-Plated Traitor,” “Blithering Blatherskyte,” and “Traitorous Transistorized Toad” which he used to insult the robot.

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Lost in Space ranked in the top 35 shows all three seasons it was on the air (32nd, 35th, and 33rd respectively). It was ranked number three in the top five favorite new shows of 1965-66, along with The Big Valley, Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, and F-Troop. The show was nominated for an Emmy for Cinematography Special Photographic Effects in 1966 and for Achievement in Visual Arts & Make-up in 1968 but did not win either award.

Despite its good ratings, CBS Chairman William Paley hated the show and didn’t understand why it was popular. He instructed his executives to cancel it the minute its ratings dipped. Unfortunately, it was never able to air a finale.

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In the 1970s, Mumy wrote a script for a reunion movie. He arranged for the casting and had approval from 20th Century Fox and CBS. However, Allen who was worried that Mumy might be entitled to a copyright claim on the original, refused to even review the script. Without his okay, the reunion was never able to be filmed.

Lost in Space was successful in reruns and syndication. All three seasons are available on DVD. Like many science-fiction shows and movies from the 1960s, it was eerily predictive of technology and glaringly wrong at the same time. The show is campy, but I don’t mind that. Along with The Monkees and Batman, it seems to fit the times it was produced in.

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Perhaps it’s not that bad that Mumy was not able to film the reunion. The show was made into a movie in 1998 which received poor reviews. Legendary Television has brought a reboot of the show to Netflix in 2018.  It is currently getting ready for its second season. It has not received the greatest reviews either. Lost in Space can be seen on Antenna TV on Saturday nights, so you might want to catch an episode or two this winter. Sometimes the real thing just can’t be duplicated.

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