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02.04.09

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Phaedra

©1999 Jonathan Exley
SILLY  SIBLINGS: Tom (left) and Dick Smothers once needed some couples counseling to keep their long-running act on the rails.

Fool Time

The seminal political humor of the Smothers Brothers has always been built on a bedrock of the downright silly

By Steve Palopoli


HISTORY WILL remember Tom Smothers as an important comic. It will remember him as a groundbreaking comic, who along with his brother Dick brought politics to mainstream television comedy on their variety show in the late '60s. It will remember him as a daring comic who stood up for the right to lampoon racial injustice, war and censorship, bringing down the wrath even of the White House before CBS canceled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969.

This is a stupid way to remember Tom Smothers.

Not because it isn't true; he was all of those things. But none of it gets to the heart of why Smothers, who performs Feb. 7 at the Fox Theater in Redwood City, is one of America's great comics. Taking on the war in Vietnam and getting fired by his network is not what made him funny then, and staying topical is not what makes him funny now.

That's why history should remember Tom Smothers as a very silly man.

Smart comedy, yes. And great chemistry with Dick, who has been playing the straight man in their act for 50 years. But what makes Tom Smothers so damn funny is his uncompromising, unabashed silliness. From screwing up the words to folk songs to making up American heroes to his trademark childish response to being outsmarted—"Mom liked you best"—Smothers is America's id to his brother's superego.

He remembers a time when that mantle of "importance" temporarily overpowered his ability to do his comedy. It was right at the tail end of the Smothers Brothers' third season on TV, as pressure mounted from all sides.

"During the last part of that season, I was afraid to be silly," he remembers. "I had a cause. After we were fired, it took me two or three yeas to be able to be silly."

Of course, those were crazy times. There were assassinations and riots, and though they had started out as a very funny but completely nonpolitical comedy team who lucked into a spot on Sunday-night network TV, after the first nine episodes they found themselves wanting more and more to use the show as a political platform.

"My brother and I used to say we were at the scene of the accident," says Tom. "We were there, and we had a television show."

Perhaps that's why the show is in many ways more famous for what wasn't on it than what was. Early on, the network censors cut an Elaine May sketch that was actually about the censors themselves. They were told they couldn't let blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger sing his Vietnam song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." Harry Belafonte was cut from an episode because the network believed his song was critical of the police at the 1968 Democratic convention.

All of these things made the Smothers Brothers heroes to the counterculture. But here's the thing many political comedians overlook: they won audiences over first with their comedy.

Tom imagines other comedians could have made it interesting if they had used the power they had banked from being famously silly to the same end.

"I always wondered what would happen if Abbott and Costello were politicized," he says. "Wouldn't that be fun?"

South Bay Start

The Smothers Brothers are usually said to have gotten their start in San Francisco, but that's not exactly true. Before they broke into clubs there in the late '50s, they cut their teeth performing in San Jose. Tom was going to San Jose State, and Dick came up from Southern California to join him.

"Across from U.S. Products on Race Street in San Jose was this place called the Kerosene Club," Tom says. 'We'd go sing on Fridays and Saturdays."

After that, they began auditioning in San Francisco, and spent 13 straight weeks there as an opening act for the likes of Phyllis Diller and others. That's where they perfected their vaudeville-type routine—clean-cut and looking like they wouldn't stray from a straight take on the folk music that was becoming enormously popular at the time, they would crash and burn nearly every song, with Tom changing the words and Dick trying to keep him in line.

They got onto television almost on a fluke, as explained in the documentary Smothered. CBS wanted a show—any show—to take down the Sunday night ratings behemoth Bonanza, and after failing nine times, offered the brothers their shot. Tom believed it was a win-win proposition—if they failed, they would simply become one more show to do so. But if they succeeded, it would be huge news.

It was. And their eventual firing by the network—delivered by telegram on April 3, 1969—was even bigger news. When they filed a lawsuit against CBS, they wound up in the same Los Angeles courtroom as Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers case.

"I said, 'Daniel, you're outdrawing us right now," Tom says.

Not by much. The Smothers Brothers won the suit, after it had dragged on for four years. But it was a brutal time for the two of them. The significance of what they were doing hadn't yet set in.

"In 1970, it was hard to get eye contact in L.A.," says Tom. "But 15 years later, people were saying 'thanks for standing up."'

Keeping It Together

The Smothers Brothers are now the longest-running team in comedy, which is a lot harder than they make it look. "It wasn't easy," agrees Tom. "We've fired each other so many times. My brother and I can clear a room when we have an argument."

In the 1990s, they even went to couples counseling together. The therapist told them to stop thinking of each other as brothers on the job, instead treating each other purely as professionals. It actually worked, and Tom even ended up recommending therapy to Cheech and Chong, who are perhaps not coincidentally now back together as well.

But outside of a few musical duos like Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords, there has been a dearth of comedy teams in the 21st century. Tom thinks that can't last.

"Comedy teams were a staple in the Great Depression, during bad times," he says. "People are fascinated by Dancing With the Stars now, because there's two people. They have to work that shit out."

And how would he like himself and his brother to be remembered by history? "That we were one of the better comedy teams, and we had a moment where we maintained integrity under pressure."


  THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS perform Saturday (Feb. 7) at 7:30pm at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City. Tickets are $35–$75. (650.369.4119)


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