Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
Director: Maureen Muldaur
“A comedian is contrary by nature,” Tom Smothers states during the fascinating documentary Smothered from filmmaker Maureen Muldaur. Perhaps it’s this contrary nature that makes or breaks comedians who seem to glean the most extraordinary ideas from ordinary life and at their most creative, present their observations in such a way that makes audiences take the trip with them, delighted to laugh at the most miniscule details facing us on a daily basis. Good comedians hold up a mirror to not only ourselves but our society and while, at times they can make headlines for saying things in a way that we may object to, they provoke, entertain and/or inspire us to seek the reasons why or why we do not find something in particular funny. When I think of controversial comedians in the 60’s and 70’s era, I’m usually struck with images of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor whose offensive material shocked the audience and made them immortal but in Smothered we learn that there was another comedy act that may slip under the radar of those who (like myself) were the children of baby boomers—the controversial Smothers Brothers who the nation felt were even more dangerous than Pryor or Bruce since they were on television.
The Smothers Brothers as subversive? It’s hard to imagine the clean-cut, attractive, musical duo whose riddles and double-speak delighted fans across generations seen as anything other than just lovable funnymen and both of whom I was lucky enough to see in the 90’s for a performance in Minnesota. However, in this documentary we’re presented with the facts of the two whose CBS show outraged the network, American affiliates, conservatives and the government to such an extent that the contract was terminated just two years after they hit the airwaves.
Deceptively innocent, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was launched as a harmless offering to go against the number one rated show Bonanza during the 9:00 p.m. Sunday night slot. The tenth show to battle the old west, CBS didn’t let themselves get too excited by their new prospect, assuming it’d be the latest Bonanza casualty and so without hesitation they relinquished creative control to Tom Smothers and were pleasantly surprised when it became a television sensation.
Working with his brother Dick who was more of the variety show mindset, nine episodes in The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour encountered its first censorship battle after a nonpolitical sketch by Elaine May and Tom Smothers which starred the two as censors was cut completely from the broadcast and May wrote an editorial about it in The New York Times. This first encounter with the censors was just a glimpse of the overwhelming war to come as Tommy, who was bringing in writers that were equally off-the-wall such as Rob Reiner (the youngest network writer at the time) and Steve Martin who was paid out of the compassionate head writer Mason Williams’ pocket. Soon the The Comedy Hour began to identify with the counterculture when increasing anti-war sentiment began to find its way into the show. As a network professional stated, the CBS Program Practices department became “just as confused” by the “moving criteria” of what could make it on the air and the Smothers Brothers began to cause an outrage after the hilarious Pat Paulsen for President campaign was launched on the show (sort of a pre Daily Show/Colbert Report styled political commentary) along with David Steinberg’s infamous Sermonettes which lost the network several affiliates and caused an outpouring of hate mail to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in protest of what some Americans felt was a sacrilegious sketch.
Dick Smothers perhaps said it best when he mentioned that he never would’ve thought to call the material being written for the show controversial until it was given the label by the networks but CBS began to lay down the law after the president of the network who was a close friend of President Johnson’s watched the show sometimes with the commander in chief who expressed his dislike and they were even more threatened after Nixon hit the White House. Soon the program became so focused on winning the various battles and beating the censors rather than the comedy itself and ultimately, in 1969 their contract was terminated. As writer Rob Reiner noted, in five years during the 1960's five leaders who espoused "brotherhood and equality" were assassinated and artistically, it made sense that “we’d be assassinated.”
Four years after the end of the show, Tom and Dick Smothers filed suit against CBS and in the eight week trial that tried to prove that the government forced CBS to infringe on the Smothers Brothers first amendment rights, the jury found in favor of both Tom and Dick against CBS whom they felt had just gone into the agreement with the intention of playing hardball. While thanks to the suit and the fact that the show’s writers earned an Emmy after it was canceled, Tom and Dick finally received justice, and their integrity and daring made The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour even more topical than other shows of that same period. In fact in retrospect, it’s even more fascinating than their competition Bonanza, which despite its quality couldn’t hold a candle to the societal commentary of Tom and Dick Smothers or beat the fact that more than just their political beliefs, the Smothers Brothers were just creatively, ridiculously funny men who couldn’t help being anything but contrary by their very nature.