Sunday, December 06, 2009

Dangerously Funny

I've been a fan of the Smothers Brothers since at least high school, maybe junior high. I don't remember why I listened to them for the first time on LP. Probably because I was a television buff even then, and I had read about their turbulent 1960s variety show on CBS, THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR, from which they were eventually fired during their third season.

Color me surprised to find out that the Smothers Brothers' early record albums are nothing like their reputation as TV rebels. Before COMEDY HOUR went on the air as a midseason replacement in 1967, Tom and Dick Smothers did no political material at all. In fact, their clean-cut folk-styled act of comedy and music had its basis in old-school entertainment, and their idols were performers like Jack Benny and George Burns. Even though I no longer have a turntable, and I got rid of almost all my records years ago, I managed to hang on to the two or three Smothers Brothers albums I have.

It took me only a few days to tear through David Bianculli's new book DANGEROUSLY FUNNY: THE UNCENSORED STORY OF THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR. The 350-page-plus hardcover is a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at Tom and Dick's groundbreaking television series, the passion that went into its creation, and the acrimony between Tommy and the CBS executives that regularly censored the show's satire. Sketches dealing with war, religion, even network protocol itself fell victim to the censors’ scissors during THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR’s three-season run, and one episode never aired at all.

Equally essential to fans of comedy and/or television history is the 2002 documentary SMOTHERED: THE CENSORSHIP STRUGGLES OF THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR, which plays as sort of a companion piece to DANGEROUSLY FUNNY, and, in fact, Bianculli is interviewed at length in the film. What’s great about SMOTHERED is the opportunity to see some of the infamous material that was banned from telecast, including Harry Belafonte’s extraordinary “Don’t Stop the Carnival” performed in front of news footage from the 1968 Democratic Convention; Joan Baez’s dedication of a song to her husband David Harris, then awaiting a prison sentence for draft evasion; and David Steinberg’s mock sermon that became the last straw for the network.

While the Smothers Brothers’—mainly Tommy’s, who was involved in every aspect of the show’s production—intractable opposition to network standards sometimes feels a little self-aggrandizing, it’s easy to understand their frustration, as network censors and executives were hesitant to explain the rules, leaving Tom and his writers adrift to craft material with little or no guidelines as to what topics were acceptable. Smothers even asked the network for a written policy outlining acceptable network standards, which he never received.

Writer/producer/director Maureen Muldaur wisely provides both sides of the story, giving CBS execs Perry Lafferty and Mike Dann plenty of exposure to relive their turbulent relationship with the brothers as they saw it. Surprisingly, neither is an ogre or a villain, and, in fact, both men liked the Smothers Brothers and their show. They appear to regret the SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR’s ignominious cancelation (or “firing,” as Tommy still calls it) and their adversarial position in the breach-of-contract lawsuit filed in federal court by the Smothers Brothers (which the Smotherses won in 1973).

Why are DANGEROUSLY FUNNY and SMOTHERED important? Consider that, forty years after CBS threw the SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR off the air for its eagerness to satirize important contemporary events, there still is nothing on network television that comes even close to approaching the Smothers Brothers’ level of relevance. That television has refused to evolve during that period is a frightening concept.

Here's an example of the Smothers Brothers' daring and sharp political humor: the controversial Belafonte bit that never aired on CBS:

Both the book and the documentary are recommended, as are the episodes of THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR currently available on DVD. I can't say the same about FITZ & BONES (which gets maybe one sentence in the Bianculli book), but I'd watch it anyway if I could.

1 comment:

Robert said...

It only took 40 years to pass for Tommy to be able to pick up his writing Emmy.