The Great Smothers Brothers Controversy
Could it happen again?
by Mark D. Johnson
December 6, 2002
Originally broadcast December 4, 2002 on Bravo
To be rebroadcast Sat., Dec. 14, 2002, 2PM ET
My, how times have changed. Or have they? This week, cable’s Bravo network aired “Smothered,” a documentary recounting the late-sixties dispute between CBS and the stars of its hit show “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Given today’s vastly different television landscape, the famous censorship battle appears far more ludicrous than it must have seemed at the time. But are things so different now that such a situation could never happen today?
For the benefit of our younger readers (and it was a bit before my time as well), here’s the story: brothers Tom and Dick Smothers established a wholesome comedy act in the sixties and recorded a number of hit musical/comedy albums. Tom played the guitar and the somewhat dim-witted, sillier half of the duo, while Dick was the straight man on string bass. Both sang amusing songs, interspersed with light gags, playing up the sibling rivalry, often ending with Tommy’s catch-phrase, “Mom always liked you best!”
In February, 1967, they landed a variety show on CBS, albeit against the long-invulnerable number one show, “Bonanza.” In such a difficult time slot, CBS was very willing to give Tom, the show’s driving force, complete creative control. Much to everyone’s surprise, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” quickly became a hit, eventually bumping “Bonanza” from the top spot. Then came the controversy as the show took on more of an edge in its second season, and several satirical pieces criticized the Johnson Administration and the war in Vietnam. The network censors trimmed or cut entire skits on a regular basis for fear of offending a conservative public, and the Smothers, and their team of writers, including Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, and Mason Williams, were not ones to back down. The feud ultimately led to cancellation of the show in its fourth season on a technicality. Tom and Dick successfully sued CBS for breach of contract. It wouldn’t be the team’s last appearance on TV, but their rabble-rousing days were over.
These days, it seems all network censors have to worry about is a dwindling number of unacceptable words of profanity and making sure any nudity is blurred or digitally obscured. The Smothers’ liberal agenda didn’t wash with network execs who didn’t share their views. Free Speech issues are largely liberal causes – Conservatives are the bad-guy censors, and now that the network establishment is overwhelmingly liberal, they’re hardly worried about political ideology and pushing the envelope. It’s all about ratings, which was not the case in 1969, when the competition consisted of only two other networks. If envelope-pushing gets them more viewers, they’re all for it.
Does that mean that networks will never smother a show again? Based on the frequent ire many liberals aim at the Fox News Channel, I think the answer has to be no. Consider the possibility of a show that finds success on a major network, and then starts pushing a conservative agenda. Maybe it’s a show like “The West Wing,” only it’s called “The Right Wing” and the president is Republican, and the writers are clearly advocating traditionally conservative stances on abortion, gun control, affirmative action, and big business. Think a major network would keep that on the air? I wonder. Somehow I don’t think we’ll find out anytime soon.
Catch the rebroadcast of “Smothered” later this month if you’re interested in such matters or just interested in the Smothers Brothers. While it lacks a strong narrative focus, it tells an interesting story, including interviews with most of the major players of the day.
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