Once upon a time it was a Duck Dynasty world, where men were men and there was nothing to watch but cowboy shows like Bonanza, or for the ladies, Petticoat Junction. The decade had begun with massive Civil Rights demonstrations. We lost President Kennedy to an assassin’s bullet and our young men were being drafted by the tens of thousands to fight a war we didn’t really understand. That’s why The Smothers Brothers show was such a radical challenge to commercial TV. No one else was talking about what we saw in the paper every day, or out our own windows.
I remember Dickie Smothers doing an op-ed about how voters have to take the whole package when they elect a president.
“Suppose you love how the Vietnam War is going,”, he asked, staring into the camera with John Stewart sincerity, “but you just hate those astronauts.”
I can’t remember another moment that so summed up the roller coaster ride of the sixties.
They were controversial, wildly popular and ahead of their time. So of course they got cancelled.
The Smothers Brothers show had a sweetness and energy that could not be duplicated. It was their moment, never to come again…
Significantly, the Smothers Brothers received their Freedom of Speech Award [in 2012] from comic David Steinberg, whose controversial mock sermons on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour played a key part in having that variety show yanked and the brothers fired, despite three successful seasons on CBS from 1967 to 1969 and an announced renewal for a fourth.
“The most innovative variety show on television shut down because of political pressure,” Steinberg told the audience in Aspen that night. “But the Smothers Brothers got their revenge. Never giving up, they sued CBS — and they won. And they forever became prominent symbols in the fight for free speech.”
Accepting the award, Tom Smothers joked, “Of course, many of you recognize the fact that we are not the original Smothers Brothers. I’m sure they would have loved to have been here to receive this award. But the original Smothers Brothers passed away in 1969.”
I miss them.
But that’s show biz, the sponsors pay to keep the lights on. I know these Duck people are upset, and in my opinion Phil Robertson’s interview with GQ was more vulgar and angry than anything the Smothers Brothers ever scripted. And where the Smothers made heads spin with a skit that showed an interracial couple left speechless by a waitress who says that seeing them together made her realize-“you really can have a good relationship between a man and a woman!”, the Duck guy wants us all to know how happy the Blacks were before Civil Rights. And how relationships are all about putting something somewhere.
That’s a lot more crude than the Smothers Brothers, but politicians are claiming this guy as their spokesman. Churches are shouting ‘Amen’. I’m sure there’s a place for the Duck show to go on. Meanwhile, they should stop whining about the First Amendment, because this has happened before, to real performers whose challenges to censorship made it possible to bring more reality to TV, even at the cost of their careers.
The Smothers Brothers can be seen on a documentary, Smothered,on their website
SmothersBrothers.com and on DVD. TV critic David Biancully wrote a book, ‘Dangerously Funny’ about their lives and times.
Image from Georgia Public Broadcasting