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The Zen of Tommy Smothers
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000
Friday morning. 10:34. Your phone rings.
"Hi, this is Tom Smothers."
But I was supposed to . . .? How did you get . . .?
Of course. But Tommy Smothers has a history of being ahead of his time and surprising people. Ask anyone who was at CBS in the late 1960s.
Before there was Saturday Night Live, before there were Mad TV, SCTV and In Living Color, before Sonny and Cher and Rowan and Martin, there was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
The show makes a good jumping-off point.
"I wonder sometimes what would have happened if we'd been allowed to go on," Tom said. "I'm sure it would've been fun, because what we were doing up until then was fun. Fun and very, very frustrating."
What most people know about the Smothers Brothers they learned either from the show itself or the firestorm that was created when it was canceled. The Comedy Hour was a midseason replacement in 1967, and much to CBS's surprise, the variety hour turned into an outrageous satire of everything sacred. The brothers pushed the envelope. And bended, folded and mutilated it. Anti-war musicians such as Pete Seeger who otherwise never got on network TV performed on the show, and there were skits with references to sex, drug use, hypocrisy in religion and the war in Vietnam.
In 1967 and '68, comedians could make fun of Lyndon Johnson's ears and Richard Nixon's nose, but they couldn't lay a glove on their war. Not on national TV.
Except Sunday nights at 9 on CBS. As the ratings skyrocketed, CBS officials wondered what they had gotten themselves into.
The beginning of the end came in September 1968, when the brothers closed the first show of their third season with Harry Belafonte singing Don't Stop the Carnival while footage of anti-war riots at that summer's Democratic National Convention in Chicago was projected on a screen behind him.
A dramatic moment, but the viewers never saw it. The network refused to air the segment, and the censoring began in earnest.
In the spring of 1969, CBS silenced the Smothers Brothers altogether and canceled the show. Ironically -- many would say tragically -- they were replaced by Hee Haw.
Never mind that the brothers' show was a hit despite being up against NBC's hugely popular Bonanza. Or that some of the writers and performers on the show included Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Glen Campbell and presidential candidate Pat Paulsen. ("The Bill of Rights says nothing about Freedom of Hearing," Paulsen deadpanned in one of his speeches against censorship. "This, of course, takes a lot of fun out of Freedom of Speech.")
The show's cancellation made the front page of the New York Times. "Seventy-five percent of the shows we did last season were censored," Tom Smothers said at the time. "And we were mild. Now, if we're thrown off that easily, what will happen to someone who has something really important to say?"
The Smothers brothers later sued CBS (and won), and they tried several variety shows on other networks, but the cause and the magic were gone.
All that was left was their act. So they went back on the road. Back where they started. And that's where they still are today -- one of the last comedy teams left in America.
Tom Smothers, the wide-eyed, smirking, mischievous half of the Smothers Brothers, the one who railed against the establishment, is 63 now. He and his brother, Dick, 61, own a vineyard in northern California, but they take time to perform about 50 shows a year.
"I thought about retiring," Tom Smothers said during the phone interview. "But what would I do? We're on the road a week or two and then off for a week. It's perfect.
"And working a lot is good for a comedian. Walking on stage, even if I'm not feeling good or I'm depressed, it's instant gratification. It's probably the only profession where you put it out, and you get it back right away."
That was a lesson he learned at an early age. He struggled in school and would show up late for class. But rather than trying to sneak in unnoticed, he would stroll to the front of the room and do a stand-up routine. The subject: Why I was late.
"I got everybody laughing," he recalled. "But I still got sent to the principal's office."
It wasn't until years later that Smothers learned why he had such a hard time in school.
He had dyslexia.
In a way, though, it was a blessing. The slow, deliberate way he talked and read helped him hone the timing that's crucial to a comedian.
"Comedy today is so dense in words, so very, very thick," he said. "Comics are rapid-fire, there isn't much pacing. Like Steven Wright. He was great. Whatever happened to him?
"You see, comedy is like music. It's not all these notes. It's the spaces in between. The pauses.
"And it really helps when you're working with a straight man as good as Dick is," he added. "Dick and I are totally different. We love and respect each other, but there's a genuine disagreement built in that we don't have to fake."
Their father was killed in the Pacific during World War II, leaving their mother to raise three children -- Tom, Dick and Sherry. Tom is the oldest, Dick is two years younger, and Sherry, who works at the Sarasota Kennel Club, is two years younger than Dick.
"That line I say to Dick, "Mom always liked you best.' . . . Well, whenever she was interviewed, my mom always said it was really her daughter she liked best," Tom said, pretending to be serious. "She said she really didn't like either one of the boys."
The class clown and his more serious brother were students at San Jose State in the late 1950s when they stumbled into show business. Tom was going to go into advertising, and Dick was studying science and business. In their spare time, they sang folk songs in coffee houses.
"I was doing all the talking," Tom said. "After we worked about a week, I said, "Dick, you have to say something too.' So Dick introduced a song. I kept needling him until he said, "That's wrong. That's wrong and that's stupid.'
"We just kept stringing it out, until 75 percent of our act was dialogue."
In 1959, they landed a gig at the Purple Onion, one of San Francisco's hippest nightclubs, and their careers took off.
"We're at the other end of our careers now," Tom said. "We're not the cutting edge anymore, but we're having a good time."
And there are other priorities. Tom has a 4-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. There's the vineyard, which Dick started in 1977 and which now produces about 2,000 cases a year. Tom also has a passion for yo-yos.
The 26-foot putt he sank at the 1992 L.A. Open, using a yo-yo, made all the sports highlights, and the brothers have incorporated the toy into their act. Tom is Yo-Yo Man and Dick does play-by-play as the Voice of Yo, because when the tricks start coming, Tom falls silent and enters a Zenlike "state of Yo."
Their stage performances still draw sizeable audiences, but as with a love affair that ended too soon, they'll always wonder what would have happened if The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour hadn't been canceled, if their careers in television hadn't been cut short.
"I'd like one more TV series," Tom said. "Just one more.
"I enjoyed that so much, and I think we still have something to offer."
At a glance
The Smothers Brothers perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Sarasota Opera House as part of the Sarasota Comedy Festival. Tickets are $100, $50 and $35. Call (941) 954-2006
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