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Cannonball Read #46 : Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”

05/17/2010

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” is a very interesting  biography of the  comedy duo and their fight against CBS in 1969. I had a general idea of who the Smothers Brothers were, and that they had gone up against the network censors and lost, but I really had no idea of how groundbreaking, influential, and controversial they were.

During its run, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour balanced bold new musical talent such as Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Who and funny young comedians such as Rob Reiner and Steve Martin with appearances by Bette Davis, Jack Benny and George Burns. Later on it took on political and cultural battles, that ultimately made the show too much of a problem for the network. But in the beginning, it wasn’t any of that.

It wasn’t innovation or inspiration that led to CBS to unveil The Smothers Brothers Comedy in the winter of 1967. It was desperation.

It was Bonanza.

Bonanza was a blockbuster hit, and CBS was desperate to compete against it. Mike Dann, head of programming for CBS then, thought that  a variety show could get on the air quickly and possibly capture an audience at that time.

He didn’t know what he was getting the network into. The Smothers Brothers’ show became unique and influential. Tom Smothers was a visionary, and some would say a revolutionary. He staged skits that were critical of politics and society, and musicians and comedians who were innovative and groundbreaking.

One of their biggest coups was to get the network to agree to let Pete Seeger on the show. Seeger had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era and hadn’t appeared much on tv from 1950 till his appearance on their show in 1967. One number was a  controversial song about Vietnam, and the network edited it out.  Later a rerun did show it, but Seeger took it to the press:

“It’s important for people to realize,” Seeger told Newsweek, “that what they see on television is screened — not only for good taste, but for ideas.”

Ultimately Tom pushed the network too far, and they used a flimsy excuse to get the show off the air.  But it wasn’t a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ or profanity that bothered the network so much:

‘What was it they wanted to get away with? It wasn’t the chance to say ‘fuck.’ It was to present an idea” — Mason Williams, writer on the show

As Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super Dave Osborn or Marty Funkhouser from Curb your Enthusiasm) said:

“When you have George Harrison on the show, how can you be canceled?…And Harry Belafonte! That was a different kind of star altogether! When you can get all those people on [as guests], and the show was reaching an audience that no other show was reaching, how could they ge t rid of it?”

Many entertainers cite the Smothers Brothers as influences, and we can still see them in acts of Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Matt Groening, Michael Moore, David Simon (writer of The Wire), and others.  The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour transformed television into what we know today. This book about their show is well worth the read.

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