If the term "variety show" comes up today, it's most likely in a debate over Jay Leno's move to prime time television. Otherwise, it brings to mind names like Ed Sullivan, Sonny and Cher or even Donny and Marie, along with whatever smile or cringe they may produce. While variety shows tend to reflect or even contribute to popular culture, few have lasting impact.
One exception is The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which aired on CBS from 1967 to 1969. Featuring the comedy duo of Tom and Dick Smothers, the show is most remembered today for censorship battles that brought it to a premature end. Yet as longtime TV critic David Bianculli shows in Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour", the show is just as important for how it helped change television.
Dangerously Funny details not only the road Tom and Dick Smothers took to network television, but how the show and its battles with the network evolved. Bianculli makes clear that Tom — the daffy bumbler of the duo — was thoroughly involved in and a driving force behind the television show. Dick — the sensible straight man — left most details to his brother, preferring to spend his time driving race cars and motorcycles.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour premiered as a replacement series in the midst of the 1966-67 television season, programmed against NBC's ratings juggernaut, Bonanza. CBS had eight of the top 10 shows that season, including Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gomer Pyle USMC. As a result, Bianculli notes, "all the Smothers Brothers had to do to build a reputation for topical comic commentary was to say anything at all."
Many of the controversies seem tame today. For example, there was the CBS affiliate that complained of the "extremely poor taste" of a comedy sketch that revolved around Tom Smothers getting a tablecloth caught in his zipper. Or there was a Jackie Mason routine for a March 1969 episode that helped bring the simmering relationship with CBS executives to a boil. CBS refused to air part of it, feeling the comedian discussed sex in a manner not fitting for prime time television. The offensive joke? "I never see a kid play accountant. Even the kids who want to be lawyers play doctor."