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O Brothers, Where Art Thou?

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Last December I wrote an article titled “Where’s Norman Lear now that we need him?” where I said,

“Where are today’s Norman Lears, Larry Gelbarts and Susan Harriss? People who used comedy to talk about war, prejudice, and the issues of the day”. Now don’t shout out your answers, it’s a rhetorical question. I know where they are. They’re telling stories in coffeehouses. They’re making underground comedy albums that make fun of the current administration. They’re in 99 seat houses doing controversial plays. They’re everywhere just not on TV. Why? Some say that it’s the dumming down of the TV viewer who would rather see a bikini clad girl in a tank filled with electric eels or a guy eating goat testicles than something that requires them to think. In the process, this puts talented actors and writers out of work. Others feel that in this current political climate anything topical especially when it is mocking or criticizing the current administration is considered dissent, treasonous or just down right Un-American. We can debate this forever, but the third and most practical reason is that this is a business and topical sit-coms do not do well in syndication where the money is.”

The closest thing that I have found to Norman Lear, Larry Gelbart or Susan Harris on the air today is Seth MacFarlane the creator/writer/director, and voice of Peter, Stewie, Brian, Quagmire, Tom Tucker, and various background characters on the animated TV series Family Guy. Seth MacFarlane is also the creator/writer/director and voice of Stan, Roger, and various background characters on the animated TV series American Dad!. Did I mention these were animated TV shows? Don’t get me wrong, I like these shows and I love cartoons (In fact I’m surprised that I have not dedicated a column just to animation). I just want to see this type of cutting edge comedy on live action TV. These two shows also made the Parents Television Council “Worst TV Show of the Week” list.
Family Guy – Worst Family TV Shows of the Week
American Dad on Fox – Worst Family TV Shows of the Week
Making the PTC “Worst TV Show of the Week” list is like being on Nixon’s Hit List.

Speaking of being on Nixon’s “Hit List”, I was watching a documentary titled Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Here are two people who fall under the category of “People who used comedy to talk about war, prejudice, and the issues of the day”. For some if you mention the Smothers Brothers they will think of Tommy’s famous punch line, “Mom liked you best” or the Yo Yo man. Others may look at the Smothers Brothers the same way they look at Lenny Bruce, seeing the controversy over the content. This documentary covers the life of a show that CBS could easily put together in a short amount of time and stick in the Sunday night 9PM death slot against “Bonanza” on NBC. Since the network did not have a great deal of faith in the show success in that death slot, they gave Tom Smothers creative control. Long story short, Tommy decides to go for broke and tries to do something different from other Comedy Variety shows of the time by hiring writers (including Stan Burns, Bob Einstein, Mike Marmer, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Rob Reiner, Murray Roman , Norman Sedawie and Mason Williams ) who were outspoken members of the counterculture movement. Tommy invited counterculture musical guests like Pete Seeger (singing “Knee Deep in the Big Muddy”) Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and Joan Baez (who wanted to dedicate a song to her draft-resisting husband who was about to go to prison for his political views). The show also had a cast of regulars including Pat Paulsen, Leigh French as Goldie O’Keefe (Share a Little Tea with Goldie) and Bob Einstein as Officer Judy. Whenever something on the show got censored, The Brothers went to the press and let America know what they missed. Just to make things more confusing, the shows hosts were two clean cut looking “All-American” boys (and what could be more “All American” than defending free speech.) On stage Tommy played the simpleton, but in reality he was the brains of the outfit. And “Establishment” entertainers like Kate Smith, Bob Hope, Jack Benny George Burns and Jimmy Durante supported the show by being on it. The closest thing that I have found to The Smothers Brothers today is “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. Even SNL’s or MAD TV’s edge is not nearly as sharp.

The documentary also highlights a skit that the censors cut featuring Tommy and Elaine May as two censors. I contacted the people at the Smothers Brothers Home Page and asked if there was a copy of the skit anywhere. They answered with,

“There were actually three skits recorded for the same show but they didn’t air due to censorship. Tom and Dick would love to see The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour shows rerun on television and/or released on home video/dvd. So far we have been unable to arrange this because of the high upfront residual and music publishing costs. We’ll keep on trying and when we’re successful, we’ll announce it on the Home Page of our website at www.smothersbrothers.com. The Elaine May skits will definitely be included in any new releases.”

I look forward to seeing these shows on DVD and think that they could be a great teaching tool when covering 1960s America. If you think that I am exaggerating, just remember the show has historical significance that goes beyond television because they ran Pat Paulsen for president.

Finally there is a fundamental rule that I should add to my list of Comedy Grievances and that is to remind people that they should never piss off Humorists (that includes Comedians, Comedy Writers or Cartoonist) because they will always have the last laugh.

To quote Tommy Smothers, “The ultimate censorship is the flick of the dial.”

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

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About Tony Figueroa

  • I love the Smothers Brothers. Instead of The Daily Show, though, which aggressively trumpets pretty much the party line, consider another show that was censored even in the 1990s.

    I can’t remember the name of it, but it was set in the capitol and represented politicians as rats, except for a certain caucus which was cockroaches, and so on. Truly buting commentary, and rushed off the air in a way reminiscent of the Smothers Brothers. Capitol Critters, maybe?

  • Nancy

    Wow. Never heard of it, but I LIKE the imagery: rats & cockroaches. In today’s repressive atmosphere, it wouldn’t last long, the white house would try to shoot it down, or the GOP div. of Congress would declare it un-American or an affront to religion or some such. Another reason we don’t see any more Smothers Brothers anti-establishment types on media is because media is mainly owned & dictated to these days by the conservative establishment itself. I’m daily surprised as much ‘free speech’ gets thru each day as it does.

  • I don’t really know the work of Susan Harris, but what happened to Norman Lear and Larry Gelbart is that they stopped being funny. And in a larger sense, their approach to comedy became too weak and too equivocal for the current viewer. Contemporary comedy seems to be much more direct and confrontational, addressing issues head-on rather than soft peddling them. It also seems to work better in a more immediate format than the sitcom – take the Daily Show as a perfect example.


  • Nancy

    Gotta say, I have no credibility when it comes to current TV shows, as I don’t even watch networks, let alone cable, but a show like that one (with the rats & roaches)…that I’d watch. I’ll bet that would get under a few epidermi in the DC area! I really regret the ending of the Simpsons, because they did such a good job skewering things. Ditto the Smothers Bros.

  • I think one of the big complaints about it was the it was the Congressional Black Caucus that were represented as roaches. People saw racist motivations, and censorship ensued.

  • Nancy

    Oh, that was stupid – AND possibly racist. No wonder it was exterminated. What a waste of a brilliant parody. I’d have characterized the politicians – everyone from the w.h. on down – as rats, and the roaches as lobbyists.

  • Well, it was a brilliant parody, and they were equal-opportunity skewerers, but I seem to recall the roaches being the excuses parodied politicos used to kill the show.

    And hey, maybe I’ve got the details wrong.

  • Nancy

    Wish someone would re-work it & do it again. HEY! If whoever did this program is reading this, fix it up & do it again!

  • For someone like me who came in too late to see what my mother’s fuss is all about, I would love it if The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour would come to video–even if it has to come in bite-sized chunks the way SNL does it to get it out there.
    The segments as shown on Smothered would stand the test of time–some altered for the time stamp (Vietnam versus, say, Iraq), some left as is even nearly 40 years later.
    It would be a shame to lose a piece of television history over money.