A respected comedy writer sits over lunch with a man who, in the late 1960s, was very, very famous. This man, slender and balding, was a comedian who, with his younger brother, hosted a network television show that caused quite a ruckus--they talked too much politics, and pot, for prime time. For his sin of spouting off to the press and to the president of the network, this man was booted off television and shoved from spotlight to shadow. He and his brother, who played straight man to his crooked grin, would continue to work but never again be so famous or infamous. Still, three decades after the medium left him well-done, this man wants badly to get back on television, so he has contacted this writer about helping him.
The writer, Alan Zweibel, is excited to work with this man, Tom Smothers, whom he regards as a pioneer, his comedy stepfather. But he is blunt. He tells the 66-year-old Tom, "Look, your audience right now consists of two groups: those who never heard of you and those who think you're dead. Somehow we gotta get those people to know who you are and like you and let them know you're still alive." This is all Tom Smothers needs to hear. That's all he wants. For them to remember.
There are signs they're beginning to. Tom and Dick Smothers received their own chapter in Gerald Nachman's new book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, alongside Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Ernie Kovacs and others. Three years ago, at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, the Smothers Brothers were given a tribute hosted by Bill Maher, their angry bastard son; they were joined onstage by Steve Martin, who got his first break writing for the Brothers' CBS show. And just last month, Tom and Dick received the Freedom of Expression Award from the Video Software Dealers Association at its annual gathering in Las Vegas, not long after Maureen Muldaur's Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour documentary was released on DVD.
"It's the residual respect, and it feels real good," Tom says. "I ran into Martin Sheen at a golf tournament. He was shooting some balls, and I went over to him and I said, 'Hey, man, thanks for keeping your mouth going; everybody puts down actors and stuff, but we really appreciate you out there on the streets doing your thing.' And he said--and it was really heartfelt--he said, 'Hey, man, thank you for doing it in the '60s.' We take a lot of abuse. We'd get these letters from people that were just, God almighty, 'Your father was a West Pointer, and he'd turn over in his grave if he knew what you were doing. You're not an American. Why don't you go live with Ho Chi Minh?'"
"It's amazing, isn't it, after all these years?" the 63-year-old Dick says of the hints of new interest. "It's amazing that so many people find us interesting. We're a little moment in history...and all these years later people are saying, 'Well, that was something else.'"
Tom and Dick never really disappeared, though much of their work has. Their shows are unavailable on DVD, and all of their comedy albums have been long out of print. Still, the Brothers never stopped touring, save for those occasional breathers brothers need to take from each other to keep from going Cain and Abel. Their tour schedule each year includes some 125 dates, more in recent years. And just a few weeks ago they returned to their old Los Angeles haunt, the Comedy Store, for a few nights in front of famous faces and network executives. And it is there the latest chapter begins.
In early June, Zweibel, a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live during its first five seasons, received a call from his agent asking what he thinks of the Smothers Brothers. He had no response. Zweibel remembered Tommy and Dick from their CBS show in the late 1960s. Thought they were funny. Liked their lefty politics. Dug the bands they used to have on the show--The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel.
Zweibel was in college when the Smothers Brothers were on TV, then off TV after CBS tired of fighting with Tommy over his anti-Vietnam War diatribes dolled up as comedy routines. Zweibel remembers them fondly--"Being one of the original Saturday Night Live guys, I always felt we wouldn't have had our show if they hadn't had theirs," he says now--but also dimly, with faint nostalgia and not much else. What does he think of the Smothers Brothers? Uh, ya know. God knows he doesn't think of them often.
His agent was asking because the Smothers Brothers were doing an industry-invite gig at the Comedy Store on Sunset. It was gonna be a red-carpet reunion: Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hugh Hefner, HBO boss Chris Albrect and Carl and Rob Reiner were going to be there; so was comedian-turned-director David Steinberg, who used to get the Smothers Brothers in all kinds of trouble with his stand-up sermons. So Zweibel went and brought along his 19-year-old daughter, who asked her father two things on the ride to the club:
"Just who are the Smothers Brothers exactly, and why are we going to see them?"
He could answer the first part of her question: Tom and Dick Smothers were folk-singing comedians who, in the late 1960s, were given their own variety show on CBS. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was never intended to succeed; Tom and Dick were Sunday-night sacrificial lambs pitted against the Bonanza juggernaut at NBC. When the show debuted in February 1967, the Brothers wound up drawing some 30 million people, most of them the prized college crowd.
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