getTV Talks THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS — An Interview With Laura LaPlaca
In 1967, CBS faced a weekly showdown with a seemingly unbeatable opponent: Bonanza. NBC’s long-running Western series was a Sunday night ratings powerhouse, besting all comers by a Ponderosa-sized margin.
With nothing left to lose, CBS turned to an unlikely duo: folk singers Tom Smothers and Dick Smothers. What the network got from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a buzzworthy variety show more popular than they ever could have imagined. But with that popularity came controversy, and an increasingly acrimonious relationship between the network and its newest stars. And the Smothers Brothers’ reward for doing the unthinkable — successfully competing against Bonanza by attracting a younger demographics — was a pink slip.
More than half a century later, Tom and Dick Smothers remain two of the most transformative figures in American television history. As America faces an election season as divisive than the one the Smothers Brothers lampooned in 1968, there’s a benefit to looking to the past for precedent. And that’s where the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York comes in. Recently voted the best new museum in the country by USA Today, the Comedy Center is devoted to “telling the story of comedy as an American art form.” And the Smothers Brothers are key components of that story.
In 2019, Tom and Dick reunited on stage for a Museum-sponsored retrospective fifty years after their firing. The Comedy Center also acquired the duo’s archives and launched the first-ever public exhibition of artifacts. Today, visitors to Jamestown — also the birthplace of Lucille Ball and home to her museum — can see Tom and Dick’s guitar and base and their signature red blazers, while learning about the duo’s unprecedented seven-decade history as a duo.
We recently spoke by phone with Laura LaPlaca, director of archives at the National Comedy Center. The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
How did Tom and Dick get their start?
They started performing together as college students at San Jose State University when they were exposed to the folk music scene in California. Tom played the guitar, Dick played the bass, and they started incorporating comedy gradually into what was initially a musical act.
Was their “Mom always liked you best” sibling rivalry present from the beginning?
That on-stage dynamic is very real and organic. It's how they behave in real life and always have behaved. Tom's always been kind of the leader, the adamant, outspoken one. Dick was always sort of the straight man, the one moving it all forward with a steady, confident vision.
How were the Smothers Brothers introduced to the world?
Their first big breakout moment was in 1959 at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, and that moment vaulted them onto a nightclub tour throughout the country, very high-profile.
Were they political from the get-go?
At first, their act wasn't as satirical and political as they ultimately become on television. What established their ability to be so powerful as activists was the fact that they were solid comedians who didn't miss a beat.
What was their first appearance on TV?
The first one was Jack Paar's Tonight Show. That led to their bookings on some of the biggest national TV programs of the time.
What did the primetime variety show landscape look like in 1967?
You still have people like Red Skelton drawing huge ratings. So, you have a moment where that older, Vaudeville aesthetic is coexisting with people like Tommy and Dick, but also with Laugh-In and Sonny and Cher and The Carol Burnett Show. Tom and Dick bridged that gap.
Did CBS have any idea what they were in for when they signed these two folk singers in red blazers?
It’s hard to understand what they knew, but it is true that Tom and Dick presented themselves as being very strait-laced. The show opened with this turn-of-the-century parade motif that seemed very traditional. That was a brilliant way of masking what lie beneath, which was radical.
Part of the show’s radical voice was attributable to an unusually young writing staff.
Yes. Their show was like a lightning rod that attracted this youthful demographic that wasn't being spoken to anywhere else on the dial. Tom assembled an amazing group of writers that included Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Don Novello, Bob Einstein, names we still know and revere. But not only did they write great content, they provided the platform for artists like Pete Seeger, The Who and Harry Belafonte to find a place on the airwaves, which wasn't happening elsewhere.
Music is an important component of the show. Why do you think Tom was attracted to writers with musical talents, like head writer Mason Williams?
There are parallels between music and comedy, especially as pertains to pushing the bounds of freedom of speech. There's a little more license there. Another bit of genius on their part is embedding so much of their commentary in music.
Comedian Pat Paulsen launched a sort of mock campaign for president on the show in 1968. We think of it as satirical, but he got votes!
It wasn't so much satirical as it was a serious commentary on the state of politics. Comedy was a platform for challenging politics in powerful and unique ways. When you watch Pat stumping for president, it's incredible how much of it you could drop into 2020 and still laugh at today.
Why was the show abruptly cancelled in 1969? Was the young audience beginning to tune out?
The show was at the height of its popularity in '69. It was satirizing politics and combating racism and protesting the Vietnam War and doing all of that with a bolder and brasher and more effective voice than most anyone else in network television. That was enormous for ratings, but it was also obviously problematic and scary for the network.
And that’s why CBS started censoring content?
There were all kinds of backhanded attempts at quieting Tom and Dick, usually through censorship memos. And Tom did not take that lying down. He stood up for his constitutional rights and he won that fight over and over again until the network finally fired them.
Was it a cancellation or a firing?
It's often represented as a cancelation, but that would indicate the show wasn't popular or pulling its weight economically for the network. That couldn't be further from the truth. They were fired in the middle of the production of the season.
Was there an outcry from viewers?
There was. You can see in the historical records that the weight of the outcry in protest of the cancellation far outweighs evidence that remains of people protesting the content of the show. But it seems that the network's fears were more theoretical than real.
Did Tom and Dick ever again achieve the level of success and impact they enjoyed on the show?
They certainly never had primetime network platform as powerful as they did in 1967 and '68, but they never stopped touring and they never stopped being enormously popular and having an extremely loyal fan base. And they still haven't stopped raising their voices or calling for change.
What is the National Comedy Center’s relationship with the Smothers Brothers?
The brothers initiated contact with us. I visited with Tommy at his ranch in Napa and he showed me a repository of creative material that had been stagnant for decades. We were able to convey the true value of that to him and to bring it to Jamestown, where we are making it available to researchers, educators, students and citizens.
For fans who may not be near Jamestown, New York, is there a way to access content remotely?
We’re working on plans to make our digital collection more accessible to people who are not in Jamestown. But I would strongly encourage everyone to look into the viability of a trip! We're very well located, almost in the Midwest, and drivable to a huge amount of the American population.
Tom is 83 and Dick is 80. Where are they now, career-wise?
They came out of retirement for the first time in 10 years in Jamestown and they were greeted by an audience of five thousand fans. Since then, they've been reinvigorated and realized how powerful and unique their voices are. So, their energy and their spirit is as alive as ever!