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Remembering Tom Smothers, TV pioneer and satirist


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Today we're devoting our show to Tom Smothers, who died last week at age 86 after a battle with cancer. Along with his younger brother, Dick, Tom was a member of the Smothers Brothers, whose 50-year career made them one of the longest-running comedy acts in show business. Dick played the upright bass and was the straight man. Tom played guitar and acted like an easily excited adolescent. Their voices blended beautifully, their comedy timing was impeccable and their 1960s variety series, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," was one of the most significant and groundbreaking TV programs of its time.

Today we'll salute Tom Smothers and the legacy he and Dick created with her important CBS program. We'll listen back to an interview Terry Gross conducted with Tom and Dick back in 1985, an interview I conducted with Tom in 1997 and finally, a piece of the interview Terry conducted with me in 2009 when my book about the Smothers Brothers had just been published. But first, let's begin with an appreciation that puts Tom Smothers and his comedy hour in its proper perspective.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

BIANCULLI: Tom and Dick Smothers didn't set out to be TV pioneers, but that's precisely what they were. Before "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" ran on CBS from 1967 to 1969, almost all TV entertainment shows set out to escape from reality, not to reflect it. There were popular sitcoms about a talking horse, a personal genie, a visiting Martian, even a dead mother reincarnated as an automobile. Rein-car-nated (ph) - get it? The Smothers Brothers had even starred in one of those escapist sitcoms, with Tom playing Dick's guardian angel. But they hated that show, walked away from it and returned to the nightclub circuit and the recording of their hit comedy albums. Those LPs in the early '60s portrayed them as brothers who poked fun at folk singers and folk songs when not arguing among and about themselves.

Musically, they were good enough to nail the songs and the harmonies, while often adding their own comic twists. Here's their version of the classic western tune "Streets Of Laredo" from one of their early albums. It's from one of my early albums, too. This is a recording from my copy of the original vinyl LP, which explains all the pops and clicks.


THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS: (Singing) As I walked out in Laredo one day I spied a young cowboy all dressed in white linen. Dressed in white linen as cold as the clay.

DICK SMOTHERS: (Singing) I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.

TOM SMOTHERS: (Singing) I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.

THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS: (Singing) We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys. If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.


BIANCULLI: In their early nightclub years and early albums, they found and perfected their unique comic formula. They became instant stars after appearing on Jack Paar's "Tonight" show, then kept building on their twin strengths, satirizing the earnestness of folk singers and bringing a comic explosion of sibling rivalry front and center. After a few years, everyone was so familiar with Tom's catchphrase to his brother Dick, the brothers used it as the title of an album, "Mom Always Liked You Best."


T SMOTHERS: Yeah. Mom gave you a dog. My mom gave my brother a dog, and I didn't get to have a dog. And more than...

D SMOTHERS: Everybody had dogs.

T SMOTHERS: I didn't have a dog. You got to have a dog and more than anything in the whole world. I wanted to have a dog of my own. I asked my mom, I said, Mom, I want to have a dog like my brother Dicky Smothers. You remember me. I'm Tommy Smothers.


T SMOTHERS: And I never got to have...

D SMOTHERS: All right. That is...

T SMOTHERS: ...A dog, and you wouldn't let me play with your dog or anything. I remember when I was 10 years old, I said if I could only have a dog. My brother had a dog, and I couldn't...

D SMOTHERS: Quit crying.

T SMOTHERS: I didn't get to play with your dog, and you would always tell Mom when I played with your dog. Hey. Tommy is playing with my dog. You remember Tommy, the kid you don't like too much.


T SMOTHERS: And I didn't get to play with a dog, and I didn't have a dog.

D SMOTHERS: Hold it a minute. Before you go any further, you know you had your own pet already.

T SMOTHERS: Crummy chicken.


D SMOTHERS: You wanted it.

T SMOTHERS: It's no fun playing with a chicken.


T SMOTHERS: They don't bark good.

BIANCULLI: So when CBS executives came to the Smothers Brothers asking them to host a variety show they sorely needed to fill a hole in their schedule, no one thought the brothers would cause any trouble, not even the brothers. They began each hour of that first season of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" with time-tested, finely honed routines from their nightclub act, like the song "Cabbage," with which they opened their very first episode.


THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Boil that cabbage down.

D SMOTHERS: Take it, Tom.



T SMOTHERS: I didn't feel like taking it.

D SMOTHERS: You didn't hear me right. I said take it, Tom.

T SMOTHERS: I heard you clear as a bell. You said take it. Sometimes if a fella doesn't feel like taking it, he just stands right up as an American. He says no.

D SMOTHERS: Agreed, agreed, agreed. A fella doesn't have to take it.

T SMOTHERS: I don't - I...

D SMOTHERS: You're not a fella.


D SMOTHERS: You're a folk singer, Tommy. You took on responsibilities. You have to take it.

T SMOTHERS: Yeah. But...

D SMOTHERS: You've read the folk singers guidebook.

T SMOTHERS: Yeah. But I don't...

D SMOTHERS: You read the book, right?

T SMOTHERS: I just didn't...

D SMOTHERS: Did you read the book?

T SMOTHERS: Yes, I read the book.

D SMOTHERS: OK. Then you read the folk singers credo.

T SMOTHERS: Well, see; I just didn't...

D SMOTHERS: The credo, Tommy, says - the credo says all folk singers are obligated to do what?

T SMOTHERS: I didn't...

D SMOTHERS: Tell everybody. Look at them, and say what you are obligated to do.


D SMOTHERS: All folk singers are obligated...

T SMOTHERS: You're - to take it.

BIANCULLI: But when the series proved instantly and unexpectedly popular, Tom Smothers, his head writer, Mason Williams, and the other writers set out to say things - things about politics, war, drugs and the times in general, which led to censorship by CBS. That, in turn, led to increasingly fierce battles about what could and couldn't be televised. At the end, after three seasons, Tom and Dick Smothers were fired by CBS and their show pulled from the air. The Smothers Brothers sued and won, but the damage was done, and they had lost their prime-time platform, but not before making several invaluable contributions to television.

Tom Smothers, with his eye for talent and his enthusiasm for showcasing new artists, was the link between Ed Sullivan before him and Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" after him. Mason Williams, Pat Paulsen, Leigh French, Steve Martin and Rob Reiner all started with the Smothers Brothers. And CBS, after firing Tom and Dick, reversed course and sought out controversial shows rather than avoiding and punishing them. In the few years after pulling "The Smothers Brothers" from the air, CBS presented the feminist comedy of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the anti-war comedy of "M*A*S*H" and the ultra-controversial comedy of "All In The Family." Tom Smothers, with his brother Dick and their staff, paved the way for all those shows as well as even more directly for "SNL," Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and John Oliver.


BIANCULLI: Now, let's hear Terry's 1985 interview with Tom and Dick Smothers. She began with a clip in which they spoofed the seriousness of folk music.


D SMOTHERS: Many folk songs have have been written in the first person. The original authentic folk songs - they have been written during the actual occurrence of a historic event by someone who was involved in this event. The song my brother would like to sing now was written in the first person by a man about 150 years ago. It's entitled "Hangman."

T SMOTHERS: (Singing) Hangman, hangman, slack your rope. Hangman, hangman, slack your rope. Slack it for old (vocalizing).


T SMOTHERS: It's short.


D SMOTHERS: We have another song which is an old folk song. And it hasn't been sung enough lately. We feel it's been sort of neglected. And it's a very nice song, and I know you'll recognize it the moment we start. (Singing) Jimmy crack corn, and I don't care.

T SMOTHERS: (Singing) Jimmy crack corn, and I don't care.

D SMOTHERS: (Singing) Jimmy crack corn, and Jimmy...

T SMOTHERS: (Singing) I don't care. I don't care.

D SMOTHERS: Wait a minute.


D SMOTHERS: That's not the way the song goes.

T SMOTHERS: I don't care.


BIANCULLI: Tom Smothers explained to Terry that he and his brother didn't start out performing folk music.


T SMOTHERS: That kind of edged in us - is when we first started singing in high school, it was barbershop quartets. We were in the choirs together. We had a little band, dance band. Then we sang the songs of the day, which was - what was it? - something Smith and the Redheads. What was it? (Singing) Be sure it's true when I say - so we weren't into folk music at all until the folk music started. Then we started - when we see Judy Collins, I remember she would sing every hanging song, you know, every verse...

D SMOTHERS: Minor key.

T SMOTHERS: ...Every chorus, a lot of minor key songs.

D SMOTHERS: Sad songs.

T SMOTHERS: Don Crawford, a good friend in Denver, was very - did a profound performance of "John Henry."

D SMOTHERS: About 12 minutes long.

T SMOTHERS: Yeah. So I would go out there. And for some reason, I always would mimic people and it would be - we were known as satirists. I didn't even know what the word was until they said the Smothers Brothers satirized the folk music craze. We're just out there. I'd hear someone sing a song, and they'd be deadly serious about it, and I couldn't help but just kind of poke a little fun at it.

TERRY GROSS: Well, one of the things that you both did were really long-winded introductions to the songs. And I was wondering if you thought it was overly serious of a lot of folk musicians to launch into the, you know, historical reasons and the ethnic reasons behind a song that they'd perform.

D SMOTHERS: The long-winded introductions was just the nature of folk music, and I found them very interesting. I never thought they were pompous or anything like that. And to tell a background of how a song just happened when people didn't go around writing them - you know, it was wonderful. Then working with - we got on the tail end of things. Was it Sonny Terry, Brownie - was it Brownie?

GROSS: Brownie McGhee.


D SMOTHERS: Josh White Sr. and Oscar Brand. We did some of his stuff - some wonderful people out there. And the the way the songs came about, the way they were created, to me, was very interesting. And then just to make fun in a lighthearted way and just have a really ridiculous story that has nothing to do with the music. Like, Tommy had...

T SMOTHERS: "Dark As A Dungeon."

D SMOTHERS: "Dark As A Dungeon." The most ludicrous would be "They Call The Wind Maria." There's an old Jewish folk song "Mashiach" (ph).

T SMOTHERS: "Mashiach."

D SMOTHERS: And then "Hava Nagila," where they danced around a hat. There was a - it was a rain dance, actually danced around the umbrella. And similar to how they danced around hats, the Mexicans, and prayed for hair. And you just - the further - the bigger the lie, it just becomes funny.

GROSS: What were your alternatives? Did you have alternative plans if you didn't become performers?

D SMOTHERS: We never knew we were going to in a long term - maybe Tommy - he probably feels different. I always thought it was a summer job for quite - for about 10 years. I thought it was a summer job. And I never expected at the start to to make it a paying profession. It was something to do when we were young and drop out of school a little bit. And we just seemed to get another job, and that was success. So I never planned a year in advance or whatever. I was going to go back to school, in fact, after we worked a year and become teaching major. And I got married. And I was going to - you know, we did our shot, our little fun thing. And if it wasn't for The Limeliters giving us a job at their club in Aspen in 1960, I don't know if we would have tried being a duet.

GROSS: So, Tom Smothers, what was your alternate plan if...

T SMOTHERS: I had no alternate plan. I still have no alternate plan.

D SMOTHERS: You have to have a plan to have an alternate.


T SMOTHERS: I always wanted to be a comedian. And when I first saw George Gobel, who was my first influence when I was - anyway, 12, 13, 14 - he was doing "The Ed Sullivan Show." I thought it was marvelous what this man did. And I'd like to do that. I told my principal - I said, that's what I like to do. And so I always had a - I was - had a coping problem. I was pretty slow in school, and I was genuinely trying to get my applause not through scholastics but through attention getting. If I was late for class, instead of walking in the back door and sliding into the seat, you know, I walked in the front door and apologized to the teacher and then to each of the students individually until I was sent to the principal's office, really deadpan. I knew I had this kind of a - little bit of a gift to get people laughing.

GROSS: The problem, I would expect, is if you play a jerk on stage, that off stage, people might think that you're dimwitted. You know, did that ever happen to you? - that people would assume, you know, off stage, that you had the persona?

T SMOTHERS: I was so close to my onstage, offstage. There was just a very thin line between...

D SMOTHERS: People would come up to you at the Purple Line at your first job and say, why - don't do this? This is so painful. If it's so upsetting to you, don't get on that stage.

T SMOTHERS: Well, that's that's very good performance because that's like being in really - crawling into the skin of the whatever character you choose. And that was the only one I had. And I was walking down the street in the Purple Line, and some guy says, can you tell me where the Black Cat Cafe is? I said, yeah, it's just down that one street, and turn left. And he says, I know where it is. I just wanted to see if you knew how to give direction. You're so stupid on stage.

GROSS: What about you, Dick Smothers? Did your persona on stage as the just more practical, down-to-earth persona apply to the role you really played in your relationship with your brother?

D SMOTHERS: Yeah, I think so. That's the way I am in real life, just exaggerated. I think we exaggerate our natural tendencies when we get into comedy, and then it's believable. You know, if you create somebody who's not there, I think you have to be a superior actor to let anybody buy it. I'm pretty logical. Basically, if things don't make any sense to me, I don't want to do it. And that's the way I control our relationship on stage with Tommy. You know, he would he would go off on a tangent, and I would correct him.

T SMOTHERS: I'm 22 months older than Dick, which is contrary to the way an act should be set up.

D SMOTHERS: I should have be the older guy with my personality, and (inaudible) should be the younger brother, you know? So it shows we had no plan whatsoever.


BIANCULLI: Dick and Tom Smothers talking with Terry Gross in 1985. Today we're remembering Tom Smothers, who died last week at the age of 86. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1985 interview with Tom and Dick Smothers. CBS gave them their own variety show in 1967. She asked Tom what he asked for when they were given creative control.

T SMOTHERS: That meant the material, the...

D SMOTHERS: Content.

T SMOTHERS: ...Control of the writers, content, the look of the show, everything. And the fact that it really went well - we had a nice cast of people put together by the producers and everything, but it wasn't quite what we wanted. But it evolved, evolved, and it got younger writers, got Mason Williams. I'd bring them in, if I didn't like the - if a writer seemed like he was cliche and was bringing out old material, not creative, new ideas, we'd replace them each cycle, each 13-week period until we had pretty much what we - what I wanted. The times dictated - awareness came about about that time.

In the mid-'60s when Vietnam, voter registration, Selma - all those things started coming through and they started leaking into our minds, our own consciousness. And they started coming out a little bit in attitudes in the show. And our writers were young. And we kind of had this little kind of small group that worked late into the night. None of the other shows did. We're leaving sometimes 1 o'clock, 12 o'clock at night from reworking sketches and stuff. And everybody had love beads on, sandals. It was a real - we were a real product of the times, and we reflected that viewpoint that was not being heard.

D SMOTHERS: So then instantly, once it was a hit, it was a surprise hit. It really was. Nobody predicted it. CBS wanted us to pull back, didn't want any controversy or anything, not realizing the content of the show was, in large part, part of its success. So that was a running battle for 72 - I think we did 72 episodes. It was pretty much a running battle from Day 1 through the firing at the last.

GROSS: Well, they actually censored - deleted some of the performance excerpts.

D SMOTHERS: Oh, a lot.


D SMOTHERS: That was their legal right. And once they got it, they - I guess by the contracts and stuff, they could take out anything they wanted. But that's...

GROSS: How did that work? When would you have to deliver the show to them, so to speak?

D SMOTHERS: Oh, that was another whole thing.

T SMOTHERS: (Laughter).

D SMOTHERS: It changed. It changed every year. At first, we delivered the shows just a normal practice. But I think the way it was, was about a week...

T SMOTHERS: A strike happened, a musicians' strike.

D SMOTHERS: Musicians' strike.

T SMOTHERS: So that put everything behind. And some of those things - so we were all of a sudden working - taping on a Friday, delivering a - for a Sunday show. That'd mean editing with a razor blade. And I, of course, being naive and not knowing anything about television, I involved myself in everything.

D SMOTHERS: Well, wait a minute. Razor blade means that - they did not have the electronic sophistication that they have now, so you actually physically take razor blades and cut tapes and put pieces together. And they worked straight through, right after production.

T SMOTHERS: Oh, yeah, went great (ph).

D SMOTHERS: And then they gave it to a girl, and she flew to New York and handed them...


D SMOTHERS: ...These tapes.

T SMOTHERS: Our tape (ph).

D SMOTHERS: And so...

T SMOTHERS: So when they would say, we don't like this part here or say you must take that out or we will take it out, I'd say, well, I'll take it out. And it did take a long time to do it.

GROSS: What would you - you'd have to put something back in to replace it?

T SMOTHERS: Not if they wanted it out. We presented our contractual obligation, which was to present a show of an hour's length, or whatever it was, minus the commercials. After that, they could take it out. They took things out and put in a Nixon commercial when it was political.

D SMOTHERS: (Laughter).

T SMOTHERS: Oh, of course, I got furious.

GROSS: What had they taken out to put in the Nixon commercial?

T SMOTHERS: I don't remember.

D SMOTHERS: I do, I do. It was the whole Belafonte piece, "Mama, Look A Boo Boo." It was the '68 convention news footage from Chicago, the bloody riots and everything. And Belafonte sang some "Calypso" numbers to news footage that had been seen on the air, nothing offensive about it except, well, you'd see Mayor Daley in the news footage at the convention. And the lyric might say, look a boo boo...

T SMOTHERS: (Laughter).

D SMOTHERS: ...Or something like that. It was light satire. They took the whole hunk out. It must have been five minutes or more.

T SMOTHERS: No, no, it was seven.

D SMOTHERS: Seven minutes, and put in a huge Nixon, which was a little salt in the wound. But it was gamesmanship, I think, a little bit there.

T SMOTHERS: It was hardball.

BIANCULLI: Tom and Dick Smothers talking with Terry Gross in 1985. Coming up, we continue our retrospective on Tom Smothers. Here's Harry Belafonte performing "Don't Stop The Carnival," a number cut in its entirety from that variety show's third season opener. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) I have to talk to the governor today concerning the carnival parade. I have to talk to the governor today concerning the carnival parade. In Trinidad, people running wild. Governor say no carnival. A big riot, police and thing, picket sign and the people start to sing, Lord, don't stop the carnival. Lord, don't stop the carnival. Carnival is an American bacchanal. Lord, don't stop the carnival. Have no fear if you cut out the New Year. Lord, don't stop the carnival. Make no fuss if you cut out the Christmas. Lord, don't stop the carnival. Here come me woman walking up the block, with she bottom going like a clock. Here come me woman walking up the block, with she bottom going like a clock. No carnival, me woman said. Oh, Lord, you better off dead. Show me the way to the governor's mansion, I'm going to have me a wrecking session. Lord, don't stop the carnival. Lord, don't stop the carnival. Carnival is an American bacchanal. Lord, don't stop the carnival.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR, I'm David Bianculli. On today's show, we're remembering Tom Smothers of the comedy duo the Smothers Brothers, who died last week at age 86. On the 50th anniversary of their being fired from "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" by CBS, the National Comedy Center and the Chautauqua Institution hosted their onstage reunion before thousands of adoring fans. I was there as the moderator, and my job was to introduce clips and throw out some questions to Tom and Dick. It was the only time I ever shared the stage with them. And though I was well aware of Tom's self-critical nature, this was a chance for me to see a whole new side of him, his keen instincts for what he thought was funny and why.

He wanted at some point to do his act as the Yo-Yo Man, where Dick offers commentary while Tom silently does yo-yo tricks and acts sort of like a human Gumby. I offered several suggestions about when to introduce the Yo-Yo Man bit, but Tom shot them all down. Finally, I suggested to Tom, why don't you just do it whenever the urge strikes you. Interrupt me or Dick or yourself and just stand up and pull out your yo-yo. He gave me a smile, one I'll never forget, because he saw the possibilities instantly. And later onstage, midway through one of my questions, he pulled out his yo-yo and the audience went crazy. Tom Smothers was hard on himself and hard to please, but when I spoke to him for FRESH AIR in 1997, he finally shifted from self-deprecation to a grudging appreciation of what he and Dick had done onstage, on records, and especially on television.


BIANCULLI: When it comes to the '60s, you really can't find anything on television that boiled it all down into one lump than "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." I mean, the sexual revolution, the drugs, the rock 'n' roll, the peace movement, the generation gap, anti-authority - it's all right there. And yet you did it without losing the core audience that you started with.

T SMOTHERS: Well, that was an exceptional thing. Mason Williams was a great contributor, and the process was really fun. We never quite had a chance to - I always sought to do the craft better, and that's probably what I'm thinking about. Someone told me Bob Newhart was looking at - they did an interview with him and they're playing some of his old albums back, and in fact, his first album, "The Button-Down Mind." He says, God, I can't stand it. Don't play it, don't play it. And they say, why? It's great. So, well, they took some of the pauses out to tighten it up, and that's not my timing (laughter). So I don't think anybody who's ever been a writer or a performer or a musician, has recorded or published something, hasn't looked back at their earlier work with a more critical eye than the person who did it.

BIANCULLI: Well, wasn't timing always very, very important to you and your brother in terms of the pauses, in terms of the ways you would start an act with just a couple of minutes and then, you know, you turn around a few years later - you guys are always evolving it - and all of a sudden it's a nine-, 10-minute bit.

T SMOTHERS: Well, I believe that timing, it's, like, the most important - silence is probably the most important part of music. And silence or tension is one of the most important things in comedy. The more air we can put in there, the better. I also felt that even though the show was - I thought "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in totality was - covered all those bases, a lot of things. I felt that Dick and I personally, we didn't have much air. I was involved in cue cards.

So this is kind of a self-critical observation. I feel much better about the shows. I loved them when we did it. I just feel a little uncomfortable looking at them now because of - it could have gone better. That's the thing. But air - like, Laurel and Hardy had such wonderful space. And timing is - it doesn't even have to be an astute observation, it just has to be timed right. And if we can hold tension, that makes it unique. And whether it be content or no content, you can keep the tension of an audience that way.

BIANCULLI: Now, do you feel that when you came around to do the revival series - you know, CBS had you do a 20th anniversary special, and then they would grant you a couple of shows here, a couple of shows there, a couple of shows - that on those you were able to focus more on your own act with yourself and your brother?

T SMOTHERS: I was better able to focus on the show and on the act. But definitely Dick and I, after watching the first shows, I remember that we were - I would see cue cards. I would be reading cue cards, just the eye contact wasn't there. So I made sure this reunion show, there was no cue cards, that we - so the space, we could really think and talk. And also the actual show itself had a overall better pace.

BIANCULLI: How important is eye contact to the way you work with your brother?

T SMOTHERS: It's everything. It's funny, we - you can see people when they're not looking at each other, if they're reading cue cards. The tension can hold much better when two people are staring at each other. And you can - it's palpable, even if it's a total side view, facing each other where you can't even see the eyes. There's a head cocked, there's body language that tells you that there's eye contact being made.

BIANCULLI: When you got "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," didn't you get the opportunity of creative control because you were basically going into a no-lose time slot like someone would today going in opposite "Seinfeld"?

T SMOTHERS: Pretty much. Also, there's no reason not to grant us creative control because we had shown no inclination - we were short-hairs.


T SMOTHERS: We were clean-cut. They didn't expect anything that happened to happen. I don't think anybody at that time in the mid-'60s expected the expression of dismay over the war and voter registration, all these things that were just taking place, and sexual revolution. All those things. So...

BIANCULLI: Well, were you just laying in the weeds? I mean, did you have this grand plan?

T SMOTHERS: No (laughter), I had no plan. I think most people don't have plans that sometimes do something extraordinary. I got censored. So I started saying things that - not even knowing that there was anything wrong with them. But then I started becoming a little more involved, and then pretty soon it became a - someone says, you can't say that, I would say, oh, we can to (laughter).

BIANCULLI: Yeah. Well, you were basically the only young guy with a platform at that time on prime-time television.

T SMOTHERS: We were - in hindsight, I can see what we were - the Smothers Brothers were pretty much - had no choice. We were young. The whole staff was basically young with some seasoned writers in there. But primarily it was under 30 - Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Mason Williams, Bob Einstein. They're all - and they all felt the same way as youth did. It was a great cultural clash, and we were there with a show, and we had to reflect that. It was just - I think it was a responsibility, even though I didn't think it then. But I perceive it now as that we had no choice.

BIANCULLI: But I still don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. To say that you had no choice and were sort of dragged along, or you were at the - you know, the fringes of this movement that were carrying around anyway is one thing. But you were - in terms of the rock and roll acts that you presented, the things that you brought on, the stuff that you discussed, going against the war, you basically were the center.

T SMOTHERS: There was just a lot of serendipity in the Smothers Brothers - young, had a No. 1 - had a big show, happened to be during these very culturally kind of shake - earthquake, cultural earthquake and social. And we were young enough when all those things happened. I always just say we were at the scene of the accident and made the best of it we could. We were there. We did not shirk our duty to bring to television as intelligent and as interesting a show as we could. But I think circumstances really made a big difference because if we'd have been had that show in the '50s or we had in the '80s, we would have never had the impact, even if we'd have been diligently trying to do the most intelligent, thoughtful observations about life.

BIANCULLI: Perhaps your most famous act of defiance on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," breaking the back - the blacklist on Pete Seeger and booking him. And was that a calculated effort on your part to sort of rail against the CBS censors?

T SMOTHERS: I believe that was in '68 - one of the last two seasons. And I did get more stubborn, more resolute in my need, and our crew and our writers wanted to express things, and it was more calculated. As a matter of fact, I said to all our guests that were ever guests on it - whether it be new groups or old groups or actors or comedians, I always say, you're our guest on our show. Was there anything you'd like to do? And we'd like to present what you'd like to do. And Pete Seeger said, "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy." And we sang it rehearsal, and I said, that's right on, and be my guest. And then the censors looked at it and says, veiled reflection on our policy in Vietnam. It wasn't very veiled, but I did purposely say, yes, that's good. They'd cut it out. We brought him back the next year. And I said, what would you like to sing? He says, "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy." I said, well, be my guest. This time, because it got so much publicity and the word - ugly word censorship was coming up, they let it go. And those - it was the only show, I guess, that had a topical viewpoint about our involvement in Vietnam. It was a bad idea, and it was morally bankrupt, I thought, ethically wrong. But that consciousness came over all of us in the process of doing this show.

BIANCULLI: Tom Smothers in 1997. Coming up, we listen back to my conversation with Terry Gross about my book, "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story Of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." This is FRESH AIR.


THE WHO: (Singing) My, my generation. Why don't you all just fade away?

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Tom Smothers of the comedy duo the Smothers Brothers. He died last week at the age of 86. In 2009, I wrote a book about Tom and Dick titled "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story Of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." That's when I sat down to talk with Terry.


GROSS: David, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the book.

BIANCULLI: Oh, thanks a lot.

GROSS: Now, you've brought some really good clips with you from episodes of the Smothers Brothers' TV series. And I'd like to start with one 'cause I think it gives a good sense of the Smothers Brothers' comedy and also how they managed to bring politics into their show. So would you introduce it for us?

BIANCULLI: Yeah, sure. I like this 'cause it's a fairly early clip when the Smothers Brothers are still sort of considered to be, you know, just genial, nice folk satirists, and yet they're starting to hit on public issues and even attack the president in a very obvious way.

GROSS: And this was President Johnson.

BIANCULLI: This is President Johnson at the time. Yes.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it.


D SMOTHERS: Hey, Tom. You know, I just read in the newspaper this week where President Johnson has asked Congress to pass a series of taxes, you know, to discourage people from traveling abroad.

T SMOTHERS: No, I don't - I...

D SMOTHERS: What do you think about that?

T SMOTHERS: I read that, too, but I don't think he has to go that far. I don't think that's necessary to go that far with it.

D SMOTHERS: Well, look at it. It's a very, very, very, very difficult situation. You know, people keep...


D SMOTHERS: ...Spending money abroad, and it's hurting our economy. People keep wanting to travel to other countries instead of staying here in the United States.

T SMOTHERS: Yeah, well, I think President Johnson should come up with something positive as an inducement to keep the people here, something very positive and...

D SMOTHERS: Yeah. That's right.

T SMOTHERS: ...As an inducement to keep the people...

D SMOTHERS: That's good thinking. But look. What can the president do to make people want to stay in this country?

T SMOTHERS: Well, he could quit.


GROSS: David, was that considered pretty radical at the time?

BIANCULLI: Yeah, for an entertainment variety show, almost unprecedented, where you had these figures that were actually talking about public policy. TV in the '60s - the Smothers Brothers began in February of '67. At that point, almost all of prime time was trying intentionally to be as innocuous as possible. And the Smothers Brothers came on. And at a time when there was one television in the house and everybody watched it, for the first couple of seasons, they pulled this amazing magic act and straddled the chasm of the generation gap. They had Kate Smith and Simon & Garfunkel on the same show. They had Mickey Rooney and The Who on the same show and appealed to both, you know, generations.

GROSS: David, you know so much about so many different TV shows. You're just, like, a walking encyclopedia of television. Of all the shows you could have written a history of, why did you choose the Smothers Brothers?

BIANCULLI: This one - I wondered about that. This one, actually, I did once I was into it, and I was into, like, my fifth year of writing and my 10th year of writing. And I realized, I think this show, first of all, was at a pivotal point in TV history, that Tom Smothers fought for freedom of expression and fought for a whole generation and lost. And so TV changed and changed really significantly. And I argue that we've never gotten it back. I mean, the things that we think of as TV freedom - it's on cable, or it's on late night. But in prime time, we've rarely had it since. And then the personal thing is that this show premiered when I was 13, and all of the stuff that was on there meant so much to me just because I was at that impressionable age, and I was watching with my dad, and it was just a really nice, weekly experience.

GROSS: You mentioned you wanted to write this book in part because Tom Smothers fought and lost. And what he lost was the censorship battle. There was a considerable amount of censorship of the show, and he really took a stand, and he lost, and the show was taken off the air by the network, CBS. Let's talk a little bit about what censorship was like on TV then. And we're talking about the second half of the 1960s. What are some of the things you couldn't say then that you can say now?

BIANCULLI: Well, famously, when Lucille Ball was pregnant in real life and wrote it into her character in the '60s, she couldn't even use the word pregnant in the episode in which she was having a baby. They had to say it in Spanish - enceinte. You know, I mean, it was so ridiculous. The censorship was so pervasive that even recounting it, it seems so silly. They cut an entire sketch with Elaine May because it was censors getting excited about the movies that they were censoring. And rather than cut a word or two, they cut the entire sketch.

GROSS: And there was the phrase in it - what is it - I feel in my heart beating in my breast? And they wouldn't let them say breast. So they ended up saying I feel my heart beating in my wrist (laughter).

BIANCULLI: Yes. Beating wildly in my wrist. Yes. And they didn't even let that go.

GROSS: They didn't let that go on the air...


GROSS: ...Either? All right. So - and drug references, you couldn't use those either.

BIANCULLI: Well, the drug references, if they caught them they would take them out. But the '60s, things were so new that they didn't recognize a lot of them when they saw them. So the Smothers were able to slip some stuff by. And Tom actually enjoyed this battle a little bit, and so did Mason Williams, who was one of the writers. And so they would put in things that really meant nothing and instruct the crew and the writers and everybody around to laugh, like, dirty, sniggering, little laughs. And so the censors would say, well, you can't say rowing to Galveston. And they'd say, well, why not? Well, you just can't say it. And so they would drive them crazy just for the fun of it, too.

My interview with Terry, recorded in 2009 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Terry Gross about the popular "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," which aired on CBS between 1967 and 1969 before the network fired the brothers and pulled the show.

GROSS: George Harrison came on the show to support the Smothers Brothers in their fight for free speech on the show. And tell us a little bit about that appearance and then we'll hear a brief excerpt of it.

BIANCULLI: Well, I love the whole Beatles Smothers Brothers connection, because in 1964, The Beatles show up on "Ed Sullivan" CBS Sunday night. It makes The Beatles, it makes the whole British Invasion. It changes society. Four years later, The Beatles have stopped touring. They're still the biggest thing in the world, and they've made this new thing called videos of "Hey Jude" and "Revolution." And so for the United States premiere, instead of giving them to Ed Sullivan Sunday night at 8, they give them to the Smothers Brothers Sunday night at 9, you know, and that's basically saying attitudinally, we want to side with our generation. We want to be where the Smothers Brothers are. So at the beginning of this one show, George Harrison just shows up, unbilled, a Beatle, just to show up on "The Smothers Brothers."

GROSS: Let's hear it.


T SMOTHERS: Do you have something important...

GEORGE HARRISON: Something very important to say on American television.

T SMOTHERS: You know, we don't - we - a lot of times, we can't - we don't have the opportunity of saying anything important because it's American television. Every time you say something...


T SMOTHERS: ...And try to say something important, they do you in.


HARRISON: Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. Cue the lines. Well, whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.

T SMOTHERS: That's what's important.

HARRISON: You get that?

GROSS: Keep trying to say it. That's what's important. Very interesting. From George Harrison to the Smothers Brothers. It's amazing thinking of having a Beatle in 1968, unbilled and unannounced. Like, people would be promoting that for days, weeks, months...


GROSS: ...If they knew...


GROSS: ...He was going to be on.

BIANCULLI: And you know how much I love The Beatles. So I love that clip.

GROSS: Right. Right.


GROSS: Did that clip have any repercussions?

BIANCULLI: No. No. They were - but it's odd to me, after the show was, you know, after they were fired and the show was pulled off, Bob Einstein, one of the writers, says, how do you cancel a show or fire, you know, how do you get rid of a show that gives you a Beatle?

GROSS: So is there one show you can point to that you think really did in the Smothers Brothers?

BIANCULLI: Oh, certainly. It's the first time that David Steinberg came on as a comic and did a religious sermonette - a comic sermonette. It got more negative mail than anything in the history of broadcasting up to that point. And so the CBS censors sent Tom Smothers a memo saying, OK, you can have David Steinberg back, but no more religious sermonettes ever. So he invites David Steinberg back and, even though it's not in the script, says, hey; how'd you like to do another one of those sermonettes? And so they add it in to the week's run-through. And he does it. He tapes it. That entire hour is never shown. And the Smothers Brothers are fired very shortly thereafter.

GROSS: So you actually brought with you a recording of the sermonette that was never aired.

BIANCULLI: Yes. Yeah. These are available now on - you know, Time Life has the last two seasons out of "The Smothers Brothers," the best of them. And one of the outtakes is this because it was never shown, this whole hour. Back then, no one ever joked about religion other than Bill Cosby doing the Noah routine. And that was - you know, that wasn't about content. This was about content.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. This is David Steinberg.


DAVID STEINBERG: He got into a ship that was commandeered by 23 gentiles.


STEINBERG: A bad move on Jonah's part.


STEINBERG: And the gentiles, as they're wont from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.


STEINBERG: Now, here there are two concepts that we must deal with. There is the New Testament concept and the Old Testament concept. The Old Testament scholars say that Jonah was, in fact, swallowed by a whale. The Gentiles, the New Testament scholars - they say, hold it, Jews. No, Jonah wasn't - Jonah - they literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament.


GROSS: OK. That's David Steinberg and - recorded in March of 1969, never broadcast on "The Smothers Brothers" show.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. There's a great story about that. When the Smothers Brothers sued CBS and went to trial, David Steinberg was called as one of the witnesses. And the CBS lawyers, you know, made him redo his - that very thing. And they cross-examined him and said, now, when you were saying New Testament, did you - weren't you actually referring to testicles? Weren't you - and David Steinberg said, well, yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Why were you doing that? - because otherwise it wouldn't be funny. And, you know, it's no wonder the Smothers won that case.

GROSS: Well, the case was, again, that the network accused them of not delivering programs on time. And clearly what they were really worried about was the kind of content and language that was, you know, getting them into trouble.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. The big difference is that the Smothers Brothers were not canceled. They had already been renewed for a fourth season. They were fired. And so Tom was reacting, saying he was fired unfairly because anything that he had signed in terms of a contractual obligation he had lived up to, that it was all these other little, you know, ephemeral things that they'd thrown on him, you know, through the years that he hadn't adhered to.

GROSS: And is that the grounds on which Tom Smothers sued CBS after CBS fired the Smothers Brothers?

BIANCULLI: Well, it's the one that went all the way through to the end. He wanted to to go on First Amendment rights and really make this a huge case. But he was advised by his ACLU lawyers, who were the only people who would represent him, that that would put it in a different court. It would make it a different thing. And so just go for this more narrow focus.

GROSS: Did the Smothers Brothers ask you to write the book? You allude to that in the acknowledgments.

BIANCULLI: One time after I interviewed Tom, he said, well, are you going to write the book? And I said, what book? And he said, well, the book on us, because I'd written, in a previous book, an entry on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." And I guess it was he agreed with it. And so he said, I'll give you total access but total freedom. And as a journalist, that's just something you don't get. And so I said, well, I'll have to think about it. And then I waited three seconds, and I said, OK. And he laughed. And then I remember him going down this very long escalator in Atlantic City, and he yells up at me just before he goes outside. He goes, I just want to read it before I'm dead. And that was 15 years ago. So I thank Tom for taking such good care of himself.

GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you for talking about your new book, Dangerously Funny, about the Smothers Brothers.

BIANCULLI: It was my honor, really.

Terry and I talking about the Smothers Brothers back in 2009. Tom Smothers died last week. He was 86 years old, and it's one of the highlights of my career as a TV critic that my job gave me the opportunity to know and spend time with the Smothers Brothers. For our final piece of music today, here's "Classical Gas," written and performed by one of the head writers of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," Mason Williams.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, actor Sterling K. Brown. In the miniseries "The People V. O.J. Simpson," Brown played prosecutor Christopher Darden. He was one of the stars of the NBC series "This Is Us" and was in "Black Panther." He co-stars in the new film "American Fiction," which is on lots of 10 best lists. I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASON WILLIAMS' "CLASSICAL GAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.