Dangerously Funny: the Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli


David Bianculli, a longtime TV critic in print, online, and on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, offers a thorough look at the three seasons of the Smothers Brothers on TV which ended when CBS fired them after countless censorship battles.  He has interviewed an amazing number of people from the Brothers to some of the CBS executives involved.  And what a delightful trip through the late 60s it was.

They first became successful making comedy albums and on the standup circuit where they perfected their routines.  Here's a description of one of their routines involving a song called "Chocolate" that instantly took me back to a different time:

"I fell into a vat of chocolate," Tom starts the song and Dick stops the singing to press for details.  The capper comes when Tom sings, "I yelled "Fire!" when I fell into the chocolate,"  Dick asks why, and Tom sings and shouts, "I yelled fire because no one would save me if I yelled "CHOCOLATE!"

They were offered a slot mid-season on Sunday nights opposite the extremely successful Bonanza early in 1967; CBS was desperate when another show failed and they didn't have much hope for competing successfully with Bonanza.  The Brothers succeeded well beyond expectations and were offered another season.  Through season two, they were a cross-generational variety show that had Kate Smith and Jimmy Durante along with Pat Paulsen and the Kingston Trio.  Then as the upheaval of social changes and the Vietnam War opposition grew, the show changed to reflect that.

The struggles they had with censors were over the most amazing things; it's hard to believe that in those days you could not say the word "pregnant" on television.  Eventually the brothers put in red herrings, things they knew the censors would take out, to draw attention away from something else that would have been questionable.  Sometimes they would use phrases that were so new the censors didn't know what they meant.  And they would use nonsense phrases that had no meaning at all and would enjoy seeing the censors take them out thinking they were slang they didn't know.  

The Pat Paulsen presidential campaign was a highlight of their show.  He began by denying that he was a candidate; he says "True, all the present candidates once denied they had any intention of running," Pat says.  "But the fact that I am also a liar doesn't make me a candidate."

Tom was a major driving force of the show and was the brother most willing to push against the limitations they faced.  He actively encouraged new talent and innovative approaches to television.  Dick was a quick study and an excellent musician.  Eventually the struggles were too much for Tom; much later he notes, "I was worn out, and I had no sense of humor, and I was out of whack."  After they were fired, they filed suit against CBS which they eventually won.  By very odd coincidence, the trial of Daniel Ellsberg, of the Pentagon Papers fame, occurred in the same building at the same time as the Smothers Brothers case.

A search of Smothers Brothers on You Tube turns up a variety of their appearances.  Here's one from the short hair days, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIfl2o44zb0 and a later one with an appearance by George Harrison, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBFUJX0zIC0.  You can also find routines by Steve Martin when he was a writer for them, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, and Mason Williams.

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