05/03/07 - the smothers brothers

In today's encore excerpt - television censorship circa 1969. By 1967, the Smothers Brothers, the charming blazer-clad comedy team that had come to prominence lampooning the ubiquitous folk singing groups of the time ('mom always liked you best'), had the biggest TV show in America and were using it to comment on the social upheavals of the '60s. Since there were only three major commercial channels, plus PBS and a smattering of UHF channels, censors held sway in a way that is in theory less possible than in our current age of video clips on the internet. The show was cancelled by censors in a maelstrom of controversy and public debate during the 1969 season:

"Tom and Dick Smothers were the perky shills for the subversive satire that, between 1967 and 1969, turned their jaunty variety show into a comedy terrorist cell. The Smotherses were our jolly hosts, but also the secret instigators ... of songs and sketches that aggressively took on Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War and racism while singing the praises of drugs, sex, the  counterculture, and everything else that wasn't nailed down. Looking at the shows now, which give off the happy-go-lucky, devilish air of its chummy hosts, they seem as innocent as old newsreels of the naughty Jazz Age. ...

"A TV executive once instructed them, 'We want you to be controversial, but at the same time we want everyone to agree with you.' A station owner once told Tom that he was 'incompetent to make social comments.' One CBS memo said it was fine 'to satirize the president so long as you do it with respect.'

"It all ended noisily in '69, when CBS stepped in and deleted a David Steinberg monologue, a 'sermonette' about Solomon and Jonah that was to have run not only on Easter Sunday but the week of President Eisenhower's funeral. ... CBS could hide behind religion not politics by blaming the allegedly sacrilegious sketch by Steinberg. A single Steinberg line ... caused CBS brass to explode: 'The gentiles, as is their wont from time to time, threw a Jew overboard and Jonah was swallowed by a giant guppy.' The next line went, 'The New Testament Scholars literally grab the Jews by the Old Testament.' "


Gerald Nachman


Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s


Back Stage Books


Copyright 2004 by Gerald Nachman


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