How CBS Smothered the Smothers Brothers

In the late 1960’s, at the height of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the hippie revolution, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became the most controversial show in TV history and, despite winning an Emmy, was abruptly pulled off the air.

The Smothers Brothers in a 1965 publicity photo

In the 1960’s, the US was torn by a social divide that ran largely across generational lines. The civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the opposition to the Vietnam War, all produced political conflict across both parties. Political rallies, mass demonstrations, campus occupations, civil rights protests–all were weekly occurrences. Young people flocked to join and support the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers, and the Yippies. The hippie counterculture brought rock music to a new level of political awareness (and volume), and celebrated the recreational use of drugs like marijuana and LSD. One popular slogan said “Don’t trust anyone over 30”.

But in the world of network television, the social conflicts were nearly invisible. Westerns dominated television, with such popular shows as “Gunsmoke”, “Have Gun Will Travel”, and “Wagon Train”. The number one TV show in 1966 was “Bonanza”, a western that ran on the NBC network. The competing CBS network had tried to beat “Bonanza” by moving two of its most popular shows, “Perry Mason” and “The Garry Moore Show”, to the same time slot to compete with it, but both failed utterly.

In desperation, CBS tried a new approach. Rather than trying to draw away “Bonanza’s” viewers, they would use that time slot to bring in an entirely new audience with a different demographic. CBS was already seen as “the old folks network”, appealing mainly to people 45 and over. So, to win a new younger audience, CBS wanted a show that was “hip” and “edgy” and would appeal to the members of the under-30 counterculture generation. And, CBS execs thought, they had the perfect stars for it.

Throughout the 60’s, the Smothers Brothers, Tom and Dick, had been performing their comedy/music act, in which they sang folk songs and traded barbs around sibling rivalry (their signature line being “Mom liked you best!”). It was a popular stage act, and the pair had also released several successful comedy/music record albums. CBS had signed the pair to do a sitcom show a few years before, but that format did not suit their style of comedy and it quickly failed. Now, CBS was ready to let them try again, in a variety-show format which would showcase their music and comedic banter, and feature a number of guests each episode. It would be called “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”. It entered the CBS schedule in February 1967 as a mid-season replacement, opposite “Bonanza”.

From the beginning, the show assembled some of the most talented young writers in the business. The head writer was comic/song composer Jim Stafford (who would go on to fame with his music album “Not Just Another Pretty Foot”). Other writers were Rob Reiner (who would shortly go on to star in the groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family”), Don Novello (later famous as “Father Guido Sarducci”), Bob Einstein (who later became “Super Dave Osbourne”), Pat Paulsen (who would run a comedic electoral campaign in 1968 for President of the United States), and, in his first TV job, future comedy superstar Steve Martin.

In the first season, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was relatively conservative. The premiere featured guests Jill St John and Jim Nabors, with the Brothers being introduced by Ed Sullivan. Later guests included Bette Davis, Jack Benny, Kate Smith, George Burns, and Jimmy Durante. But over time the acts became younger and edgier, and the satire became more openly political. Youth-oriented rock bands like Steppenwolf, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Doors played sets. African-American artists like Diahann Carroll and civil rights activist/calypso singer Harry Belafonte were invited to appear–which upset CBS affiliate stations in the segregationist South. The band Buffalo Springfield performed their antiwar song “For What It’s Worth”. A series of skits titled “Share a Little Tea With Goldie” featured comedian Leigh French as hippie chick “Goldie O’Keefe” in a parody of radio call-in advice shows. Apparently the network execs never figured out that the entire skit was a celebration of recreational drug use: “tea” was counterculture slang for “marijuana”, and “Goldie” answered phone calls with “Hi…and glad I am.”

In December 1967, folk singer Pete Seeger, a former Communist Party member who had been blacklisted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee back in the 50’s, was invited to sing his antiwar song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”: the segment was axed by the network. Another sketch series on the show featured comedian David Steinberg as a pastor delivering a wickedly satirical short sermon: CBS ordered that the skits be pulled, calling them “sacrilegious”. In one opening sketch, Tom Smothers declared that he could tell people apart by the amount of clothing they wear. The common people, he said, were the less-ons, and the rich people were the more-ons. And when asked by Dick who was running the country, Tom grinned at the camera and answered, “The morons”.

CBS’s CEO and President, William S Paley, was a personal friend of President Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson had been leaning on Paley to curb the satirical attacks against his policies being made on the show. CBS now demanded that all of the taped episodes be submitted several weeks before airing so they could be “edited for content”. In response, the show turned its fire against CBS itself. Comedian Pat Paulsen, who was now running a tongue-in-cheek campaign for President of the United States, did a “press conference” on the show denouncing censorship. Guest star Elaine May did a sketch in which she and Tom Smothers played TV censors who were reviewing a show–which was then itself censored by CBS. This led to Tom and Dick waving a copy of the banned script on camera, declaring that they were being “shut up by CBS”.

The show had such high ratings, particularly among younger audiences, that it finished the year ranked number 12 in the nation, and was renewed for a second and then a third season, but both the writers and the performers continued to clash with CBS censors. When The Who appeared during the second season to play their counterculture anthem “My Generation”, they finished the show, literally, with a bang. The band had a tradition of ending their stage concerts by smashing their equipment: Pete Townsend would pound his guitar on the floor, and Keith Moon would set off small explosive charges inside his drum set. During the taping of their TV performance, however, a much larger explosive charge was accidentally loaded, and it detonated with a blast of smoke that pushed singer Roger Daltrey almost off the stage, dropped flaming sparks onto Pete Townsend’s hair, and peppered Keith Moon’s arms with shrapnel. Harry Belafonte taped a performance of the song “Lord, Don’t Stop the Carnival” while standing in front of filmed scenes of police beating protesters at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party Convention. CBS cut the entire segment, leaving the show five minutes short–which they filled with paid Nixon campaign ads. During the third season, folk singer Joan Baez dedicated her performance to her husband, who had just been jailed for resisting the draft. CBS pulled the entire show and replaced it on air with a rerun. After protests about the censorship, the show was aired later, with Baez’s statement edited out.

But the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” continued to be a ratings hit, and won an Emmy for Best Writing in a Comedy Series. In March 1969, it was announced that the show had been contracted for a fourth season.

It was not to be. CBS CEO William Paley personally ordered that the show not be renewed. The network announced the cancellation on April 4. The reason given was that the brothers had not been submitting their taped shows in time for “review” prior to airing. One remaining show had already been taped, but was now never aired.

The unilateral cancellation provoked a storm of criticism, with even the New York Times condemning the censorship. The Smothers Brothers sued CBS, declaring that it had breached their contract by cancelling the show after already agreeing to a fourth season. They eventually won and were awarded some $900,000, but “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was gone. The brothers took their show (minus the political satire) to both NBC and ABC over the next few years, but without its edgy humor it never got the ratings that the original did.

In the 1990’s, the E! Network aired old episodes of the Smothers Brothers show, intercut with interviews of cast members explaining the controversies and censorship battles. And in 2002 a documentary, “Smothered”, aired on the Bravo Network which explored the show’s battles and eventual cancellation by CBS.

Today, the whole incident is presented in film school classrooms as a textbook example of censorship and the creative conflicts between artists and media executives. And it is studied by social scientists as a way of understanding the political and cultural battles of the 1960’s.

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