Tuesday, April 07, 2009

This week in Television History: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour canceled

You can hear me discuss This week in TelevisionHistory on the TV CONFIDENTIAL with Ed Robertson andFrankie Montiforte Podcast at KSAV.org or go to TV CONFIDENTIAL Apr. 7 edition, Hour 1: ER, Life on Mars and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

As always, the further we go back in Hollywood history, the more that fact and legend become intertwined. It's hard to say where the truth really lies.

Before I get to this weeks historical installment I want to first acknowledge one of many historical milestones that led to what we now call Television. Please note that my above disclaimer rings especially true.

April 7, 1927
The first simultaneous telecast of image and sound takes place on April 7th 1927. Then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover read a speech in Washington, D.C., that was transmitted to the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City. The New York audience saw and heard a tiny televised image of Hoover that was less than 3 square inches.

April 4, 1969
The CBS Television Network fired The Smothers Brothers because the brothers failed to submit an episode of the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to network executives before its broadcast.

The network claimed the second to last show of the season was turned in late, and claimed that their tardiness constituted a breach of contract justifying their dropping of the series. The network ultimately refused to run the episode anyway because they said it "would be considered irreverent and offensive by a large segment of our audience". That episode is on the Smothers Brothers: The Best of Season 3 DVD.

The variety show was well known for its censorship battles with the network. The network executives often objected to the brothers' selection of controversial, outspoken, left wing, and antiwar guests, including:
Pete Seeger, who had been invited to appear on the Smothers' second season premiere to sing his anti-war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Seeger would later appear on the show and sang that song.
Harry Belafonte was scheduled to do a calypso song called "Don't Stop the Carnival" with images from the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention behind him. The Song was cut and the time was sold to the Nixon campaign but can now be seen on the season 3 DVD.
Joan Baez wanted to dedicate a song to her draft-resisting husband who was about to go to prison for his stance. The dedication to her husband made the air but the reason for the dedication did not.
Dr. Benjamin Spock, noted baby doctor and anti-war activist, was prevented from appearing as a guest of the show because, according to the network, he was a "convicted felon."

Under the category of irreverent and offensive, we have:
David Steinberg’s satirical sermonettes caused controversy for being sacrilegious. His second sermonette was in the episode that never aired.
Leigh French created the recurring hippie character, Goldie O'Keefe, whose parody of afternoon advice shows for housewives, "Share a Little Tea with Goldie," was actually one long celebration of mind-altering drugs. (Tea" was a counter culture code word for marijuana, but the CBS censors seemed to be unaware of the connection). Goldie would open her sketches with, "Hi(gh)– and glad of it!"
Elaine May wrote a skit about censorship that featured Tom and Elaine who playing motion picture censors trying to find a more acceptable substitution for unacceptable dialogue. The skit ended up being censored.

Tom and Dick Smothers assembled the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour gang in February 1988 for a 20th reunion special on CBS. Now the network wanted the brothers and company to be edgy and controversial but no one associated with the show was interested. After all when the establishment tells you something is cool... It's no longer cool.

In 1968 when it came time to submit the names of the writers for Emmy considerations, Tom refused to include his name for fear that he had become too controversial and it would hurt the show’s chances of winning. The show won the Emmy for outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy Variety that year.

Almost 40 Years later
(Sunday, September 21st 2008) during the live television broadcast of the 60th Annual Emmy Awards (YouTube - Steve Martin Tommy Smothers Emmy 2008), Tom Smothers received an Emmy acknowledging his contributions as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Steve Martin, who was one of the Emmy winning writers on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, presented Tom with a commemorative Emmy acknowledging his role in the writing of a variety show. Television Academy Honors Tom Smothers With Commemorative Emmy

In October of this year the book "Dangerously Funny: the Uncensored History of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" by David Bianculli will be published by Touchstone. Visit their website: http://www.tvworthwatching.com/

To quote the Bicentennial Minute, "And that's the way it was".
Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa
PS: I wrote this article on the Smothers Brothers back on July 28th 2005 O Brothers, Where Art Thou?
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