The Smothers Brothers: A 'Dangerously Funny' Pair

In the late 1960s, Tommy and Dick Smothers challenged those who tried to tame their wildly popular show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. TV critic David Bianculli joins host Terry Gross to talk about the legendary comedy duo who tackled political issues and censorship.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our TV critic, David Bianculli, is going to tell us about a show that was topical at a time when TV wasn't - so topical there were frequent battles with network censors; a show that premiered on CBS in 1967 and was suddenly cancelled by the network in 1969.

It was hosted and produced by the first members of their generation with a primetime pulpit. They used it to give a platform to young writers, like Steve Martin and Rob Reiner, new bands like The Who and Jefferson Airplane, and performers who opposed the war in Vietnam, like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.

The show was "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." David has written a new book about Tom and Dick Smothers, and their show, called "Dangerously Funny." David was a big fan of the show when he was in his early teens. As a critic, he makes a powerful case for the show's importance in TV and pop-culture history.

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

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI (Author, "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"): 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 because 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?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes, sure. I like this because 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.

Mr. BIANCULLI: This was President Johnson at the time, yes.

GROSS: Okay, so let's hear it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS (Comedian): Hey Tom, you know, I just read in the newspaper this week where President has asked Congress to ask a series of taxes, you know, to discourage people from traveling abroad. What do you think about that?

Mr. TOM SMOTHERS (Comedian): 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.

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS: Well, look, it's a very, very, very, very difficult situation. You know, people keep 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.

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

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS: Yeah, that's right. That's good thinking.

Mr. TOM SMOTHERS: But lookit, what can the president do to make people want to stay in this country?

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS: Well, he could quit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. 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 so these guys were going against the grain.

GROSS: And that's one of the things that makes the story so interesting. You know, it's the second half of the '60s. The youth culture has become the counter-culture. Youth culture has also become, a lot of it, the anti-war movement. The country is, like, divided, people are going wild, and television is reflecting somewhere between very little and none of that.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's almost - there are so many parallels to today that it amazes me, in that now you think of red state, blue state, and we have this giant divide, and the parties are divided, and the whole country seems, you know, ideologically divided.

Back then, it was a generation gap. It was - you were either a hawk or a dove. You either supported the president, or you didn't. Later, with Nixon, you had a silent majority.

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 and Garfunkel on the same show. They had Mickey Rooney and The Who on the same show and appealed to both, you know, generations.

GROSS: Now, 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?

Mr. BIANCULLI: This one - I wondered about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIANCULLI: 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 primetime, 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 that you couldn't say then that you can say now?

Mr. 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 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yea, beating wildly in my wrist, and they didn't even let that go.

GROSS: They didn't let that go on the air, either?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah.

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

Mr. 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. So they would drive them crazy just for the fun of it, too.

GROSS: As an illustration of some of the things that were - of the type of thing that were censored, I want to play an excerpt of the show that you brought with you, of Joan Baez dedicating a song to her then-husband, David. What was the context of this, both in terms of Joan Baez' life and the Smothers Brothers' show?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Joan Baez, her husband at the time, David Harris, was going to prison for protesting against selective service and draft registration. And he was facing this prison sentence, so Joan Baez, in support, did an album of country songs and just recorded it. And so she went on the Smothers Brothers to sing one of these songs and dedicate it to her husband.

She gave the dedication, which included the whole explanation of why her husband was going to prison, and CBS cut the explanation. So it was like here's a song for my husband, who's going to prison, and now "Green, Green Grass of Home." It was just such an awful cut.

GROSS: It's awful in part, too - it's not only, you know, a form of censorship, but also people might think that, you know, he'd like stolen or raped or, you know, done something at gunpoint.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Exactly, exactly, right.

GROSS: What we're going to hear is the whole introduction, the unedited introduction.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Right.

GROSS: All right. This is Joan Baez.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

Ms. JOAN BAEZ (Singer): The next song is a song that'll be on my next album, which will be coming out shortly. The album is called "David's Album." David is my husband. David's sort of a California hillbilly, and so the songs on the record are all country and western, and it's a kind of a gift to David because he's going to be going to prison, probably in June, and he'll be there for three years.

The reason he's going is that he refused to have anything to do with the draft or selective service or whatever you want to call it; militarism in general. And the point is, if you do that, and you do it up front or over ground, then you're going to get busted, and so - especially if you organize, which he does. So this song is called "The Green, Green Grass of Home."

Ms. BAEZ: (Singing) The old home town looks the same�

GROSS: That's Joan Baez on the Smothers Brothers' show in March of 1969, and my guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli, who's written a new book about the Smothers Brothers, called "Dangerously Funny."

So the show went on the air, in a truncated form. How did Joan Baez react to the way her introduction was edited?

Mr. BIANCULLI: She actually took it very well. What she did was she thanked Tom for the fight because she wasn't a network TV person at that time, and Tom said well, come on, say whatever you want to say. So she got the opportunity to say it. They recorded it. It was the network who overruled Tom, and what she appreciated is that he did what he did so much of the time in the '60s - he ran right to the New York Times and to other papers and said this was edited, you know, and this is wrong. And there wasn't a lot of that done back in the '60s. You know, there wasn't the whole tabloid culture. And so, to have a guy from television come out and talk about his bosses - that was news then.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's TV critic, David Bianculli. His new book about the Smothers Brothers is called "Dangerously Funny." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with FRESH AIR's TV critic, David Bianculli. His new book is called "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

Perhaps the most famous case of censorship on the Smothers Brothers' show was Pete Seeger singing "The Big Muddy."

Mr. BIANCULLI: Definitely.

GROSS: So there's a prequel to that story, and that is that it's amazing he even got on TV because he'd been blacklisted, because why?

Mr. BIANCULLI: He'd been blacklisted. He was part of The Weavers, and it was all the way back in Red Channels.

GROSS: The folk group, The Weavers.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes, the folk group The Weavers. And in 1950, his name was in Red Channels, which was this pamphlet that was putting out - that was put out, supposedly identifying people with communist leanings. So automatically, Pete Seeger is gone, and because he's so aggressive in his beliefs, he's off primetime for 17 years.

GROSS: Well, he had also refused to speak to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating communists and communist sympathizers, and he declined to even take the Fifth.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Right.

GROSS: So he was considered very hostile to the community in that�

Mr. BIANCULLI: Everything that he did, I think, in retrospect, is so incredibly noble, but you know, it was against the mainstream then. And so Pete Seeger is off TV, and the Smothers do this sketch that makes fun of LBJ, and President Johnson calls William Paley, the president of CBS, at three in the morning to complain. Paley calls in the producers of the Smothers Brothers to say knock it off, take it easy on LBJ for a while. And the producers say, I don't know how Tom is going to take that. And Paley says, well, is there anything I can do, if you do that for a while, as sort of to sweeten the pot.

They said, well, we've been trying to get Pete Seeger on. So let us have Pete Seeger. And Bill Paley says, he's on. And so that's how he got on.

GROSS: I love that because in an act of trying to suppress speech, they let Pete Seeger in the door.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's very weird. And then the amazing thing is it doesn't stop there, because Pete Seeger wants to do this new song, which was against President Johnson - I love the way it eats its own tail - and he wants to do "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," which has just come out on a Columbia Records album.

So CBS Records says this is fine, but he tapes it for the Smothers Brothers, to open the second season, and CBS says no. They let Pete Seeger come on, and he does three or four songs, but when he gets to his big finish, "Big Muddy," they cut it. It's just not shown.

GROSS: Now we're going to be hearing I think it's just the final verse of this song.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes.

GROSS: Set up what happens before the final verse.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, what happens is, before the final verse - well, before that, this whole season goes by, where Tom again goes to the Times, goes to other papers, and there's a change in our policy toward Vietnam, or at least our national feeling about Vietnam.

So by the end of the season, CBS says you can have him back on, and he can sing it. So this is actually from when he got to perform it, and it was televised. So I think it's such a triumphant performance, but the song itself is about a sergeant who is just taking�

GROSS: A sergeant like in World War II, probably.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes, in World War II - taking a troop on maneuvers and taking them to ford a river that he had before, but it had rained since. So what was safe, now wasn't. And he was insisted that they go ahead. And waist deep in the Big Muddy, and then neck deep, and he was taking them higher and higher, and he drowns, you know, and the next guy in command says turn back, this is a bad idea.

Now, that's a pretty easy analogy to the Vietnam War. We could use it right now to Iraq or Afghanistan - but that was the message of the song.

GROSS: And in this last verse - well, we'll play the last verse, and then we'll talk about it. Here's Pete Seeger on the Smothers Brothers' show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

(Soundbite of song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy")

Mr. PETE SEEGER (Singer): (Singing) Well, I'm not going to plant any moral. I'll leave that for yourself. Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking, you'd like to keep your health. But every time I read the paper, them old feelings come on. We're waist deep in the Big Muddy. The big fool says to push on.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on. Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on. Waist deep, neck deep, soon, even a tall man will be over his head. We're waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: That's Pete Seeger in 1968 on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," and he never says the word Vietnam, but it was so clear he's talking about Vietnam there.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: So you had described how this song was edited out of Pete Seeger's first appearance on the Smothers Brothers, but he came back and actually did the song, and it was used, which is what we heard.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes.

GROSS: So how did he come back and get to sing it?

Mr. BIANCULLI: They invited him back near the end of the second season. They were just - they kept pushing for it and pushing for it, and a lot of television critics at the time, and commentators, sort of said hey. And so finally, CBS relented and said you can have him back.

Around this time, Walter Cronkite had come on CBS and said basically, the Vietnam War is unwinnable. So there was this whole change after the Tet Offensive that changed enough public perception to make CBS think well, maybe it's okay.

GROSS: The Seeger performance we just heard was in 1968. At the end of that year, 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.

Mr. 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 eight, they give them to the Smothers Brothers, Sunday night at nine, 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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

Mr. SMOTHERS: Do you have something important?

Mr. GEORGE HARRISON (Musician): Something very important to say on American television.

Mr. SMOTHERS: You know, we don't, we - a lot of times, we don't opportunity of saying anything important because it's American television, and every time you say something�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMOTHERS: And try to say something important, they�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRISON: Well, whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.

Mr. SMOTHERS: That's what's important.

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, people would be promoting that for days, weeks, months, if they knew he was going to be on.

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

GROSS: Right, right. Did that clip have any repercussions?

Mr. 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 Ayenstein(ph), 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? You know, it is unthinkable. I mean, the talent roster that they had� One of the things I wonder about is that if the show had been allowed to continue a few more years, with Tommy's eye for talent, I think he would have been �Saturday Night Live� except in primetime. He would have just had the best comics, the best musicians and really pushed for social commentary.

GROSS: In talking about how the network limited what the Smothers Brothers were allowed to say, you describe some of the other barriers, besides the people at CBS headquarters, some of the barriers that were put in the way. Do you want to talk about, like, the affiliates and the power that they were given?

Mr. BIANCULLI: The Smothers Brothers was the first show to be pre-screened for affiliates. In other words, to be sent a couple of days in advance so each affiliate could decide, in its local market, whether what the Smothers Brothers were doing on their show was acceptable.

GROSS: And what did that mean for the Smothers Brothers' production?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, it meant - the most obvious thing is they had to have it finished sooner, and then it was giving them a new layer of censorship with which to contend. It wasn't just - you know, Tom had this contract that said he had creative control, and yet the censors, you know, the standards and practices at CBS said, but that doesn't mean you can say or do anything you want. You still have to go through us.

And so but even if he goes through them, then a local affiliate in Boise may say yeah, but I don't like you making fun of, you know, the president. That's just not right. And so what does he do? You know, is he going to not do a sketch because of an affiliate?

Well, what he ends up doing is losing 15 or 20 affiliates that are no longer, you know, showing the program, which weakens the ratings.

GROSS: David Bianculli will be back in the second half of the show. His new book about the Smothers Brothers is called "Dangerously Funny." The clips we're hearing are from the Time/Life video "The Best of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" Volumes 2 and 3. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with our TV critic David Bianculli. We're talking about his new book "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

The show premiered on CBS in 1967 and was cancelled suddenly in 1969. Because the show reflected the counter culture and the anti-war movement, there were frequent battles with network censors.

David is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He writes the online magazine TVworthwatching.com, and he teaches at Rowan University.

You spoke to so many people for research for the book. Did you speak to any of the people who worked in Standards and Practices at CBS at the time and were responsible for making the decisions about what the Smothers Brothers were allowed to say and what their guests were allowed to say?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I talked to, you know, among the people that I talked to, there was Mike Dan, who was an executive then. I talked with Bill Tankersley, who was the head censor for all of CBS for the entire period. He was a key interview, and it took me about 14 years to get him. And also Fred Silverman, who was just a young executive in CBS daytime then, but was allowed to sit in on all the programming meetings. But Bill Tankersley was the guy who sort of ruined some really good conspiracy theories.

GROSS: How?

BIANCULLI: Well, you know, most of the people that are involved think that it's Richard Nixon that got the show pulled off, or at the very least, it was Bill Paley and it was Robert Wood, the new - and what it really ended up being was Bill Tankersley and his group just setting down rules that they thought that Tom Smothers had to listen to. And when he didn't, they just didn't want to have an upstart that could - you know, because they were looking bad for the affiliates.

They had promised the affiliates they would get a show by certain day to preview for them, and if they couldn't do it, then they looked bad. The network looked like the Smothers Brothers were running things, and then what would happen? And so they drew that line in the sand. It was not a legal line in the sand and the Smothers Brothers later sued and won, but that's what got the show yanked.

GROSS: Yeah. So what got the show yanked was the network saying, oh, you failed to deliver a show on time. You didn't meet your deadline.

BIANCULLI: Right. And yet it was never a contractual agreement. It was just something that they said, you know, from now on you have to do this because of the affiliate demands. But it was never a contractual demand.

GROSS: And did the Smothers Brothers actually not meet the deadline?

BIANCULLI: Sometimes they didn't. Sometimes Tom would take the master and hide it.

GROSS: Oh, just to prevent the affiliates from touching it beforehand?

BIANCULLI: Prevent the affiliate - or to prevent them from editing it before he turned it in at the last minute for the affiliate judgment. There was a lot of gamesmanship on both sides. I think of it as in the '60s, you have parents and kids, and they're just against each other and they're both butting heads more than they should have.

GROSS: So when you spoke to the person who was the head of Standards and Practices, who was�

BIANCULLI: Yeah. Bill Tankersley.

GROSS: Tankersley was responsible for deciding what could be said on the Smothers Brothers show. What did he tell you about the standards that were set and why they were set for what could and couldn't be said?

BIANCULLI: Well, oddly, he was more lenient than most of the people underneath him, like he had nothing to do with the Elaine May sketch being pulled. And he said, well, I saw nothing wrong with that. If they would've asked me, I would've thought it was fine. He had no problem with Pete Seeger. You know, his things were much more finite, but he was dealing with rules.

But this was the guy who had been at CBS for so long, he had fought with you know, George Burns, with Rod Serling, with Alfred Hitchcock all the way back in the '50s. And so a young, just-turning-30 Tom Smothers, this young little whipper was not going to get best of Bill Tankersley, as Bill Tankersley saw it. And Tom would call him up at home, you know, on nights and weekends and sort of plead his case. He drove him - he drove Tankersley nuts.

GROSS: Well, if Tankersley would've approved some of the things that you mentioned�

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: �how come they weren't approved?

BIANCULLI: Well, he did approve some things, and they did - when they were asked - once Tom was able to go to the head of CBS on the East Coast - he didn't want to deal with the West Coast middlemen anymore. So it was just - and then Bill Tankersley was saying no, you can't. You've got to go through channels. There's rules. Bill Tankersley was all about rules, and Tom Smothers was all about no rules.

GROSS: So Tom Smothers wanted to bypass Tankersley, and Tankersley said you can't.

BIANCULLI: No. He wanted - Tom Smothers wanted to deal only with Tankersley, figuring you're the head guy. Let me just talk to you on the phone. Let me send this stuff directly to you.

GROSS: I see.

BIANCULLI: Tankersley did it once and then said, no. You know what? This is not going to work. We have the West Coast for a reason, and Tom just avoided them.

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 added 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.

(Soundbite of TV shows, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: A bad move on Jonah's part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: And the gentiles, as they would from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: 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 crossed examined him. They said now, when you were saying New Testament, did you - weren't you actually referring to testicles? Weren't you�

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And David Steinberg said well, yeah. Why were you doing that? Because otherwise, it wouldn't be funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: 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.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: 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 cancelled. They had already been renewed for a fourth season.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: 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 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 go on First Amendment rights and really make this a huge case.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: 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: So he won.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Tommy Smothers won, but how long did this take him to win?

BIANCULLI: Well, it took - the trial took a few months, but it was two-three years before the trial was on and they won less than a million dollars. But it stopped their careers. I mean, I liken the Smothers Brothers to, you know, when Muhammad Ali, you know, gets pulled but he gets - he gets to fight again and gets his championship back after sticking up for his ideals, or Elvis goes away to the Army but comes back and gets more number one hits. The Smothers Brothers were essentially done. They never had the power or the pulpit again the way they used to, and I just think that's a shame.

GROSS: What do you think of as the, like, lasting effect of the Smothers Brothers show?

BIANCULLI: I think that it's most visible right now in places like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and "Saturday Night Live" and Bill Maher. All of them are outside of prime time, but they're all sort of doing elements of what the Smothers Brothers did.

Stephen Colbert tried very briefly to throw himself into the presidential race, just as Pat Paulsen had. A lot of Jon Stewart's humor is very much what the Smothers was, and he admits that they were a very strong influence. Bill Maher says the Smothers were a very strong influence. And "Saturday Night Live" I sort of see as what the Smothers Brothers almost had the chance to become.

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

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 okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: 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 out of sight, he goes: I just want to read it before I'm dead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: 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. It's fun. It's fun.

GROSS: All mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But before we let you leave, we have an interview that you recorded with Hal Holbrook that we're about to hear. And I know the actor Hal Holbrook is most famous for his one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight."

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I know that you're a great fan of his and of Mark Twain's, which is why we asked you to do the interview with him. But before we hear the interview, tell us why you like Hal Holbrook so much. And also, I should mention, there's a connection between Hal Holbrook and the Smothers Brothers. Holbrook actually makes an appearance in your book, so let's start with that connection.

BIANCULLI: Okay. That connection is actually - goes right to the heart of the censorship and the censors at CBS because just as the Smothers Brothers were about to start their show in 1967, Hal Holbrook had a 90-minute version of his stage show "Mark Twain Tonight," which was going to be shown in the middle of network television on CBS. And it was blocking for two days and then shooting for two days, and then it was going to be on TV the fifth day.

So this was all in one whirlwind week. And Mark Twain, he chose selections in the mid '60s - Hal Holbrook did selections of Twain's that would talk about racism in "Huckleberry Finn" - because of what was going on with civil rights -and anti-war stuff because of what was going on with Vietnam.

And CBS comes to him and says we can't have you use the N word. So that just can't be done, and we don't want you to talk about war. But other than that, Hal, we love the show, so just make those changes and we're okay. And Hal Holbrook says, well, no. I won't make any changes. But if you don't want to do the show, I totally understand. It's your network. And CBS said, well, we can't not do the show. It's already in TV Guide. It's scheduled. It's just in three days. He said, well that's your decision.

And so Hal Holbrook fought that fight and won, and it's this brilliant thing which is out there on DVD. And Hal Holbrook is a Mark Twain scholar and keeps rewriting the show that he does to make it current for the times. I just admire - it's, you know, it's decades of incredible scholarship and then incredible performance.

GROSS: Well, thank you, David. And we'll hear that interview after a break. And I'll just say again that David's new book is called "Dangerously Funny," and it's about the Smothers Brothers TV comedy show that aired on CBS in the second half of the '60s.

David, it's great to talk with you. Thank you so much, and congratulations on the book.

BIANCULLI: Oh, that's so much, Terry.

GROSS: And, of course, David Bianculli is TV critic for FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR.

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Excerpt: 'Dangerously Funny'

'Dangerously Funny'
Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"
By David Bianculli
Hardcover, 400 pages
Touchstone
List Price: $24.99

Introduction

Six months after the tragic events of 9/11, at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, five defiantly outspoken performers were saluted for their often costly efforts to exercise their First Amendment rights as comedians. One was Bill Maher, who lost his ABC late-night talk show Politically Incorrect after remarking of the AlQaeda terrorist hijackers who commandeered passenger airliners and steered them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building — say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Another was stand-up comic and civil rights advocate Dick Gregory, who not only challenged segregation by becoming the first black comic to headline in all-white nightclubs, but also demonstrated alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers in history-making confrontations in Montgomery and Selma. Still another was George Carlin, whose infamous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" and "Filthy Words" comedy album routines sparked a free-speech battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. And rounding out this handful of brave, bold humorists were Tom and Dick Smothers.

Significantly, the Smothers Brothers received their Freedom of Speech Award from comic David Steinberg, whose controversial mock sermons on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour played a key part in having that variety show yanked and the brothers fired, despite three successful seasons on CBS from 1967 to 1969 and an announced renewal for a fourth.

"The most innovative variety show on television shut down because of political pressure," Steinberg told the audience in Aspen that night. "But the Smothers Brothers got their revenge. Never giving up, they sued CBS — and they won. And they forever became prominent symbols in the fight for free speech."

Accepting the award, Tom Smothers joked, "Of course, many of you recognize the fact that we are not the original Smothers Brothers. I'm sure they would have loved to have been here to receive this award. But the original Smothers Brothers passed away in 1969."

As jokes go, that one cuts very close to the bone.

On the surface, it's patently ridiculous. The Smothers Brothers are, of course, the same siblings who began performing as folk satirists in 1959, and whose half-century career has outlasted almost all comic teams on stage, screen, and television. Tom, who plays guitar and unleashes elaborate fibs and heated emotional outbursts, and Dick, who plays bass and acts as the grounded and weary straight man, have a history as a comedy team that covers more years than the Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, and even George Burns and Gracie Allen.

In another way, though, Tom was being painfully honest. Part of the Smothers Brothers did die when CBS wrested their show away from them. Oh, they were vindicated in court, proving that they had not violated any terms of their agreement in providing shows for the network. And over the years, they starred in several subsequent TV showcases, including a brilliant run of reunion specials and series in the 1980s for CBS, the very network that had shunned them two decades before. In addition, they never failed to find steady work in nightclubs.

However, by becoming unexpected martyrs to the cause of free speech, the Smothers Brothers lost their most influential national TV platform just when that freedom mattered the most. Like Elvis Presley when he was shipped off to the army, or Muhammad Ali when he was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, the Smothers Brothers were nonconformist iconoclasts, pop-culture heroes yanked from the national spotlight in their prime. Muhammad Ali became the champ again, and Elvis returned to record many more number-one hits, but Tom and Dick Smothers never again enjoyed the influence or mass popularity of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In terms of introducing and encouraging new talent, pushing the boundaries of network television, and reflecting the youth movement and embracing its antiwar stance and anti-administration politics, the show was, quite literally, their finest Hour.

What, exactly, made the Smothers Brothers so important a guiding force in the 1960s? Mostly, they were in the right place at the right time, reacting to the '60s as events unfurled around them. They were the first members of their generation with a prime-time pulpit, and they used it. Each season, the average age of their writing staff got younger, and the satiric edge of the material being televised — or censored — got sharper. Yet in an era when most families still watched television together, in the same room on the same TV set, the greatest and most impressive achievement of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was that it spoke to and attracted young viewers without alienating older ones. With its humor, guest list, and high caliber of entertainment, it bridged the generation gap at a time when that gap was becoming a Grand Canyon-like chasm.

The Comedy Hour introduced fresh talent — from inhouse future stars Pat Paulsen and Mason Williams to such emerging rock groups as Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, and the Who — while making room for veteran stars from movies, TV, even vaudeville. On one show, Kate Smith shared billing with Simon and Garfunkel. Another show featured Mel Torme, Don Knotts, and Ravi Shankar. Musicians came on not to perform their old or current hits, but to unveil new ones — a bold departure from established practice. The Beatles even provided the brothers with a US exclusive — the videotaped premiere of "Hey Jude" — and in the middle of the Smothers Brothers' battles with the CBS censors, George Harrison showed up in 1968 as a surprise guest to offer moral support. "Whether you can say it or not," Harrison urged them on the air, "keep trying to say it." And they did. First, individual words and phrases that CBS found objectionable were cut from skits after rehearsals or edited out of the final master tape. Then entire segments were cut because of their political, social, or anti-establishment messages.

For every battle the Smothers Brothers won, CBS sought and got revenge. When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour wanted to open its third season by having Harry Belafonte singing "Don't Stop the Carnival" against a backdrop reel of violent outbursts filmed in and around that summer's Democratic National Convention, CBS not only cut the number completely, but added insult to injury by replacing it with a five-minute campaign ad from Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon.

Politics, and politicians, play a big part in the story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Even though the show poked fun at President Johnson and criticized his Vietnam War policies, LBJ's daughters were fervent fans. Yet more than once the chief executive of the United States called CBS Chairman William S. Paley to exert pressure on the Smothers Brothers. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour even ran its own candidate for president, Pat Paulsen, whose tongue-in-cheek campaign was a brilliant deconstruction of the 1968 presidential race. Paulsen had become popular delivering fake editorials on the show, such as the one in support of network censorship ("The Bill of Rights says nothing about Freedom of Hearing," he told viewers, adding, "This, of course, takes a lot of the fun out of Freedom of Speech"). Paulsen moved effortlessly onto the actual campaign trail, where real candidates such as Robert F. Kennedy got and played with the joke, and the show hired a former California gubernatorial campaign manager to offer behind-the-scenes advice.

With regime changes both at the White House and at the CBS New York headquarters known as Black Rock, the Smothers Brothers' days were numbered. Once Nixon ascended to the presidency, Tom Smothers insists he was targeted in a way that both predated and prefigured Nixon's enemies list and the sneaky tactics of the "Plumbers." Nixon pushed for greater governmental control of broadcast media at the same time well-placed Nixon allies, from new CBS programming chief Robert D. Wood to TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg, adopted hard-line stances against the sort of envelope-pushing content the Smothers Brothers were trying to present in prime time. Both sides got increasingly, exponentially petulant and combative. Tom Smothers fought too fervently for every word and idea, and slipped obscenities into scripts just to tweak the censors, who promptly removed them. Eventually, Tom lost his own sense of humor while railing against the network suits. CBS executives, on their part, grew impatient and resentful at having to defend or discuss the Smothers Brothers everywhere they went, and began to both change the rules and enforce them ruthlessly.

Undeniably, CBS wanted Tom and Dick Smothers off the air because of the ideas they were espousing on their show, but eventually removed them by claiming that the brothers had violated the terms of their contract by not delivering a copy of that week's show in time. It was like the feds busting Al Capone: the crime for which he was convicted was a mere technicality, but it got Capone off the streets. In the case of CBS and the Smothers Brothers, they got them off the air. Fired, not canceled, as Tom Smothers invariably corrected people in an effort to set the record straight.

A few years later, in the case of Tom Smothers et al. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., the US District Court in California ruled that CBS, not the Smothers Brothers, was the party in violation of its contract. But by then, the duo's prime-time platform had long been torpedoed and their influence stolen from them. The attitude they reflected would continue to flourish on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, but only briefly. In late-night TV, it would find its closest approximation, within a decade, on Saturday Night Live, which as recently as the 2008 presidential race proved itself a vital, arguably invaluable, pop-culture component in analyzing and advancing what was, and wasn't, funny about national politics and politicians. But in prime time, where the Smothers Brothers once dared to offer the same sort of probing and timely humor, the concept of relevance in entertainment shows would become an endangered species, if not completely extinct.

During its three-year reign, however, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was about as topical, influential, and important as a TV show could get. Tom Smothers, for the last half of the '60s, was like a mod Zelig or a hippie Forrest Gump, appearing almost everywhere the times they were achangin'. In 1967, Tom was present, and an occasional onstage presenter, at the Monterey International Pop Festival, scouting such breakthrough acts as the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Ravi Shankar. In 1968, Tom was an early champion of the Broadway show Hair, and instrumental in bringing the show to the West Coast. In 1969, Tom could be found at the bedside of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, playing guitar and singing with Lennon as a group of friends recorded the classic anthem "Give Peace a Chance."

Yes, there was sex, and there were drugs, and everything else associated with the '60s, from freedom and peace to foolishness and paranoia. Both the Smothers Brothers and CBS, in the end, agree that they overreacted at the time — but remembering how polarized and sensitive society was then goes a long way toward explaining how pitched those battles got, and why.

This book is not, however, some quaint remembrance of a show with a moral stand that has no bearing to modern times. Think of the Smothers Brothers as a pop-culture Grapes of Wrath. When Michael Moore takes his time in the spotlight during a live Oscar telecast to scold President George W. Bush for sending America to war without due cause, the Smothers Brothers, in spirit, are there. When the Dixie Chicks make an anti-Bush comment onstage and suffer a backlash from conservatives before reemerging triumphantly with a new hit and a slew of Grammy Awards, the Smothers Brothers are there. When Bill Maher resurfaces on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, or when Jon Stewart skewers politicians and the media on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Smothers Brothers are there. When Stephen Colbert attempts a comedic run for the presidency, the Smothers Brothers are there. It's worth pointing out, though, that contemporary outspoken comedians and programs reside today on cable. When CBS fired Tom and Dick Smothers, there were no cable networks. They had not been invented. And nearly forty years after the network pulled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from prime time, there's still no true modern-day equivalent on broadcast network television — no series that speaks truth to power, pushes boundaries, and champions new art and artists in quite the way Tom and Dick Smothers did.

"I run into people," Tom Smothers told the crowd at the Free Speech Tribute in Aspen, "who say, 'Don't you wish you guys had a television show right now? You could say anything you want!'

"That's an illusion, isn't it?" he asked. "The language is there. You can say any language you want ... you can talk about violence, graphic sex. But I'm not hearing anything being particularly said. And if we had a show today, I don't think we could say anything more than we did back then."

The closer you look at The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour — season by season, show by show — the more you understand the generational, artistic, and moral duels being fought in the '60s, and how quickly small confrontations mushroomed into all-out war on several fronts. Year to year, the shows said it all: Tom and Dick Smothers looked different, acted differently, and protested more brazenly and passionately. What they managed to say and do was important, and what they were prevented from saying and doing was no less meaningful.

From Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" by David Bianculli. Copyright 2009 by David Bianculli. Published by Touchstone. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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