The Smothers Brothers: Dangerously Funny
One could argue that Tom and Dick Smothers, the Smothers Brothers, were before my time. I was born in 1981. Their CBS broadcast variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, aired from 1967-1969. So why am I reading and reviewing Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a book about their lives, their rise to fame, the success of their television show, the censorship battles they fought, and their eventual cancelation (er, firing, not cancelation)?
That’s simple: The Smothers Brothers are timeless.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Smothers Brothers. As a child, I grew up listening and laughing along with their old vinyl records, which eventually were replaced with a couple of CDs. In my home, we used their comedic material as standard family jokes, from the slithereedee to pumas in crevices to “Mom always liked you best.” Twice, when the brothers toured to our city, I was lucky enough to have my mother take me to see them perform live. My two favorite routines from their albums were “The Fox” and “Crabs Walk Sideways.” As a young fan, I never knew just how avant garde the Smothers Brothers were, how cutting edge their material was. When I was a child, I thought “Crabs Walk Sideways” was a funny sing-along song about a lobster who fell in love with a crab. Now I know that it was a pointed, clever jab at the societal stigma against interracial mixing, a hot and volatile subject of its time.
When I discovered that someone had written a memoir about the Smothers Brothers, of course I had to pick it up. The book starts as a light and easy read about the brothers’ childhood and family history. The story becomes dense and meaty as it moves on to describe their show and the drama involved.
What struck me repeatedly as I read example after example of their controversial material was that much of it still has relevance today. They tackled race, war, religion, sex, drugs, politics, and politicians; nothing and no one was off limits, and they had no qualms about ruffling feathers to make a point, even presidential feathers. In fact, they wanted to ruffle more feathers than the CBS censors allowed them to; Tom Smothers in particular fought frequent battles to get material past the censors, winning some battles and losing others. Furthermore, the brothers made these jokes during prime time on a major broadcast network — not during the late-night hour or tucked away safely on a cable network, which society now understands to be the conventional, “safe” places to air controversial material. Whereas other shows of that time (and some shows of this time) carefully hid their punches behind fictional stories and characters or behind more rapid-fire comedy, the Comedy Hour made bold strikes for all to see and hear and laugh at. Their ruffling of feathers eventually got their goose cooked, though, when CBS plucked their show off the air.
I thought the book’s writing, by David Bianculli, was well done. One of the great things about this book is the extensive interview work and research done by the author. The attention to detail and love for the subject are all evident in the writing. It’s full of direct quotes and detailed memories by the brothers themselves and many, many other significant parties. Technically, I felt that a few points were repeated too many times, giving me that “I get it already” feeling. I also struggled with some jerkiness of the timeline — the author at times moved forward and then backward and then forward again, though sometimes it was out of necessity. This book was packed with so many details that I would love to see a visual representation of a timeline of significant events. On the upside, I truly appreciate the honesty regarding the brothers: The book is as open about their mistakes and failings as it is about their skills and achievements.
Reading this book has vastly deepened my appreciation for these two comedians. As a child, I loved them purely for their comedy and music. After reading this book, a new layer of respect has been added to my appreciation of their talents, because I now understand their bravery and how hard they fought to be heard.
The book wraps up with a quote from Tom Smothers that made my heart leap into my throat: “I’d like to do one more show [...] We’d like to do one more observational, comedic look at things.”
Tom clearly remembers one of the most important rules of comedy: Always leave the audience wanting more.
Please, please do come back. The boundaries that you used to push have shifted, but they still exist, and they still need pushing. I’ll be waiting with remote in hand.