Q+A: The Smothers Brothers:
Half a century later, Smothers Brothers still making ’em laugh
The Smothers Brothers, Tommy, left, and Dick, have been performing for 50 years. Their TV break came with a 1961 appearance on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show.”
By Jerry Fink
Mon, Jul 21, 2008 (2 a.m.)
Tommy turns into Johnny Carson
Boil That Cabbage
The Smothers Brothers Web site
In the verdant, sun-basked wine country north of San Francisco, comedian Tommy Smothers talks seriously over the phone about his life, his career and the peace he has discovered in the vineyards of Sonoma Valley.
A dog barks periodically in the background, adding to the flavor of the bucolic setting where the eldest of the Smothers Brothers act spends his time when he isn’t onstage acting dimwitted.
Smothers lives on a 45-acre ranch on a ridge above the valley with his wife, 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
"I’ve been making wine for over 30 years," says the 71-year-old comedian and vintner. (The wines are no joke. Remick Ridge Vineyards frequently wins critical praise and medals at winemaking competitions.)
Tommy Smothers also has been making music and comedy with brother Dick for 50 years. The Smothers Brothers perform at the Suncoast this weekend in Las Vegas. The recent interview gave Tommy Smothers a chance to reflect on a half century of hilarity.
Among other topics, he talked about "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," an influential and controversial show that lasted just three seasons. The show, which mixed counterculture and political humor with music from artists such as Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane and the Who, reflected the volatile Vietnam War era. The Smothers Brothers were constantly at odds with censors before CBS fired them in April 1969.
For example, the network censors cut legendary folk singer Pete Seeger from the show when he tried to sing an anti-war song. They relented and invited him back to sing the song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."
Others also are reflecting on the show. The highlights of the final season are coming out on DVD next month and a book about the show, "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored History of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," is due out next year.
Did you intend for the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” to be heavily political when the show debuted, or did it just evolve into that?
It just evolved. The only thing we intended when we got the show — we had one show before, a half-hour situation comedy called “The Smothers Brothers Show.” It had really good people, but it really was so vacuous we said, if we ever get another show, we’re going to get some creative control and make something relevant, not just vacuous comedy. We didn’t know the war was going to spike up like that. Voter Registration. Assassinations. All that stuff. I like to say we were at the scene of the accident.
So (the politics) just slowly started creeping in. They said we were going too far and said, “You can’t say that.” Don’t every tell a comic you can’t do something, like use the f-word, because that’s the first word they’ll use. We didn’t know we were doing anything important until they told us to stop. Well, we thought this must be important because there’s no rules in there that said we couldn’t say the war is a bad idea. It was a pushback. Everybody has it in their hearts to push back. We just happened to have a show at the time.
Were you always political?
Not at all. I was very naive.
One of your most controversial guests was folk singer Pete Seeger. I understand you’re supporting a grass-roots movement for him to receive a Nobel Prize.
Yes we are. Bless his heart. He’s still around. He never did quit. We actually accepted an award for him from the ACLU because he couldn’t fly out to pick it up. (Seeger is 89 and in frail health.) It was pretty cool. I saw the documentary on him, and he was up against it all the time. He and Ralph Nader are my heroes — and Bill Maher, he’s my new kind of hero.
Seeger came from the Woody Guthrie era of folk singers with political and social consciences — Seeger, Guthrie, Burl Ives.
Burl Ives, he recanted everything. But he was my first influence. When I first heard him and a guy named George Gobel, the two of them, when I heard them I thought, man I’d like to do that. I started playing guitar when I heard Burl Ives on a radio show back in the old days. And George Gobel, Lonesome George, I saw him on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and he talked about losing his bowling ball and he had to go down to the police station. They said, “Can you describe it?” “Yeah, well it’s round and it’s black and it’s got three holes in it.” “Are the holes in the top or the bottom.” I remember thinking that was so funny.
I was 15 years old and I said I’d like to do that — and here we are in our 50th year now.
Are you doing anything special to celebrate 50 years in show business?
Nah. You know, one time we retired after 20 or 25 years in the business and no one gave a (expletive), so we just kept going.
You started at the Purple Onion in San Francisco?
Actually, our first duet was in Aspen, Colo. Then we worked 38, 39 weeks at the Purple Onion. At first Dickie was a reluctant participant. He never talked. Finally I said, “You gotta say something — try writing something down and memorize it.” Pretty soon he was saying “That’s stupid” and it became an improv act after that. Some people said, “That was really funny, but why don’t you guys ever finish a (expletive) song?”
I think you guys are great folk singers.
Not great, but we sing in tune, old-fashioned harmony. We’re proud of that.
Your big TV break came with Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show?”
In January ’61, we did our first Paar show. In those days you did that show and you were a hit. We did 13 of his shows, then 35 of Johnny Carson’s.
Who did you like better, Paar or Carson?
I preferred Carson. I loved Jack Paar because he was so nice to us, but Carson was the ultimate host. He could be a straight man or he could be a comic. He could tell when we were in a bit and he wouldn’t step in. The character he did with the ear muffs on the side, he was kind of like a Tommy Smothers character.
Will you be around doing comedy another 50 years?
My health is good. My brother’s health is good. We’re working well together. We were famous before we were good, then we got really good. You know, there are hardly any comedy teams around anymore. Being on by yourself is difficult, but when you’re working with another guy — and he’s your brother — it’s a tough relationship and you have to work on it, which is why most of the groups didn’t last. Martin and Lewis. Laurel and Hardy.
Haven’t you and your brother had your differences?
We were always quitting each other. “You’re fired.” “No, you’re fired.” We went to counseling, and it helped a lot. The counselor said, forget your brother stuff. Start treating each other like professionals. So the past 10 or 12 years have been so much more fun. I’m 71. Life is a 12-inch ruler and I’m down 10 inches. I’d like to plant some trees, but I won’t be around to see them grow. I am now at that age where your future is in your past.