..

SMOTHERED
The Censorship Struggles of
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tom and Dick Smothers, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Bill Maher, Rob Reiner, Pete Seeger
Director:  Maureen Muldaur
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  See Review
Length:  92 Minutes
Release Date:  January 28, 2003

“Mom always liked you best!!”

Film ***1/2

When CBS first offered Tom and Dick Smothers the chance to host their own variety show, it was the network’s tenth attempt to combat the juggernaut that Bonanza was in that time slot.  Nine shows failed.  When Tom Smothers asked for creative control, they gave it to him without blinking an eye…that’s how little faith the executives had in the success of the show!

But The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour WAS a success.  The clean cut folk-singing brothers carved a niche for themselves at first with younger audiences, and then with more and more older viewers as well.  Their blend of humor, music, and social awareness was something quite new on television in the late 1960s.  And everybody lived happily ever after.

Yeah, right.

What started out as a simple variety show quickly grew into the stuff of legends as the Smothers Brothers and their writers increasingly found themselves at odds with the CBS censors.  The comedy was happening on TV, but the drama was playing out behind the scenes and in the newspapers and trade publications.  All of this plays out beautifully in Maureen Muldaur’s new documentary Smothered.

It’s not that the Smothers were Lenny Bruces trying to slip blue material onto the airwaves.  Instead, they were just topical and political, using their comedy, music and satire to address the pressing issues of the day such as the Vietnam War, segregation, the draft, and more.  Given the turbulent nature of the times, they might have been better off going for the blue material.

It began with their ninth episode, when a sketch written by comedy legend Elaine May about censorship itself didn’t fly with the network’s department of programming practices.  Tom Smothers, whose on-air persona was that of a likeable goof, could be stubborn and furious offstage when provoked.  He made a point of addressing the deletion in a future show, as well as to any entertainment reporter who would listen.

Jokes about American action in Southeast Asia or the unfairness of the draft made the censors even more nervous.  A brilliant piece of social commentary showing the riots at the Democratic National Convention while Harry Belafonte sang a medley about carnivals was chopped.  Joan Baez’s spoken tribute to her then husband, who was facing prison for avoiding the draft, was excised as well.  Each time the Smothers or their guests were silenced, Tom made sure the world knew about.  Tensions were mounting on both sides.

Ironically, about four years later, CBS would put the most daring, socially conscious and unrestrained sitcom ever broadcast on the air in All in the Family.  Rob Reiner, who would earn fame playing Meathead on that show, was one of the Smothers Brothers’ writers, and he, along with others, offer their memories about those tense times that occurred before the network was ready to deal with such provocative issues.

Even though the show had been picked up for a fourth year, it was struck down by CBS in 1969 when Tom refused to provide an advanced tape of that week’s show for the censors and affiliates to preview.  The Smothers retaliated with a lawsuit not so much about financial compensation as about simply showing the world what they had had to deal with in their three seasons of struggle with CBS.  Ironically or appropriately enough, though cancelled, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour went on to win an Emmy award for…surprise…its writing.

This is a fascinating documentary about a narrow period in television history whose impact is still being felt today.  You can draw any number of conclusions about the parties involved.  On the one hand, Tom and Dick Smothers were martyrs in a way, going up against the establishment for the right to say what was important to them. 

On the other hand, they sacrificed the very thing that gave them their voice…their show…on the altar of their beliefs.  They were heroes and they were fools, but they left their mark by being both.

Video ***

Being a made-for-television documentary, the video quality doesn’t come too much into play, but this disc is still a decidedly good effort from the folks at Docurama.  The excerpts from the original show look in pretty good shape for their age, and of course, the modern interview footage looks even better.  The presentation is clean and clear, with good coloring and no real issues as far as compression, print quality or other difficulties.

Audio **

The 2 channel mono soundtrack is perfectly serviceable…the program doesn’t require a lot of dynamic range, but dialogue is clearly rendered throughout, with no noise or interference to distract.

Features **

For extras, you get a bio on the Smothers, a bio on filmmaker Maureen Muldaur, excerpts from television critic David Bianculli’s upcoming book on the Smothers’ show, plus some previews of other Docurama attractions.

Summary:

Smothered is a fascinating look back at a pioneering television show that earned more fame for what it couldn’t show than what it did.  It examines a turbulent time in history, and the modest little comedy variety show that both reflected and stirred up those times.  It shows that not compromising doesn’t always lead to the happiest of endings, but argues well that some things are just worth fighting for.