The Censorship Struggles of
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
Review by Michael Jacobson
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
Features: See Review
Length: 92 Minutes
Release Date: January 28, 2003
always liked you best!!”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.