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The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was an American comedy and variety show hosted by the Smothers Brothers and initially airing on CBS from 1967 to 1969.

History

The show started out as only a slightly "hip" version of the typical comedy-variety show of its era, but rapidly evolved into a show that extended the boundaries of what was considered permissible in television satire. While the Smothers themselves were at the forefront of these efforts, credit also goes to the roster of writers and regular performers they brought to the show, including Steve Martin, Don Novello ("Father Guido Sarducci"), Rob Reiner ("Mike Stivic"), Presidential candidate Pat Paulsen, Bob Einstein ("Super Dave Osborne" and "Officer Judy"), Einstein's brother, Albert (who works professionally as Albert Brooks), and resident hippie Leigh French ("Share a Little Tea with Goldie"). The show also introduced audiences to pop singer Jennifer Warnes (originally billed as Jennifer Warren or simply Jennifer), who was a regular on the series. The television premiere of Mason Williams' hit record, Classical Gas, took place on the show; Williams was also the head writer for the series.

Musical guests

The series showcased new musical artists that other comedy-variety shows rarely gave airtime, due to the nature of their music or their political affiliations. George Harrison, Joan Baez, Cass Elliot, Harry Belafonte, Cream, Donovan, The Doors, Janis Ian, Jefferson Airplane, Peter, Paul and Mary, Spanky and Our Gang, Steppenwolf, The Who, and even Pete Seeger were showcased during the latter years of the show despite the advertiser-sensitive nature of their music.

Seeger's appearance was his first appearance on network television since being blacklisted in the 1950s; it became controversial because of his song choice: Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, an anti-war song that the network perceived was an insult to Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War policy. The song was censored on Seeger's first appearance but permitted on a later appearance.

In 1968, the show broadcast in successive weeks "music videos" (not called that at the time) for The Beatles' popular songs Hey Jude and Revolution. Before a rowdy crowd at the Los Angeles Forummarker, Jimi Hendrix dedicated I Don't Live Today to the Smothers Brothers, as heard on The Jimi Hendrix Box Set.

The Who accident

The performance by The Who was another defining moment in the series. As they often did during that period, The Who destroyed their instruments at the conclusion of their performance of My Generation. However, a "sloppy" stage hand, at the request of the band, had overloaded Keith Moon's bass drum with explosives. When they were detonated, the explosion was so intense that Moon was injured by cymbal shrapnel and, allegedly, Pete Townshend's hearing was permanently damaged, in addition to singeing some of Townshend's hair.

Controversies and cancellation

With the focus of the show having evolved towards a more youth-oriented one, the show became both popular and controversial for those same references to youth culture and the issues that both interested and affected this particular target audience. Three specific targets of satire — racism, the President of the United States, and the Vietnam War — would wind up defining the show's content for the remainder of its run, and eventually lead to its demise.

Whereas most older audiences were tuning into shows like the western Bonanza, the younger generation — ages 15–25 — were watching the Smothers' more socially relevant humor.

The Brothers soon found themselves in regular conflicts with CBS' network censors. At the start of the 1968/69 season, the network ordered that the Smothers deliver their shows finished and ready to air ten days before airdate so that the censors could edit the shows as necessary. In the season premiere, CBS deleted the entire segment of Belafonte singing "Lord, Don't Stop the Carnival" against a backdrop of the havoc during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, along with two lines from a satire of their main competitor, Bonanza. As the year progressed, battles over content continued, including a David Steinberg sermon about Moses and the Burning Bush.
With some local stations making their own deletions of controversial skits or comments, the continuing problems over the show reached a boiling point after CBS showed a rerun on March 9, 1969. The network explained the decision by stating that because that week's episode did not arrive in time to be previewed, it would not be shown. In that program, Joan Baez paid tribute to her then-husband–David Harris–who was entering jail after refusing military service, while comedian Jackie Mason made a joke about children "playing doctor." When the show finally did air, two months later, the network allowed Baez to state that her husband was in prison, but edited out the reason.

Despite the conflict, the show was picked up for the 1969-70 season on March 14, seemingly ending the debate over the show's status. However, network CEO and President, William S. Paley, abruptly canceled the show on April 4, 1969. The reason given by CBS was based on the Smothers' refusal to meet the pre-air delivery dates as specified by the network in order to accommodate review by the censors before airing. This cancellation led the Brothers to file a successful breach of contract suit against the network, although the suit failed to see the Brothers or their show returned to the air. Despite this cancellation, the show went on to win the Emmy Award that year for best writing. The saga of the cancellation of the show is the subject of a 2002 documentary film, Smothered.

References

  1. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from the Museum of Broadcast Communications


Further reading



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