The Smothers Brothers have spent 50 years in funny business. And sure, that’s a milestone, but the Lifetime Achievement Award they’ll receive at the Boston Comedy Festival on the event’s closing night, September 20, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, is for something even more enduring: their contribution to America’s cultural identity.
From 1967 to 1969, Dick and Tom Smothers starred in The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. At first the program was just another entry in the era’s line-up of variety shows, but it became a pipeline for ’60s youth culture, channeling ground-breaking musicians, anti–Vietnam War sentiment, and reefer-fueled cosmic consciousness into the nation’s living rooms every Sunday night. Artists from Jimi Hendrix to the Muppets got their big break on the Smothers Brothers’ show. Tom and Dick even pulled the great activist musician Pete Seeger off the blacklist, all while mixing silly songs about star-crossed love between crabs and lobsters with subtly barbed quips about foreign and domestic policy.
When in April of 1969 the show was cancelled by CBS, despite being at the top of the ratings, Tom and Dick were shocked. But nearly 40 years later, Dick, who spoke to me by phone from a hotel room on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, says that’s probably why he and his brother remain famous.
With anti-war figures like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez on the show, were you tempting the network’s wrath?
No, not at all. We were totally surprised. We didn’t think we did anything controversial. We were just doing what comedians do — making fun. In retrospect, the firing probably cemented our reputation. People don’t like having anything taken away from them before its time.
You had a show that failed before the Comedy Hour?
Yes, The Smothers Brothers Show, which was a sit-com where Tommy played an angel working to get his wings. The funny thing about that is that CBS wanted us because we were great at telling jokes and being spontaneous in front of an audience. We’d been on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar about 11 times and were selling out shows in New York clubs. So the first thing they did when they picked us up was take away the audience and give us a script.
Did you plan to be political when you got another shot with The Comedy Hour?
No, although Tommy has always been a radical left-winger and I’m a raging moderate. We came up as entertainers embracing the world of mainsteam show business. Steve Allen and George Burns and Milton Berle were some of our early reference points, although we never intended to have careers as performers. We were just brothers who argued and sang on stage, and people laughed, so we kept going.
We thought the Comedy Hour might very likely fail, and that if it did, we would at least have fun. They gave us a time slot opposite Bonanza, the highest-rated show on television. Everybody got killed going up against Bonanza. We thought it was risk-free. If we bombed, well, nobody did well opposite Bonanza. And if we succeeded, we’d be heroes.