Tommy Smothers, the elder of the iconic musical comedy duo the Smothers Brothers, died Wednesday at 86, his younger brother and creative partner Dick confirmed. Here are five things to know about Smothers and his influence.
His show was a showcase for 60s counterculture, music
The brothers’ look, short hair and suits, formed a deliberate, ironic contrast with their comedic style and politics, which often took aim at the political establishment and the Vietnam War.
“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” also hosted a number of legendary acts, including the American TV debut of The Who in 1967.
The show pioneered what would become music videos in the format of promotional videos for the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” in 1968. Tom Smothers also played guitar on John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and is namechecked in the lyrics.
The political content led to frequent conflict with CBS censors—and the president
The brothers pushed the envelope for the late 1960s with sex- and drug-related humor as well as political humor.
Then-President Lyndon Johnson allegedly personally called CBS president William Paley in 1967, asking him to “get those bastards off my back.”
Paley in turn asked the brothers to tone down the show’s political content but they went in the opposite direction, hosting folk singer Pete Seeger to perform his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an obvious analogy for Vietnam.
The performance was cut from the original airing but Seeger was allowed to perform it again on a 1968 show.
CBS canceled the show shortly after Richard Nixon took office
By the time the show ended in April 1969, Johnson was out of office, replaced by Richard Nixon, an even bigger villain for the show’s audience.
According to historian Rick Perlstein’s 2008 book “Nixonland,” the president had aides write to the show’s producers to push back on jokes about him on the show. CBS canceled it a month later despite consistent ratings.
Smothers told writer Mariah Fleming in 2012 that he couldn’t confirm White House influence directly led to the cancellation but “there was no way that they were going to keep that show on the air when Nixon was in office.”
Smothers brothers sue network for cancelation
The brothers sued CBS for breach of contract after the show was cancelled, and in April 1973, almost exactly four years after the cancellation, a jury found in favor of them and awarded them $776,300.
“We were cut off at the top of our careers, and we were not compensated for it in money,” Tom said following the verdict. “We spent four years of our lives and $200,000 to prove the point, but I don’t think people are going to be willing to say what they think if they know they’re going to be penalized for it.”
The brothers were a major influence on political and sketch comedy
Tom and Dick Smothers’ style of irreverent political comedy was a precursor to contemporary figures with similar styles such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver.
More directly, the show gave Steve Martin his first TV writing job, earning him an Emmy in 1969, as well as Bob Einstein and Rob Reiner.
At the 2008 Emmys, where Martin presented him with a special award, Tom thanked Einstein, Reiner and the rest of the staff for “all the great writing that got me fired.”
“Freedom of speech and freedom of expression aren’t really important unless they’re heard, so the freedom of hearing is just as important as the freedom of speaking,” he continued. “So I dedicate this Emmy to all people who feel compelled to speak out and [are] not afraid to speak truth to power, and won’t shut up and refuse to be silenced.”
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