A Chat with Tom Smothers, Tom Smothers interview, Smothers Brothers

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Given how long they’ve been performing, it sometimes feels as though the Smothers Brothers have always been around, but they actually ended up taking an unexpected (and undesired) break in 1969 when their CBS variety show, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” caused so much controversy that the brothers were unceremoniously fired by the network. Not cancelled. FIRED. After many years of waiting, the show is finally making its DVD debut courtesy of the fine folks at Time-Life, and in typical Smothers Brothers style, they’re being slightly controversial by releasing the third season first. Bullz-Eye had the opportunity to speak with Tom Smothers about the upcoming release, following up on a brief encounter from a few weeks earlier, and he offered his position on how the show has aged over the years and why he thinks some people may be disappointed by it, explained about people taking drugs in the ‘60s for all the right reasons, offered his feelings about economic fascism, and – in a brief detour away from the show – gave his perspective of the famous night Harry Nilsson and John Lennon were thrown out of a Smothers Brothers concert at The Troubadour.

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Tom, this is Will Harris with Bullz-Eye.

Tom Smothers: Hi, Will, how are you doing? (Pauses) I think I met you, didn’t I? At the TV critics awards?

BE: You did, indeed. In fact, when I told you how excited I was about this set, first, you told me that you’d fought its release all the way, then you said that there’s a really good two-hour special in there, but that people would be disappointed with the series as a whole because most of it wasn’t as controversial as people think. And, finally, you said that if we were able to speak again when this set came out, the first words out of my mouth would be, “Tom, you were right.” But you’re wrong! I think it’s great!

TS: (Shocked) Are you serious?

BE: I absolutely am. I love it in its entirety.

TS: Well, I must’ve been wrong, then!

BE: (Laughs) I mean, I don’t want to tell you that you’re wrong, because, yeah, sure, there are certain highlights that are more far-reaching in their impact than others, but as a historical document, it holds up from start to finish.

TS: Did you like the special material?

BE: Oh, absolutely!

TS: Did you get a chance to watch the “Pat Paulsen for President” special?

BE: Not in its entirety, no, just because of when I received the set. But I definitely skimmed through it.

TS: It’s really great. But, look, like I told you, my choice would’ve been to let the show sit as memory, but in this time we live in now, it’s so oppressive, and back then…it’s forty years later, and we’re in the same kind of war, and the same kind of people run the country. But at that time, most of time, people would sit there on Sunday nights and watch our variety show and say, “They’re gonna say something! Something’s gonna happen, and somewhere along the line, they’re gonna say something, and they’re gonna get in trouble!” So that anticipation was a great part of the show, y’know? It was a variety show with an attitude, but you take it forty years later, and it’s kind of hard to put people back into that time, when that was considered fast-moving. (Laughs)

BE: But with the special features, you’ve done a lot to help set the stage for people who weren’t around then. For instance, in the episode with impressionist David Frye, where he performs “A Fable for Our Times,” you lay out the cast of characters that he’s imitating, for those who might not be familiar with what George Wallace or Hubert Humphrey sounded like.

TS: So you liked it okay?

BE: Absolutely!

“When someone comes down to you and you’re doing a show and they say, ‘You can’t say that,’ you ask, ‘Well, why not?’ ‘Because you can’t. You can’t say that sort of thing.’ Don’t ever tell a comic that he can’t use the F-word, because that’s the first word they’re gonna use!”

TS: That’s great, ‘cause I really expected that everybody was just going to kill this set, because…it’s just watching it out of context. I think I mentioned to you before why we released the 3rd season first and we’re doing the other two late, with a lot more interviews. The show accelerated from the first season to the second season because when someone comes down to you and you’re doing a show and they say, “You can’t say that,” you ask, “Well, why not?” “Because you can’t. You can’t say that sort of thing.” Don’t ever tell a comic that he can’t use the F-word, because that’s the first word they’re gonna use! (Laughs) But the funny thing was that I didn’t know that we were saying…that the show was saying anything important…until they said, “You can’t say it.” And I said, “Well, that must be important!”

BE: Well, for instance, the footage of Harry Belafonte singing “Don’t Stop the Carnival” over footage of the 1968 Democratic Convention that CBS refused to air…that’s powerful even now, but at the time, did you really think you would be able to get away with it? Or were you legitimately shocked when they said, “Oh, no, you can’t air that”?

TS: Well, first, they said, “Go ahead, but we don’t want to see any violence.” But then they said, “Well, there’s too much violence, so we’re gonna pull it off.” But we were shocked. We were shocked, because you look at it, and…we added some special lyrics to it, and I thought it was a good piece of material, considering that, back then, you only had one tape machine, so if you edited it at all to try and do it between dress and air, you had to use a razor blade to cut it out, and then you had to put it back, and if it jumps, you have to fix it. So it was an archaic way of putting things together, but overall…at the time the show was shown, I was very proud of it. Now, I look back and I think, “Gosh, we could’ve done it better.” Dickie and I could’ve done our parts better. Occasionally, we were caught reading cue cards, and so we never did that again. From then on, every show we did after that, no cue cards or a prompter unless it was a straight introduction. But at that time, I was more concerned with the show and the ideas and concepts. Funny thing: Dickie and I were stars before we were good. (Laughs) All of a sudden, we got really good…and we’re on the other side of it!

BE: When you were looking back at the show for the set, were there any moments that you’d forgotten about – either big or small – that made you go, “Wow, how did we get away with that?”

TS: No.

BE: Really?

TS: I was always surprised that we didn’t get away with everything! Because we really weren’t getting away with anything. It was on Sunday night, the largest viewing audience at that time, and they gave us creative control. I talked to Nicholas Johnson, who was the FCC Commissioner, and I asked, “Are we breaking FCC rules or anything like that?” And he said, “No, absolutely not.” So I read all the books, I read all the stuff from the National Association of Broadcasters, because I wanted to make sure. There was some issue in the third season, and my brother said, “Are you sure you’re right?” I said, “I’m absolutely right. There’s no problem here. We haven’t violated any rules or anything like that. You can be sure of that.” He comes back…and we’re fired. (Laughs) But that was two months after Nixon was elected.

BE: Coincidence?

Tom SmothersTS: Well, it’s kind of interesting that we never had a full chance. He wasn’t going to take that from two brothers sitting on television, criticizing policy. We were basically talking about a different point of view. It was social criticism. Satire. And it sent a bad message. When I look at the Dixie Chicks saying one thing, and all of a sudden no-one’s playing their records, I said, “Man, what’s that?” And then I’m doing some interviews in advance of some dates, and I asked, “Do you still play the Dixie Chicks?” And they said, “No, we’re told not to.” And that’s called economic fascism. Consolidation of the media and economic fascism is what hurt the Dixie Chicks and took a year or two out of their lives, but it took ten years out of ours when we were fired. We ended up doing dinner theater and did a Broadway show for a year, we did a national tour. That was during the ‘70s, which were the dark ages for us. We never thought we were going to work again. We were blackballed out of Vegas and all that kind of stuff. But, then, in the ‘80s, we started again, doing our act, and, God, we were good. We’d done a lot of theater, and all of a sudden, we were better than we’d ever been! (Laughs) But we had to work our way back from being an opening act for people and doing discos and whatnot, and it was really hard work getting back. We did the Smothers Brothers reunions show 20 years later, but it took that long. It took us ten years from the time we were fired until the time we were hired for a show again. There’s a lot of residual respect, but I was just wondering if people were going to be able to put their minds into the fact that it was a variety show that was done darned near 40 years ago and that something was being said. Today, it’s much worse. All of the baby boomers out there are saying, “God, I wanna see this! Please put this stuff out! That was a great show, and it influenced me so much, and it was so cool!”

BE: I think the current generation will find it influential in much the same way. I mean, I was absolutely in awe of a moment when you referenced a sermon of sorts that had been done by David Steinberg in an earlier episode, and you made a comment that was pretty ballsy by today’s standards, let alone back then: you said that you felt that God has a sense of humor, and that He’d forgive you even if some of the viewers wouldn’t.

TS: I was dreadfully serious, wasn’t I?

BE: Well, yeah, but that was just such a fantastically forthright and truthful comment. I mean, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal, but it definitely was.

TS: I know. And I’m so concerned now, because all those guys are out there, all the baby boomers out there, they were the ones with the signs and stuff. They were the young guys, the teenagers and twentysomethings, who were protesting war and marching down in Selma and stuff. They remember passionately about Bobby Kennedy getting shot, and we were on the air during this time, with the convention and all that. And you think, “Where are their voices?” But you’ve got this economic fascism, and they’re scared. Freedom of speech is not the problem. It’s freedom of hearing. (Laughs) You can say anything you want, but if there’s a consolidation of media, they don’t have a mike for you, or they don’t cover your protest or other things, and it’s not heard. Freedom of speech is fine. The government’s not stopping you from saying anything, and they won’t enact anything against the right of free speech. It’s the economic health of these companies and corporations, and the common good of people. People are frightened to speak up. They’ll do it in the privacy of their own home, and maybe they’ll chat about it, but in the work place and out in social circles, they’ll keep their thoughts to themselves. I hope their thoughts reflect in the elections, but…it’s kind of scary now, isn’t it?

BE: It is. Mason Williams performed a great poem on the show that he’d written about censorship (“The Censor”).

“The Censor sits
Somewhere between
The scenes to be seen
And the television sets
With his scissor purpose poised
Watching the human stuff
That will sizzle through
The magic wires
And light up
Like welding shops
The ho-hum rooms of America
And with a kindergarten
Arts and crafts concept
Of moral responsibility
Snips out
The rough talk
The unpopular opinion
Or anything with teeth
And renders
A pattern of ideas
Full of holes
A doily
For your mind.”

TS: Isn’t that great? (Laughs) Oh, man. Well, when you’re saying something that should be heard…whether people agree with or not, but it should be heard…he was really offended by it. He was not particularly political that way, but he was offended by that. And everybody should be offended every time an opposing view or a critical observation is made and censored. Yeah, I liked that. And did you see the two outtakes with Robert Kennedy with Pat and I?

“The ‘60s were a magical time, and the drug scene then was a positive scene. We thought we were going to change the world, and we were looking for answers. Today, people are trying to get away from life and hide from it, but in the ‘60s, we were trying to levitate the Pentagon!”

BE: Yeah, those I did jump ahead to check out.

TS: Yeah, that’s kind of interesting. Here was a guy that was saying some wonderful stuff, and… (Sighs) …well, here we are. Now what do we do? Freedom of hearing, I keep saying. But all the show was trying to do at that time was kind of loosen the screws of despair and bring a little light into the world...although I got dreadfully serious during that last season, and it took about two years to figure things out. In fact, a couple of years after we got fired, I was watching “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” and Jane Fonda was on with Cesar Chavez, and she was talking about burning babies in Viet Nam and the plight of the migrant workers and even some stuff about cruelty to animals, and I agreed with everything, but I was so uncomfortable with the way she was saying it that I didn’t want to hear it. And then it struck me about halfway through: no sense of humor. And that was an epiphany for me. And that’s when I ended it. So no matter how bad things get, in your observations, you’ve got to keep your perspective about you. There’s got to be some joy when you’re revealing these things. I told Jane, “You changed my life! I watched you being so goddamned serious, and I said, ‘I’m not gonna do that!’” (Laughs) And I started having fun again. And now this is our 50th anniversary as the Smothers Brothers, and here we are looking back at the first ten years of our career. We started in ’59, we were fired in ’69, and…I kind of lost it then. But in hindsight, maybe it was a good thing. We didn’t overstay our welcome, we came back and did some other shows, it extended our career, everything started going really well again, and now we’re doing our best work. But, like I said before, we were stars before we were any good. (Laughs) It was a heroic show, in the sense that nobody else was really saying anything, and it does send kind of a scary message, like when you see the Dixie Chicks and that corporate America wouldn’t support them or play their records. That sends the message that’s quite scary: if you’re going to be the center, you’d better be prepared to take some real shots. And I think that’s what happened with baby boomers. They just got a little frightened.

BE: Something else that struck me about the shows was that you managed to get many of your celebrity guests to step outside of their usual niche. You had Bob Newhart tell a joke that bashed George Wallace, and you got Liberace to poke fun at his prima-donna manner.

Tom SmothersTS: Yeah, and, gosh, wasn’t Liberace great? I mean, it was just wonderful. There was one where a bowling ball came rolling toward down the piano toward him, and then he got busted by Officer Judy for playing too fast. “Check the registration on a 1952 Steinway…”

BE: And then pulling the whiskey bottle out of the piano. “Uh, a friend of mine was playing it earlier, he must have left it there.”

TS: That was the show that won an Emmy.

BE: That was the same show that David Frye was on, right?

TS: Yeah, that was kind of fun. I look back, and I kind of cringe sometimes, but I’m looking at it from forty years later. Things are faster now. But it was a good variety show, it had an attitude, and…you know, the restrictions for putting out variety shows on DVDs are so much different than any sitcom. Sitcoms you get to put out the whole thing, whatever’s on it, but with these, every single song we have to go to the publisher to see what kind of deal they’re gonna do…and they kill ya! So you have to restrict the number of songs that you include.

BE: I figured that the reason that the episodes where the Beatles appeared via film clips were absent was that they would’ve been so cost-prohibitive as to kill the set dead in its tracks.

TS: Oh, there were a whole bunch of things that were darned near…look, I’m not gonna make a cent out of this. It might even cost us by the time we pay for the Writer’s Guild, the Director’s Guild, the musicians, and the publishing. My idea was to just put out a collection of all the really socially critical things that people remember, that they were waiting to see every Sunday, along with a whole bunch of special material. But, also, you’re not allowed to mix shows. Like, I would’ve liked to have done the third season and cross-edited them. “No, no, you’ve gotta show the credits, you can’t take them out of sequence…” All that stuff. It’s a difficult thing. Variety shows are harder to do because of the responsibility you have to the guilds and stuff…which is legitimate, but it does limit what you can do in presenting these things years later. It’s not how I would like to do it. But Paul Brownstein was who did most of it. I said, “Let’s start with the third season, because that’s when we were fired.” And the third season, things were much more stressful and tense during that time. And then we’d go back and do the other two and add a whole bunch of special material from people who were on the show and stuff, to show ‘em what happened. One of the shows was never aired. I think it was the one with Dan Rowan… (Trails off) But you’re not terribly disappointed, then?

BE: I am in no way disappointed. As I say, it’s a historical artifact from my perspective, and I’m nothing short of thrilled to finally be able to see it.

TS: Oh, great! Any other questions you have for me?

“Freedom of speech is not the problem. It’s freedom of hearing. You can say anything you want, but if there’s a consolidation of media, they don’t have a mike for you, or they don’t cover your protest or other things, and it’s not heard.”

BE: I do have a few more, though I promise to try and keep you on track, schedule-wise. One of the episodes on the set features a guest appearance by George Harrison, but it’s hard to tell if it was a last-second arrangement that he was there or if it was planned out but just kept totally under wraps to avoid a scene.

TS: It was keeping it under wraps. I had dinner with him earlier when they were in town presenting one of their albums or something, and…all of those guys were nice. I spent a lot of time with them. The only one I didn’t really spend time with was Paul. But Lennon I hung out with, and Harrison, and Ringo, I did a couple of shows with Ringo in the ‘70s. But that was really neat. He came in, did his little thing, and…it was important.

BE: It was. For one thing, the Beatles weren’t really making many solo appearances at that point, but, also, he was really just there to say, “Keep fighting the good fight.”

TS: Yep. He just came up, did his thing, and he was out! (Laughs)

BE: There’s a performance of the song “I Can Sing a Rainbow” on one episode where the hazy look and costuming make it a little too close to an acid trip to be coincidental.

TS: Which song?

BE: “I Can Sing a Rainbow.”

TS: (Pauses) Who sang it?

BE: Uh, you and Dick did. Dressed in bunny suits.

TS: (Bursts into laughter) Well, you know, we had that sketch, “Share A Little Tea With Goldie,” and back then…it’s weird to say, but the ‘60s were a magical time, and the drug scene then was a positive scene. We thought we were going to change the world, and we were looking for answers. Today, people are trying to get away from life and hide from it, but in the ‘60s, we were trying to levitate the Pentagon! (Laughs) It was the Age of Aquarius! People were smoking dope and dropping acid and doing stuff, and…it was a magical time! People were positive; it was a positive thing. There were always some bad bummers along the way, but overall it was a pretty neat thing. With “Goldie,” she’d say, “Ladies, we’re going to talk about those terrible roaches around the house,” and at the end, she’d add, “And if you have any good ideas, roll ‘em up and send ‘em in!” We used to get joints in the mail at CBS! Man! And we thought…listen to this…at that time, Mason Williams and the two us said, “Let’s do a show that has some thought to it. Let’s not just do vacuous sketches. Let’s make sure there’s some sort of idea behind it.” We thought we were #1 amongst college graduates and white-collar workers, and when the first demographic thing came in that we saw, we were #1 with 11 – 13 year old girls and 12 – 15 year old boys! (Laughs) Now, wait a second! Kids are always ahead of the curve, but…

BE: So you really were affecting the next generation.

TS: And they’re still a little bit hipper than we think they are. Because I’ve got an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old, and they’re listening to AC/DC and all the stuff that I listened to in the ‘70s. My heroes were always…well, like, George Carlin, when he died, people started going back and listening to stuff he did in the ‘70s, and, gosh, they were powerful. Bill Maher, or Keith Olberman on “Countdown,” Michael Moore, Pete Seeger, Ralph Nader, they all keep talking the truth, but we don’t hear it too much because… (Affects deep, booming voice) …freedom of hearing! When I’m President, I’m gonna make a big point of putting that in the Constitution: Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Hearing. I told my son that there are four economic forms of government: capitalism, socialism, communism, and fascism. Capitalism is when government and private industry are separate, socialism is when government does some of the things but there’s still free enterprise, communism is when the government owns the means of production and there’s no private industry, and fascism is when private industry owns the government. And that creates much more censorship than expression, and dissent to be heard. Economic fascism really represses, and extreme nationalism. And we’re in this place now, but I still cannot lose my sense of humor, because if you lose that, it’s a dark, dark place. I still think there’s some laughter out there. It’s our 50th year in the business, and we’re still out there doing shows. Someone said to me, “50 years? Golly!” And I said, “Well, it’s really 100, since Dickie did ‘em with me.” And they said, “How long are you going do this?” I said, “Until our fans can’t get their walkers up the stairs.” When that happens, that’ll be it.

Tom Smothers

BE: Okay, I’ve got just one more question, and it’s not even about the show, but as a Beatles fan, I’d kick myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to ask it.

TS: (Laughs) Okay!

BE: When John Lennon and Harry Nilsson were thrown out of the Smothers Brothers show at the Troubadour in the ‘70s…

TS: Oh, yeah.

BE: …just how disruptive were they? I mean, how bad was it from your perspective?

TS: Harry Nilsson…my brother I hadn’t been performing together for a year or so, and we were going to be putting our act together again, but Dickie was working on music, so I went up to the Cellar Door in Georgetown to do a single. By myself. And I went there, and Harry Nilsson was a good friend of mine, and I told him I was going out there. Harry was afraid of crowds; he never liked to play live. Well, I get there, and they said, “There’s a guy named Harry Nilsson here who wants a ticket.” He had flown out! So he’s up in the balcony of the Cellar Door, and I did my hour show in 25 minutes. My chops were gone. My timing was off, and it takes awhile to get back into the swing of things, because I’d been doing television rather than live performances. So I said, “Any questions?” Because we’d just been fired not long before this. And everybody’s asking questions, and all of a sudden Harry’s yelling down, and we were having arguments, and…well, I did an hour show! (Laughs) And he was there for the second show, same thing. We had a good time and hung out. And then Dickie and I go to the Troubadour in L.A., and… (Starts to laugh) …and all of Hollywood was there to see what the Smothers Brothers were going to do. And Harry comes in with John Lennon. Well, he told John Lennon, “Tom likes hecklers. It helps him. It gets him through his show.” And every time there was a silence, they were hollering out things like, “God fucks pigs!” I mean, it was really filthy! Blows were thrown, and it just got wild. The next day, I got flowers and all kinds of apologies from Lennon and from Harry Nilsson. It just got out of control. But they were pretty ripped when they came.

BE: I’ve heard they were wearing tampons on their heads at one point.

TS: Oh, yeah! And then it got physical, and there were the car parkers and…I mean, it was one of those little moments that was kind of fun, but the timing was…it was just so hard to do the show! The other moment I had with Lennon was before that, when he did the Bed-In for Peace and I was playing guitar with him (on “Give Peace a Chance”), and he stopped me in the middle of the song and said, “Tom, don’t play that way. Play what I’m playing.” I was playing up the neck, giving it a couple of passing chords and diminished chords, trying to fill it in, and he said, “I want you to play exactly what I’m doing. I want the sound of two guitars. Double what I’m doing.” It was kind of embarrassing. I was showing all my hot shit, and he says that! I hung out with Harry and Lennon a little bit in London between our shows, and it was great, but I couldn’t play like they did because…well, I had to do 26 shows! They were working on an album or hanging around or whatever, but there were no live performances for them to focus on. And I just said, “I can’t do this! You’re too fast for me!”

BE: Well, look, I’ve kept you over your time, but it’s been so great to have the chance to talk to you for a lengthier period of time than the five minutes we had after the TCA Awards.

TS: Hey, how did that go over, by the way? Did everybody like that thing we did at the Awards?

BE: I thought so. The standing ovation you got from the crowd was certainly spontaneous…and, based on the opinions of our table, it was definitely warranted.

TS: Boy, what a show, man! I mean, people getting up there and just talking, with no cameras. It was so neat. I hope they never change those awards, because that was just great!

BE: It was only the second one I’d ever attended, but I’ll say that this one was even better than last year’s. I mean, Tom Hanks showed up, he was hilarious, and Paul Giamatti’s speech was…well, you were there!

TS: (Laughs) Oh, man, what did he say about working on “John Adams”? That it was a…nut-crusher?

BE: A nut-buster! And then Tom Hanks said, “And Mr. Giamatti will be glad to show you his busted nut after the ceremony…”

TS: (Bursts out laughing) Well, anyway, thanks a lot, and it’s been fun talking to you, Will!

BE: You, too, Tom. Thanks so much!

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