Masters of satire, pioneers of improv and just your average pair of bickering siblings — Dick and Tom Smothers, a.k.a. the Smothers Brothers, expanded the horizons of television and comedy, one hysterical sketch at a time.
Pushing buttons on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” during the political upheaval of the 1960s got the duo into hot water with the CBS censors, and the show was booted off the air despite stellar ratings.
That drama didn’t stop the brothers from leading a dynamic career together, which included more TV show spots, live stage concerts and even starting up a successful vineyard in California.
Now in their 80s, the brothers are stepping out of retirement for a night of reminiscing on it all with fans.
A Q&A style show on July 22 at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre in Sarasota will look back on the brothers’ careers with film clips, stories and likely more than a few laughs.
Dick Smothers, the younger sibling who played the upright bass (and the smarty pants in stage act), spoke to the Bradenton Herald ahead of the show. Here’s what he had to say.
Do you see anything in today’s entertainment world that’s like what you and your brother were doing in the ’60s?
In one way, yes; in another way, no. The context of what we did was totally different, because nobody was doing it. It wasn’t our intent to go out there and have a variety show that caused controversy when we went on in ’66.
There was a need for a variety show against the No. 1 show on television, “Bonanza.” Anybody who tried to against it failed. CBS had failed six straight times. It happened to be the most-watched hour of the week — 9 o’clock at night. More TV sets were turned on than any other time. It was before you could record all of your favorite shows, bank them and watch them later. If you watched one show, you didn’t watch the other two.
They needed an emergency gap because they had just canceled a show midseason. They were desperate.
The quickest thing to do was a variety show. You write it and you shoot it and you show it. Filmed shows like sitcoms and dramas were real expensive.
At the time we had a great TV career. We were pretty new. We had just had a half-hour sitcom on CBS. They canceled us after one year, but it held its own against some of the top shows. So we were just what they were looking for — young presenters that could reach a younger audience. Or in all probability, go down in flames in 13 weeks.
We surprised everybody. We surprised ourselves. The show made a big impact, not as a controversial show, but just as a new variety show against a really entrenched veteran show that was wildly popular. “Bonanza” was a real staple — horse operas were always a staple.
We were different. When I look at us back then and what we looked like, I guess we were very lovable and likable. It doesn’t seem like it was us now. It seems like it was our grandchildren or something. Some strangers doing the show. But I can see why people liked us.
Tommy had this great personality, being dumb-smart and sincere. And I was the straight man trying to guide him and correct us. And we had that family thing that was real honest. So we made a boom all of a sudden. It’s not the first week that really matters; it’s whether you have an audience the second week or the third week. And we did. And as soon as there’s a smell of hotness on a new show, everybody wants on.
On our sitcom, we had no creative control. There was no music, no audience and it was shot with a single camera. It was like we were in a straitjacket. We wanted something more alive, and relevant and timely.
There was a great form to the new show. Iconic old people, the best we could get in rock and roll and skits. We hired all young writers. And then the ’60s happened around that. We were dropped down at a time that was absolutely perfect for the profile of our career.
They were ready to hire Carol Burnett, and they did a few weeks after they hired us. And of course she’s so legendary, but it would have been a really different show. It wouldn’t have been of a political nature.
For what happened, we were the perfect mix. And the ’60s was when it all happened. Our show became involved in commenting on current events. We started putting in things about government, Congress, the president, the war in Vietnam, the counterculture, the drugs — things that were socially relevant.
Anyway, that was new. That emerged, and CBS, unfortunately for them, decided against it. It’s a shame that it got all out of hand. CBS had given us creative control. But they didn’t really mean it if we were going to be successful.
We had all of this stuff going for us on many levels. But we were causing them a lot of consternation. And Lyndon B. Johnson would sit with the presidents of CBS and ask them if they could ask the Smothers Brothers to tone it down on the war in Vietnam. “We’re trying to manage a war here. And my daughter Lucy really likes them, but can we tone it down here?”
We have letters going back and forth to and from the White House. They sent a really nice letter that said the role of the satirist is really important; humor is very important.
And that’s different today, too, isn’t it? If you don’t kiss the president’s sorry fat (butt) you’re a boob. It was much more polite then. Satirist, back then, didn’t mean you were an enemy. We didn’t cause change, but we helped legitimize that dialogue.
That’s what we did different contextually. The body and the content of what we said wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today.
But Jon Stewart and (Stephen) Colbert and people like that give the Smothers Brothers show credit for opening the door for them.
How is the political climate different from your day?
All of this terrible rhetoric and hate that’s going around is becoming normalized. Beating up on the press. When they say that the opposition, the Democrats, have to be careful, well — if they say nothing and take the high road, then there’s no dissenting word to this normalized crap. It’s almost as if they’re sucking you down to their level. There needs to be a strong, dissenting voice of reason. There’s a way to do it and make it an inclusive government and not a divisive government.
As for the late-night shows, I’m afraid we’re getting too bored with the same subject — which is the president. He really should be certified. When I look at him, he’s the worst thing for us. There’s no compassion; there’s no feeling of empathy or anything. He’s always been a selfish little baby king. And that’s OK in business. It’s acceptable in business. They’re supposed to screw you. They’re in it for the stockholders. They advertise something and say, “This is for you. This will make you feel better. This pill, this car, this medicine.” It’s to get money for the business. It’s not for you. Buyer beware. You can’t say the truth about your product — you’ve got to make it look better than something else.
For a man who’s got our destiny and our children’s destiny in his hands and affects the world’s political and economic nature, it should be a person that has a lot of intelligence and compassion. This man should have never been elected. But that’s what happens when you have such upset people. ...
This was a money-making opportunity, 100 percent. He thought, boy, presidents go in and they come out rich. But this is a scale that is beyond that. We’re in a constitutional crisis of losing our form of government. We’re normalizing this (crap), and we don’t know what’s true or not because of social media.
What motivated you and Tom to come out of retirement for this show?
We love it. We love doing it.
We retired because Tommy just got worn out. The traveling became harder. He’s the guy that forced ahead from the start. I wanted to be a teacher. I just wanted a normal life.
He came out for my birthday party last year in Sarasota. Tommy took out one of his characters, his yo-yo man. And we tried to do some pieces of some bits, and we could hardly remember it, but we really got laughs. His timing was perfect. He was frustrated that he couldn’t remember, but I said it doesn’t matter because you’re timing is there.
We’re going to be doing this as 80-year-old brothers. When they see us — just being together talking and telling stories about our career and our journey in show business, they’re reliving it, too. And when they relive it they’re feeling young. When you remember things, your brain is right there.
What will the show be like?
It’s not a performance show. It’s an interview show. It’s telling stories and remembrances. We’ll have some clips in there and let people ask us about our career.
If they’re our fans, I think they’ll like it.
We’re going to talk a little bit about the censorship issues. But it won’t all be about that.
On the amount of entertainment options today:
We were quite happy with three networks. CBS and some independents. It’s like if you go to an Italian restaurant and they’ve got five pages of Italian food, you can’t make up your mind. But if you go to an ice cream shop and you have three choices — vanilla chocolate and something else — you make your decision just like that. Now we have so much.
Thank God we’re getting out of being dominated by reality shows. They were cheap and dirty, and they made big money.
On Baby Boomers vs. other generations:
This whole generation has had a such a different life experience than the prior one — the World War II generation. An we’ve been through things that Gen Xers and all of them have never seen and experienced. And they’re having all these interactions and picking up skills that we can’t. We can’t move our fingers that fast, we can’t talk that fast. We don’t accept as much invasiveness in our private lives. I think the new generation is, in some ways, more open.
On political correctness:
Certain PC things get a little sick. A guy misspeaks and he’s lost his career.
But there’s a point of it that’s really valid. We’re dealing with stuff. White male privilege. First of all, being white is a privilege in this county. Conservatives can say, “We don’t got no privilege.” ... You never got hung; you never got chased down the street; nobody says don’t hire you based on anything but your abilities. That stuff should be dealt with.
We became successful really quickly by blind luck and being in the right place. But once you get that thing, you have to work it. We were in our 52nd year of performing together in 2010 when we retired. That was our last performance. This is the first time the Smothers Brothers will do an advertised appearance since we retired in 2010. You don’t last 50 years unless you take your career seriously.
Nobody who’s a success did it on their own. It’s all that stuff that’s gone on around them. The context of where you are and what’s happened in your family life and economics, illnesses, education, the people that mentor you. And then you got focused and you did it. You did it baby.
On the influence of The Kingston Trio:
They were more important than The Beatles in so many ways. Or any other singing group. The genre, the big college concert genre was created really by the success of The Kingston Trio. And young people started singing songs about the world and the country and great heroes. We didn’t know folk music. And we thought they sang too many verses, and sometimes they got really boring. And so we started singing them because they were easy to learn. And Tommy would talk about how much the song meant, and he would screw it up and I would say no, no that’s not right. And it just blossomed and grew. And that was fun to have people laugh at you.
On working with family:
We really love each other. We love working together. There were great challenges. It was me not growing up quick enough, sometimes. Tommy telling me what to say. I would resent that. We did couples’ therapy at one time. We were like most marriages.
We learned to feel free to give creative direction. What we realized was that we were never trying to make the show worse or hog the spotlight. It was just a matter of getting real with each other and knowing that we loved each other. And that’s the way relationships should be. Especially family relationships.
On overcoming addiction and living life:
I’m just enjoying life. I’ve been in Alcoholics Anonymous for 25 years. I didn’t live this long just take up space. So what can I do? I’ve gotten the gift of health and this life and this redemption from being addicted and driven by the lowest denominator to being able to give back. It’s not what I can get from people; it’s what I can give. Like what Kennedy said on the big stage.
Any advice to share?
You get more comfortable in your skin if you don’t have a lot of resentments. Angry people can’t be happy. They’re lying socially, and it only takes a second for them to be looking at the dark side of everything. And that’s addictive. That’s a bad drug. Find a higher power greater than yourself. If you think you’re the smartest man in the room, you’re going to have a very disappointing life. Just those kind of wisdoms. They’re all different for everybody. I enjoy my life, and I owe it a lot to my brother.
This is a good time and a dangerous time. We just have to accept that.
Details: 7 p.m. Monday, July 22. McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, 1923 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota. $40. Tickets go on sale at noon on Wednesday, July 10.
Info: 941-925-3869. mccurdyscomedy.com.