In February 1967 in one of the most competitive hours in the television week – Sunday at 9 PM – The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on CBS. The Smothers Brothers – real-life brothers Tom and Dick – were young, clean-cut folksinger-comedians. With short hair and their signature red blazers, they looked like wholesome college students. CBS hired them to create and host a variety show, which would include banter between the brothers, sketches featuring Tom, Dick, and other cast members, and guest appearances by actors, musicians, and comedians. CBS hoped the brothers would be competitive against NBC’s 9 PM offering, Bonanza, which for years had trounced its competitors in the ratings. CBS found itself with a surprise hit in The Smothers Brothers, but quickly discovered that Tom and Dick were more than amiable variety show hosts. Their show increasingly brought left-wing politics to entertainment television. With countercultural pot jokes, representations of racial equality (like interracial friendship and relationships), and, most controversially, commentary on the Vietnam War, Comedy Hour greatly expanded the scope of primetime entertainment television. Even though the show received critical acclaim and respectable ratings, CBS fired the brothers after just three seasons. As CBS executives later admitted, Comedy Hour’s political and antiwar content made it too controversial for primetime. Despite their abrupt firing, the Smothers Brothers left behind an important legacy. In just three seasons, their show challenged television norms and opened the door for other television shows to wade into political commentary.

At the time, political content on television was confined to networks’ news divisions, and while other entertainers and celebrities had embraced antiwar politics, they did not have a primetime network platform. Folk singers like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, respected author and pediatrician Benjamin Spock, comedian and Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory, and Hollywood actresses like Joanne Woodward had joined the antiwar cause, but none had access to television. These celebrities appeared at antiwar events and spoke to the press or incorporated politics into their performances but had no way of reaching Americans who were not already curious about politics. Television in 1967 offered nothing like The Daily Show (which debuted in 1996), Saturday Night Live (1975), or politicized news channels like Fox (1996) or MSNBC (1996). Television consisted of three ostensibly non-partisan networks that left politics to their news divisions. When newscasters delivered commentary – as Walter Cronkite did in 1968 (see below) – they became the news. For an entertainment show to offer political commentary, especially in regard to an ongoing war, was truly groundbreaking. The Smothers Brothers was the first entertainment show to do this, and it opened the door to subsequent politicized entertainment while adding to the debate in the United States over the war in Vietnam.

The Smothers Brothers’ first season (February– June 1967) featured minimal controversial content, but in Seasons 2 (1967-68) and 3 (1968-69), the show became increasingly political. The brothers invited activist celebrities onto their show, including folk singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and singer-actor Harry Belafonte. The show also produced its own political material criticizing the Vietnam War and the politicians who supported it, namely President Lyndon Johnson. By early 1967, 490,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Vietnam, and the United States was entering its third year of official combat. (Although the war remained undeclared, the government had acknowledged the presence of combat troops in Vietnam since March 1965. Previously, the United States claimed its personnel merely acted as “advisors.”) Antiwar protests and teach-ins had begun in 1965 and would expand in 1967, with major antiwar marches in San Francisco and New York, and such campus demonstrations as the University of Wisconsin student protest against napalm-producing Dow Chemical. In this increasingly tumultuous context, The Smothers Brothers fused antiwar politics with entertainment. The show became a platform for activist celebrities to comment on political unrest, including the controversial war, and a force for antiwar and political criticism in itself, with material penned by Comedy Hour’s writers and often delivered by Tom and Dick themselves.

Television in the mid-1960s

Television was one of the most important mediums of the 1960s. By the late 1950s, 9 in 10 American homes had a television set. From the perspective of TV executives and entertainers, television was a high-risk, high-reward medium. For the three networks that dominated television, viewership was a zero-sum game: if 6 out of 10 families watched an hour of NBC television, they were not watching CBS or ABC. Today’s television market can afford to appeal to niche groups but in the 1960s, if a network show alienated half of the country, its ratings would plummet. Every time The Smothers Brothers aired a controversial sketch, it risked bleeding millions of viewers.

In order to retain viewers, networks policed their own content with in-house censors (also known as Program Practices departments) to ensure that programming was family-friendly. Censors reviewed scripts and had the power to demand changes before or after filming. The Smothers Brothers, which filmed in Hollywood, was subject to CBS’s West Coast Program Practices, but when episode tapes reached CBS headquarters in New York, they could be censored again by East Coast Program Practices. As Comedy Hour became more controversial, CBS subjected it to another layer of censorship by affiliate stations across the country, which could decide whether a given episode would air locally. The Smothers Brothers thus encountered an industry that was highly regulated from within, as networks feared losing sponsors and viewers, or angering affiliates.

When CBS hired Tom and Dick Smothers, the network was desperate to find a show that would compete with NBC’s Bonanza in the Sunday night timeslot. Bonanza was a western about a father and his three adult sons, who worked on the family ranch, The Ponderosa. By early 1967, Bonanza was in its eighth season and en route to being named television’s top show for the third year in a row. CBS’s offering, The Garry Moore Show, was the lowest-ranked program on television. During negotiations with CBS, Tom Smothers – the elder brother and the duo’s driving force – asked for creative control (the power to hire and fire writers, actors, and other personnel), and CBS agreed. Eventually, Tom would use his ability to hire personnel and select guests – and thus control the direction of the show – to steer Comedy Hour in a political direction, but initially he was only interested in creative control for artistic and comedic purposes.

CBS executives could not have known that the brothers would become political trailblazers. The network expected them to continue their light-hearted, sibling-rivalry act, best represented by their most famous routine, “Mom Always Liked You Best.”

 

In fact, in early 1967, the brothers were not political. As they later explained, their political awakening occurred while on the air, reflecting developments in the country in the late 1960s (see 9:36 -10:08 in the video clip below).

 

 

Tom and Dick also didn’t look like radicals. During their first season, the New York Times described them as “clean-cut” and Time magazine observed, “they seem as harmless as two choirboys sneaking a smoke behind the organ.”

Dick and Tom, publicity still, 1966. Prior to Comedy Hour, the brothers were known exclusively for their comedic folk-singing, not their politics. “Dick and Tom Smothers playing about on tricycles, Los Angeles, Calif., 1966,” Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. UCLALAT-1429-6571-232188.  

Television norms also made it unlikely that the brothers would push their show in a political direction. The television landscape of 1967 was dominated by family-friendly shows, including longstanding variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, fantasy romance sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie, and the family-centric western Bonanza.

The Beach Boys on Ed Sullivan, 1964. Trailer screenshot. Wikimedia commons.
Publicity photo, I Dream of Jeannie. 1967. NBC Television, Wikimedia Commons. 

 

The Cartwright father and sons of Bonanza. Photo of the full cast of the television program Bonanza on the porch of the Pondarosa from 1962. From top: Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts. Pat MacDermott Company, Directional Public Relations, for Chevrolet, Wikimedia Commons.

Television entertainment in 1967 did not merge with political commentary. As one journalist, writing on the eve of the Comedy Hour season premiere, suggested, virtually no one expected Tom and Dick to shake up television: “One thing is certain: the guests, the writers, the set designers and myriad talents going into such a variety show are not going to be any different than what we’ve been watching the past several seasons.” Although Comedy Hour would depart from its variety predecessors by hiring younger, politically-aware writers and inviting political, controversial celebrities to perform on the show, this trajectory was not evident to CBS, the wider industry – or even the brothers – as Comedy Hour embarked on its first season.

Season 1: Surprise Success, Minor Controversy, 1967

From the beginning, Tom and Dick exceeded industry expectations by drawing high ratings. Their season premiere and early shows featured such guests as veteran entertainers Jack Benny and George Burns and actress Bette Davis. As hosts, Tom and Dick introduced guests, performed songs, and acted in sketches with guests and other cast members. Their show was hardly “radical.” Yet, even in the show’s largely conventional first season, there were hints that Comedy Hour would move in a political and countercultural direction.

In Episode 4, The Smothers Brothers welcomed Buffalo Springfield. The relatively new band performed “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound),” which signaled the show’s openness to the counterculture and guests who might be interpreted as antiwar. Although Tom and Dick interject themselves into the song comedically, Buffalo Springfield’s appearance nevertheless suggested that Comedy Hour welcomed edgy, critical-of-the-status-quo acts.

 

 

The first season also included light-hearted political jokes. In the opening of the fourth episode, Tom explains that he has been “reading up on a theory on the correlation between clothes and politics.” He explains the theory in this clip (see 11:07 – 11:32 in the video clip below):

 

 

This joke, while political, was not exactly ground-breaking. Lacking partisan or ideological commentary, it could be easily understood as a play-on-words rather than a pointed criticism.

Compared to what would come in Seasons 2 and 3, the first season of Comedy Hour was relatively tame. Minor controversies included a run-in with the CBS censors over a sketch that lampooned censorship and references to drug use and the counterculture. By the end of their first season, Tom and Dick had created a popular show with enough traditional variety entertainment to attract older viewers and enough young talent and political and countercultural winks to attract younger viewers.

With one successful season to their credit, Comedy Hour began delivering more political content. Several factors influenced this shift. First, events in the United States in 1967 pushed many (especially younger) Americans to a greater level of political engagement. Both the Vietnam War and antiwar protests accelerated in 1967. In April, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., publicly announced his opposition to the war and over a hundred thousand people marched against the war in San Francisco and New York. That summer, race riots in major cities rocked the nation, as African Americans clashed with police in cities like Tampa, Newark, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC. At the same time, troop levels and draft calls increased, with a total of 485,600 Americans serving in Vietnam by the end of the year.

Political tensions in the country were crucial to Comedy Hour’s shift to more explicitly political material. Yet many television entertainers witnessed the same events but did not infuse their TV shows with politics. The brothers – and especially Tom – felt compelled to use Comedy Hour to take a stand on the issues of the day. The show’s head writer, Mason Williams, recalled that Tom and the writers read the paper, and Tom, “along with everyone else,” was awakening politically. As Tom later explained, “our passion grew just in direct proportion to the conflict that was taking place in the streets and which were taking place in Congress, and the conversations that were taking place about the Vietnam War.” Current events thus provided the essential fodder, and Comedy Hour had, at the helm, someone with a compulsion to be relevant – and the creative control to execute his vision.

Season 2: Wading In to the Big Muddy, 1967-68

In Season 2, Comedy Hour’s most controversial decisions involved putting the war at center stage, beginning with the season premiere. The brothers booked folk-singer Peter Seeger for this episode, a historic move that ended Seeger’s 17-year ban from network television. Although Seeger was a beloved figure in the folk music scene, he was controversial for refusing to answer questions to the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) in 1955. HUAC charged Seeger with contempt of Congress, and although Seeger won his case on appeal and became a key figure in the folk revival of the late 1950s-early 1960s, he remained too controversial for television.

Pete Seeger ca. 1967, performing at a high school in Yorktown, New York. “Pete Seeger, full-length portrait, performing on stage at Yorktown Heights High School, Yorktown, N.Y.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-113273. 

The ongoing TV blacklisting of Seeger was public knowledge. During the height of the folk revival, an ABC show called Hootenanny (1963-64), which featured folk singers performing at college campuses throughout the country, explicitly excluded Seeger. Joan Baez and other folksingers, who understood Seeger’s significance to folk music, responded by boycotting the show. The publicity over Seeger’s exclusion continued when ABC belatedly extended an invite to Seeger – on the condition that he sign a loyalty oath, which Seeger refused. By this time, the Hollywood blacklist was no longer in effect. Seeger’s exclusion from television – at a time when he was a popular figure in folk music – made him one of the few artists who continued to be blacklisted, and made television the last holdout from the blacklist era.

A committed activist, Seeger marched with Civil Rights protestors in the early 1960s, and by the mid-1960s, performed at antiwar rallies. Early in 1967, Seeger wrote a song titled “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Set in 1942, the song chronicles an American platoon in training. A bullheaded captain forces his men, laden with heavy equipment, to cross an ominous-looking river. Each verse ends with a version of “we were knee/waist/neck-deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool said to push on.” The “Big Muddy” was a metaphor for the Vietnam War, which made the “big fool” Lyndon Johnson. In the song’s climax, the captain’s helmet floats by; the men realize that he has drowned in the too-deep river, and they escape the Big Muddy in time. When Tom and Dick asked Seeger what he wanted to sing on Comedy Hour, his list included “The Big Muddy.” The Smothers Brothers’ decision to feature Seeger –without a loyalty oath and on the season premiere – was a bold choice. Seeger represented not only politically-infused folk music and the last dregs of the blacklist, but also, significantly, opposition to the Vietnam War.

Seeger’s appearance on the show was historic. It marked the end of TV’s blacklist against Seeger – one of the few blacklists still in effect by 1967 – and kicked off a decidedly political Season 2 for The Smothers Brothers. However, it was not a complete triumph. CBS censors cut Seeger’s performance of “The Big Muddy.” This version is what viewers saw. Soon after Seeger beings to strum the introduction to “The Big Muddy” (at 2:23), the song is censored out, with a sharp edit (at 2:57) – after which Seeger’s guitar has magically transformed into a banjo.

 

 

Although CBS cut Seeger’s antiwar song, Comedy Hour would invite the folksinger back to perform the song months later. Meanwhile, The Smothers Brothers crafted its own politically-infused segments and emerged as a show with a reliably antiwar perspective. In one segment, Tom and Dick are joined by actor George Segal in singing Phil Ochs’s “Draft Dodger Rag.” Ochs, a topical singer-songwriter, wrote “Draft Dodger Rag” in 1964, and the song became popular among anti-Vietnam War protestors. It satirizes excuses for avoiding service in Vietnam and describes individuals who try to secure personal draft exemptions while still supporting the war.

 

 

Notably, The Smothers Brothers rendition changes Ochs’s lyrics in the last verse to make the song explicitly about the Vietnam War, adding a line about draft dodgers heading to Canada, changing  “Chou En Lai” to “Ho Chi Minh,” and inserting a reference to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The trio tacks on the coda “Make love, not war,” making it clear that they are ultimately more critical of war-makers than draft-evaders. This performance is significant because it suggests to the audience that Tom and Dick are themselves antiwar. They had invited Seeger to perform “Big Muddy” as a solo, but here Tom and Dick are full participants performing a song penned by an antiwar folksinger and broadcast to tens of millions of viewers.

Antiwar sentiments continued to emerge in subsequent episodes. In one segment, Dick tries to explain to Tom that the U.S. government is asking Americans to spend their money in the United States (see 1:57 – 2:19 in the video clip below).

 

 

Tom’s response made it clear that The Smothers Brothers harbored antiwar sentiments. In a similar segment a month later, Tom and Dick again discussed President Johnson’s suggestion that Americans vacation in the United States. Dick wondered aloud what Johnson could do to make Americans want to stay in the U.S., setting up Tom’s line: “Well, he could quit.”

CBS censors allowed more political content on The Smothers Brothers, but they weren’t acting in a vacuum. On January 30, 1968 (shortly before the “he-could-quit” episode filmed), the North Vietnamese and Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive, a massive assault on the American military in Vietnam and the South Vietnamese regime. Over 80,000 insurgents attacked sites throughout the south, including the capital, Saigon (today, Ho Chi Minh City), where they breached U.S. security and entered the courtyard of the U.S. embassy. After two weeks, as fighting continued, over 1000 Americans had died and 4000 were wounded. Estimates of insurgent Vietnamese casualties climbed to nearly 40,000. As Americans watched the Tet Offensive on television, two realities became clear. First, the United States was not – as President Johnson insisted – winning. This realization complicated many Americans’ support for the war, a war they had believed had an end in sight. Second, as Americans watched the South Vietnamese Police Chief raise his gun and shoot a suspected Vietcong in the head, it became harder to believe that South Vietnam was a worthy ally. Most famously, trusted CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite changed his assessment of the war on the heels of the Tet Offensive. In his “Report from Vietnam,” Cronkite concluded that the United States was not likely to win a military victory in Vietnam:

 

 

As Americans concluded that they had been lied to by the president and that the South Vietnamese government was undeserving of massive American military and financial support, public opinion turned. By March, the percentage of Americans who supported the war fell from 74 to 54 percent, and a large majority (78 percent) believed that the United States was not making progress in Vietnam. The political landscape in the United States was irrevocably altered by the Tet Offensive.

In this changed environment, The Smothers Brothers was able to accelerate its antiwar commentary. Just five months after censoring Seeger, CBS allowed the folksinger to return and perform “The Big Muddy.” Viewers saw and heard the song in its entirety, including the important final verse – “every time I read the paper, them old feelings come on, we’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, the Big Fool says to push on.”

 

 

Comedy Hour concluded its second season with this song featuring Tom, Dick, and singer Glenn Campbell (begin at 2:05 in the video below).

 

 

Although “Thank U Very Much” mixes sincere “thanks” with sarcastic ones and references problems not attributable to the president, Comedy Hour was clearly critical of Lyndon Johnson and his continuation of the war in Vietnam. Antiwar references in the song include Eartha Kitt (who challenged the First Lady about the Vietnam War during a White House event), Dr. Spock (whom the Johnson Justice Department had indicted for conspiracy for opposing the draft), and “napalm bomb, Vietnam.” Napalm was the infamous jellied gasoline that the United States dropped on Vietnamese targets, causing extremely painful burning.

In the weeks after Comedy Hour filmed its Season 2 finale, the United States continued to fracture over political developments. On March 31, 1968, after challenges from antiwar candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, President Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. Four days later, a racially-motivated assassin killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leading to disillusionment among young activists and riots in over 100 cities. That same month, Columbia University students overtook campus buildings to protest the war and the university’s acquisitions of land occupied by African Americans in nearby Harlem. In June, after winning the California primary and igniting hopes of an antiwar Democratic candidate, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by an anti-Israel Palestinian. These events left the country deeply divided. With Kennedy no longer a candidate, Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was the likely nominee. For young and antiwar Americans, Humphrey, who promised to continue Johnson’s policies, represented the status quo. As Richard Nixon moved closer to his party’s nomination, antiwar groups saw the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago as their last chance to try to insert antiwar planks into the Democratic platform. Outside, antiwar activists protested Humphrey’s candidacy and the war, while police and National Guardsmen attacked them at the behest of Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley. While Daley sat inside the convention, viewers at home watched as networks interrupted their coverage of the DNC to report on the violence in the streets as police attacked protestors and bystanders. The chaos and dissent inside the DNC, along with the violence in the streets, would become the key theme of Comedy Hour’s Season 3 premiere.

Season 3: At War with CBS, 1968-69

The Smothers Brothers’ third season marked an acceleration of youthful perspectives and political criticism both on- and off-screen. Tom hired such young writers as comedian Steve Martin, as well as Carl Gottlieb and Rob Reiner of The Committee, a groundbreaking political-satire improvisation troupe. On-screen, Tom and Dick opened Season 3 with a new look. Gone were their conventional blazers and short hair; instead they sported Nehru jackets, longer hair, and moustaches. In the opening segment, Tom and Dick satirize the Democratic Convention’s contentious processes and insufficient inclusion of antiwar Democrats (see 1:31 – 3:17 in the video below).

 

 

The rest of the premiere foretold the political nature of the coming season. With this duet, Tom and Dick assure viewers that they are still the same, funny brothers but gave notice that the show would continue to address political issues. The song also mentioned tensions with CBS, which deepened during the season as the network and the show clashed over political content (see 4:37 – 6:10 in the video below).

 

 

Later in the episode, CBS censors gutted Harry Belafonte’s performance. The centerpiece of the episode was supposed to be a segment with Belafonte, a singer-actor and long-time civil rights activist. Belafonte had worked with the writers on a special number, called “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” The song was a calypso medley invoking the South American Carnival celebration –juxtaposed against footage of the Democratic Convention. Since the convention was characterized by violence, protest, and a police riot against antiwar demonstrators, the contrast with the celebratory “Carnival” music was jarring. This pointed critique of American politics was too much for CBS, which cut the entire number.

Tom’s response to the “Carnival” censorship set the tone for the rest of the season. A lawyer for Tom and Dick’s production company sent a letter to CBS demanding a copy of the network’s Program Practices guide and requesting that future objections be provided in writing. Tom also talked to the press, detailing to the New York Times what had been cut, and declaring, “We’re serious and we want C.B.S. to spell out a programming philosophy we can live with.” As Tom became increasingly outspoken about censorship at CBS, the network, which routinely received letters, calls, and telegrams objecting to Comedy Hour’s political content, began to lose patience with the show.

These tensions came to a head in early 1969 over an episode that featured folksinger and activist Joan Baez. Since 1964, Baez had refused to pay income tax to the U.S. government in protest against the war in Vietnam. In 1967, Baez became involved with the draft resistance. In late 1967, Joan Baez participated in a 250-person anti-draft demonstration in Oakland, California, and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that it was “nothing” to spend Christmas in jail, “when babies are dying every day [in Vietnam].” In 1968, Baez married draft resistance leader David Harris, who subsequently refused induction and was sentenced to prison. Baez was thus a controversial figure when she performed on Comedy Hour in March 1969.

During her performance, Baez dedicated a song to her husband. The following clip is the original, uncensored version (see 22:39 – 23:29 in the video clip below):

 

 

What actually aired was substantively different. After Baez stated that Harris will be “going to prison,” viewers witnessed an abrupt cut to “–so this song is called ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home.’” What had been cut from her intro – at the network’s insistence – was Baez’s explanation of her husband’s draft resistance. Overt antiwar resistance still remained too controversial for primetime TV in 1969. It was one thing for Seeger to suggest that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, but another thing to endorse illegally resisting the draft.

Off the Air: Fired by CBS

Other events complicated the relationship between CBS and The Smothers Brothers in the spring of 1969. Because of viewer and affiliate-station complaints, CBS required Comedy Hour to deliver its episode tapes to CBS headquarters in New York well in advance of the broadcast deadline so that episodes could be pre-screened. CBS did this to appease affiliate stations that complained of the show’s controversial material and may have otherwise dropped the program. From Tom’s perspective, this early deadline could only hurt the show’s creative and political vision. The more time an episode spent in New York, the more likely it was to undergo additional censorship at the hands of CBS’s east coast censors. Tom held off on delivering the Baez show tape for this reason, causing the show to miss CBS’s deadline and air nearly a month late. Then, he withheld a second episode in early April, with a similar goal of evading censorship.

Although CBS had already renewed The Smothers Brothers for a fourth season, the network used the second late delivery as an excuse to cancel the show. Comedy Hour’s ratings dipped slightly as tensions between the show and the network escalated late in the season, but overall the Season 3 ratings remained strong. CBS’s head censor, William Tankersley explained that it was not only the late tape deliveries, but also the show’s controversial political segments, that were at the heart of the decision to dispense with Comedy Hour (see 16:12 – 20:14 in the video clip below):

 

 

The decision to fire Tom and Dick was as controversial as their show had been – even within CBS. Another CBS executive, Mike Dann, lamented the network’s termination of Comedy Hour:

 

 

After the firing, Tom joined John Lennon and Yoko Ono for their Montreal Bed-In against the Vietnam War. Tom played guitar and sang on the famous recording of “Give Peace a Chance.” This would be Tom’s last major contribution to 1960s pop culture and the antiwar movement.

In the decades since CBS fired Tom and Dick, The Smothers Brothers has, piece by piece, been vindicated. Just two months after being axed by CBS, the show won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy. Although Tom contributed to the show’s content, he had removed his name from the nominee list of Comedy Hour writers, fearing that, as a controversial figure, he would cost them the win. In 2008, nearly forty years later, Tom received an honorary Emmy for his work on Comedy Hour. In the meantime, the brothers successfully sued CBS for firing them without cause, and they continued to perform, but their moment in the zeitgeist had passed and their career never rebounded to the heights of Comedy Hour.

Modern observers have recognized the extent to which The Smothers Brothers changed television in its three seasons. A 2002 documentary explored the show’s censorship struggles, and academics and TV critics recognized the show’s significance in representing the counterculture and bringing political commentary to entertainment television. As NPR’s David Bianculli discussed in his 2009 book on the Smothers Brothers, Dangerously Funny, their show opened the door for politically-infused entertainment in the 1970s, including All in the Family and Saturday Night Live. Comedy Hour’s influence is still evident today, with such politically-minded entertainment shows as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

The Smothers Brothers not only influenced subsequent television; the show was extremely significant in its own time. As CBS executive Mike Dann later said, Comedy Hour was significant because “Tommy took on the White House, he took on the political parties, he took on the pro-Vietnam contingent.” In just three seasons, The Smothers Brothers made history by bringing left-wing politics to entertainment television. In a time of hot and cold war, when television entertainment was apolitical and family-centric, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour brought politics to primetime television, delving into such issues as race relations, the counterculture, political leadership, and the war in Vietnam.


Top 5 Moments on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

  1. George Harrison surprises the studio audience and encourages the brothers to “keep trying” to say important things on the air.
  2. In her first Comedy Hour appearance, Leigh French explains countercultural slang to Tom.
  3.  The Who performs, and at the end of their set, a cannon goes off inside the drum – with three times the firepower that was initially planned, causing Pete Townsend to suffer hearing loss.
  4. Comedy Hour cast member Pat Paulsen’s many editorials
  5. The Smothers Brothers runs Pat Paulsen for president – and produces this mockumentary about his candidacy.

Further Reading: more sources on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour


 

  1. Ron Milam, “1967: The Era of Big Battles in Vietnam,” New York Times, Jan. 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/opinion/1967-the-era-of-big-battles-in-vietnam.html (accessed Jul. 5, 2018).
  2. Gayle Worland, “50 years ago, ‘Dow Day’ left its mark on Madison, Wisconsin State Journal, Oct. 8, 2017, https://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/education/university/years-ago-dow-day-left-its-mark-on-madison/article_47f7dc75-e30a-5a16-8cf1-044eebc66f18.html (accessed Jul. 5, 2018).
  3. James L. Baughman, The Republic of Mass Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 30.
  4. In addition to ratings, networks had to consider the fact that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) administered network licenses. If a network aired material that caused viewers to complain to the FCC, the commission had the power to fine the network or, in theory, revoke its license. David S. Silverman, “You Can’t Air That”: Four Cases of Controversy and Censorship in American Television Programming (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 2.
  5. Ibid, 3, 2.
  6. In addition to ratings, networks had to consider the fact that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) administered network licenses. If a network aired material that caused viewers to complain to the FCC, the commission had the power to fine the network or, in theory, revoke its license. David S. Silverman, “You Can’t Air That”: Four Cases of Controversy and Censorship in American Television Programming (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 2.
  7. Ibid, 3, 2.
  8. Bianculli, 54.
  9. As the LA Times noted, “Mom Always Liked You Best,” was a popular part of the brothers’ act as television guests, and inspired a comedy-music album of the same name. This record was nominated for a Grammy in 1966. Roger Beck, “Bunch of Laughs,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 14, 1965; “Smothers Brothers,” Grammy Awards, https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/smothers-brothers (accessed Jul.5, 2018).
  10. Judy Stone, “Two Clean-Cut Heroes Make Waves,” New York Times, Apr. 16, 1967; “Television: Mothers’ Brothers,” Time, Jun. 30, 1967.
  11. Hal Humphrey, “Smothers: hello again!,” LA Times, Feb. 5, 1967.
  12. Douglas Robinson, “100,000 Rally at U.N. Against Vietnam War,” New York Times, Apr. 16, 1967.
  13. Race Troubles: 109 U.S. Cities Faced Violence in 1967,” U.S. News and World Report, Aug. 14, 1967, available at https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-07-12/race-troubles-109-us-cities-faced-violence-in-1967 (accessed Jul. 2, 2018).
  14. Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour Episode Schedule, The Smothers Brothers, http://www.smothersbrothers.com/ episodes.htm (accessed Jul. 1, 2018).
  15. Although often mistaken for an antiwar song, “For What It’s Worth,” is not actually about the Vietnam War. According to Stephen Stills, who wrote it and sang lead vocals, he wrote the song after witnessing clashes between police and countercultural youth in Los Angeles. David Browne, “‘For What It’s Worth’: Inside Buffalo Springfield’s Classic Protest Song,” Rolling Stone, Nov. 11, 2016, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/for-what-its-worth-inside-buffalo-springfields-classic-protest-song-106435/ (accessed Jul. 5, 2018).
  16. Douglas Robinson, “100,000 Rally at U.N. Against Vietnam War,” New York Times, Apr. 16, 1967.
  17. “Race Troubles: 109 U.S. Cities Faced Violence in 1967,” U.S. News and World Report, Aug. 14, 1967, available at https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-07-12/race-troubles-109-us-cities-faced-violence-in-1967 (accessed Jul. 2, 2018).
  18. “Infographic: The Vietnam War: Military Statistics,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/content/infographic-vietnam-war-military-statistics (accessed July 1, 2018).
  19. “Interview with Mason Williams,” The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 2, produced by Paul Brownstein (Time Life, 2009), DVD (hereafter, Season 2).
  20. Oral history interview, Tom and Dick Smothers, Oct. 14, 2000, conducted by Karen Herman in Las Vegas, NV, “The Interviews: Oral History Collection,” Archive of American Television, https://interviews.televisionacademy. com/interviews/tom-smothers#interview-clips (accessed June 30, 2018).
  21. Seeger had last appeared on network television with the Weavers in 1950. Robert E. Dallos, “Pete Seeger Gets New Chance on TV,” New York Times, Aug. 25, 1967.
  22. For an overview of HUAC’s most notorious investigation, see David L. Dunbar, “The Hollywood Ten: The Men Who Refused to Name Names,” The Hollywood Reporter, Nov. 16, 2015, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/hollywood-ten-men-who-refused-839762 (accessed Jul. 5, 2018). For Seeger’s testimony, see “Testimony of Pete Seeger before the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 18, 1955,” available at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6457 (accessed Jul. 2, 2018).
  23. Hal Humphrey, “Seeger Breaks the Blacklist Stigma,” LA Times, Aug. 24, 1967.
  24. Seeger’s exclusion was particularly offensive to folksingers because he had helped popularize the term “hootenanny.” In August 1963, Baez told an audience of 14,700, that she would only appear on Hootenanny, “if they will let Pete Seeger on that program.” Instead, she and Seeger performed together in Hartford. Following Baez’s declaration, other folksingers refused to go on Hootenanny, including Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio, Barbara Dane, and Peter, Paul and Mary. “Joan Baez Sings at Forest Hills,” New York Times, Aug 19, 1963; Joan Baez, And a Voice to Sing With (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 75; and “Notes,” Broadside 39, Feb. 7, 1964.
  25. “Notes,” Broadside 36, Dec. 10, 1963.
  26. Tom and Dick, “Close” for Show 102, Air Date: Sept. 10, 1967 (Taped on 9/1/67), Season 2.
  27. For contemporaries’ discussion of Seeger’s prominence on the unofficial TV blacklist, see Jack Gould, “TV: ‘Hootenany’ Debut: A.B.C. Folk Song Series Premiere Called ‘Hit of the Spring’ — Seeger Issue Cited,” New York Times, Apr. 8, 1963; Robert E. Dallos; Hal Humphrey, “Seeger Breaks the Blacklist Stigma,” LA Times, Aug. 24, 1967; “Pete Seeger Gets New Chance on TV: Banned Folk Singer Set to Smothers Brothers Show,” New York Times, Aug. 25, 1967; and “Breaking the TV Blacklist,” New York Times, Sept. 4, 1967.
  28. For the original Ochs lyrics, see Phil Ochs, “Draft Dodger Rag,” Broadside 53, Dec. 20, 1964. Available at https://singout.org/broadside/ (accessed Jul. 2, 2018).
  29. Show 122, Air Date: Feb. 11, 1968 (Taped on 2/2/68), Season 2.
  30. James H. Willbanks, “Winning the Battle, Losing the War,” New York Times, Mar. 5, 2008; “Tet Offensive: Turning Point in Vietnam War,” New York Times, Jan. 31, 1988.
  31. See Maggie Astor, “A Photo That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War,” New York Times, Feb. 1, 2018, at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/world/asia/vietnam-execution-photo.html (accessed Jul. 2, 2018).
  32. Charles DeBenedetti, with Charles Chatfield, assisting author, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 213; George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 202
  33. DeNeen L. Brown, “‘Sex kitten’ vs. Lady Bird: The day Eartha Kitt attacked the Vietnam War at the White House,” Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2018, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp /2018/01/19/sex-kitten-vs-first-lady-eartha-kitt-yells-at-lady-bird-johnson-about-vietnam/?utm_term= .5b80e7528185 (accessed Jul. 2, 2018); Ian Shapira, “He was America’s most famous pediatrician. Then Dr. Spock attacked the Vietnam draft,” Washington Post, Jan. 5, 2018, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/ retropolis/wp/2018/01/05/he-was-americas-most-famous-pediatrician-then-dr-spock-attacked-the-vietnam-draft/?utm_term=.b92ee6be70c3 (accessed Jul. 2, 2018).
  34. Gladwin Hill, “Kennedy is Dead, Victim of Assassin: Surgery in Vain,” New York Times, Jun. 6, 1968; Lacey Fosburgh, “Sirhan Tells Court Why He Wanted to Kill Kennedy,” New York Times, Mar. 5, 1969.
  35. Letter, from Jack Schwartzman to Tankersley, Sept. 26, 1968, CBS Documents, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3, produced by Paul Brownstein (Time Life, 2008), DVD (hereafter, Season 3)
  36. George Gent, “The Smotherses Protest TV Cuts,” New York Times, Oct. 2, 1968.
  37. For example, according to Comedy Hour writer and producer Allan Blye, the network received 10,000 letters protesting Seeger’s appearance before the Season 2 premiere. Interview with Allan Blye, Season 3.
  38. Joan Baez, “I Do Not Believe in War,” April 1964, reprinted in Sing Out! 14-3, Jul. 1964.
  39. During the Vietnam War, American men aged 18-25 were drafted, or conscripted, for military service. There were many ways of avoiding the draft, including applying for deferments, filing as a conscientious objector, or “dodging” the draft by moving to Canada. Draft resisters took a very different approach; they objected to having others serve in their place while they accepted individual safety. Draft resisters refused to cooperate with the draft; instead, they burned or turned in their draft cards, and announced that they would rather go to jail than become complicit by accepting deferments, conscientious-objector status, or non-combat postings. At the same time, adults beyond the clutches of the draft mobilized to support draft resisters to prevent them from shouldering the burdens of resistance alone
  40. “45 Days for Joan Baez,” San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 21, 1967, Box AF1, f. 31, Rolling Stone Collection, Library and Archives, RRHOF.
  41. Oral history interview, Michael Dann, n.d., “The Interviews: Oral History Collection,” Archive of American Television, https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/michael-dann#interview-clips (accessed Jun. 14, 2018).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Binghamton University. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto, and a Masters in History from the University of Waterloo. Sarah’s work lies at the nexus of popular and political culture in twentieth century U.S. history. She is currently writing her dissertation, “Celebrity Activism in the Vietnam Era,” which explores the activism of such figures as Pete Seeger, Benjamin Spock, the Smothers brothers, and Jane Fonda. Sarah has worked as managing editor at the Journal of Women’s History, and has taught undergraduate courses in American history at Binghamton University, Alfred University, and the College at Brockport.