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The Smothers Brothers

Dick and Tom Smothers, who can't even stand the sight of bloody battles painted on a lunch box, are suddenly in the midst of a two-front war; winning against the enemy and losing on home base. The whole scene makes them ponder a question they never before seriously entertained: What's so prurient about the sex life of a worm?

There they were — one day, a couple of clean-cut CBS heroes, the first challengers in nine years to knock NBC's "Bonanza" right off its Nielsen pinnacle; pow! The next day, flat on the CBS mat for "bad taste." And all because of a 10 minute skit poking fun at movie censors.

Those who watch the Smothers Brothers tonight will NOT see the sketch written by Elaine May in which she and Tom Smothers play professional movie censors. In the sketch, they begin by sharpening their knives on a line Amy Vanderbilt wouldn't countenance at the dinner table: "My heart beats wildly in my breast whenever you are near." As pristine censors, they strike out the word breast and change the line to, "My pulse beats wildly in my wrist whenever you are near." The two censors proceed from anatomy to a biology class scene in which they puzzle over such words as "heterosexual" and "reproduce." With the utmost quintesse of delicatesse, the censors make their substitutions.

In a case of life imitating art, there was much fussing and frowning at CBS over airing such unmentionables as "breast," "heterosexual," and the life cycle of the worm. As Tom Smothers angrily put it, "The censors censored the censorship bit. It's a real infringement of our creative rights."

Tom said he and his brother were told the segment was in "bad taste" when they appealed the decision at a meeting with top CBS executives Tom H. Dawson, Perry Lafferty and Michael Dann. "It left me with a great amount of disrespect for them as far as their taste is concerned and you can quote me on that."

In New York, writer-actress Elaine May said, "The original script I received was full of innuendoes and was about censoring movies that are obviously dirty with titles like 'Black Whips and Red Lips' and 'Wild Strawberries and Sour Cream Over Naked Flesh.' I thought I was toning it down. Now the myth will probably be that it didn't work."

In an interview at the Smothers' office the day before the big cutout, the brothers said that CBS had been "very lenient" in permitting the brand of gentle satire that made them a music and comedy hit on the college concert-night club circuit with their spoofs of folk singers. "Think Ethnic!" was one of two gold labels among the 10 LPs they had recorded after quitting San Jose (Ca.) State College to pursue their careers. Tom played the guitar and straight man Dick was on bass.

However, their first television series last season had been a disastrous situation comedy in which Tom was cast as an angel visiting his brother on earth. "It was a nothing show," said Tom. "There was no point of reference, nothing meaningful, no satire in it." Tom got nothing out of the series but an ulcer and the need to carry his lunch to work. His new lunch box, emblazoned with the word "Battle Kit" and the figure of an attacking soldier, simply inflames his ulcer. Tom wanted "cowboys" or something American on it," but cowboys are out this year on kiddies' lunch boxes: war scenes are in. Since Tom is "kinda anti-war," he's figuring out how to convert the "Battle Kit" into a "peace statement."

Tom, 30, the older brother, has a long face which, on stage, crumbles easily into funny frustration, stupidity and forgetfulness and his casual manner off-stage cloaks a mass of creative energy, tension and drive that is all channeled into the show. Recently divorced, he is completely engrossed in his work; Dick, 29, who once wanted to be a school administrator, prefers to relax with his wife and three children and indulge his passion for motorcycles and cars. On stage, Dick tries to keep Tom on the beam; off-stage, Tom continually boosts Dick's work. The sons of a regular Army officer who died as a prisoner of war in the Philippines, they are unusually close and have plenty to say to each other. Their patter zings out like a verbal ping-pong game, nerve-wracking for note-takers, but refreshingly candid.

The brothers were determined that their new show would be lively. Along with the name guest stars that CBS supplied, they put on some controversial rock groups, including the Buffalo Springfield, The Electric Prunes, Simon and Garfunkel and The Blues Magoos, but the network nixed folk singer Pete Seeger and Senator Everett Dirkson. The reason? "No political personalities.," but the Senator later turned up on Red Skelton's show on a network of the same initials. One Smothers innovation was a regular "station editorial — in line with our policy of taking a stand on the pressing issues of the day." To date, they have posited their own flexible positions on auto safety, litter and firearms and are toying with one on LSD.

"The editorials are put-ons, but with a point," explained Dick, looking boyishly solemn behind dark rimmed glasses. Then he quoted from one: "Many people today are suggesting that restrictions be placed on the purchase and ownership of firearms. No one questions that these people are like all of us, good, solid Americans. They are either grossly misinformed and hence misguided — or else they are trouble-making Communists. But we respect them And we will fight to the death against their right to express opinions."

"It's about our inalienable right to kill," explained Tom kindly. "Very straight double-talk." They got 7500 requests for reprints. "We did an editorial commending the good people of Cleveland for keeping their city clean," Dick announced. "'Murder is up, but litter is down.' We got 4000 requests for that." "Some teachers wrote 'We agree with you wholeheartedly,'" Tom added, "but we didn't say anything. We even did a thing on the KKK once but it was very mild."

"It wasn't mild," Dick protested. "It was just short. Actually, it was very strong."

"Our sheets are whiter than white," Klowned Tom. "No, we are," Kracked Dick.

Their faces are too innocent for this sort of talk; their hair too short and neatly brushed. As Tom says, "We're so college-looking and clean cut. Most people think I'm from the Midwest. The American Legion likes us and so does the left wing. But we never went into this act in a premediated way. We were just using folk songs as a platform for comedy and the show is run on our intuitive feelings. We're not a 'TW3' or anything like that, but we like to put a little meat in once in a while." He said there had not been any controversy on TV since the departure of Jack Paar and Steve Allen, and they've booked Allen as one of their guests. They'd like to use Mort Sahl but they know the network wouldn't hold still for him."

However, it wasn't until they took on censorship that censorship — euphemistically known in the trade as "program practices" and "continuity acceptance" — took them on. "There is a necessity for censorship and continuity acceptance," said Tom who was aware of the gathering storm clouds. "I think the networks have a say in good taste, but it is always abused.That's the trouble with censorship. This is our first real confrontation with the problem."

"Everyone complains about the blandness of TV," Dick added, "yet they feel that they have to stand in the way of anyone saying anything." The brothers admitted that most of their February reviews put them down, but at least nobody called them "bland" and one influential paper liked them. Their intuition and ratings recently paid off with a new contract for next season. When their show went on, it toppled "Bonanza" from its long-held number one spot in the Nielson ratings. For the two weeks, ending March 5, Nielsen showed "Bonanza" in seventh place and Smothers in 23rd, compared to last November when Garry Moore was 84th in that same time slot and "Bonanza" first. In February, "Bonanza" went down to 15th place, its lowest rating in nine years.

Dick said he had been fan of the Western show in 1962 and '63, but he couldn't see using the same format for nine years. "I think were at an advantage just coming in. We don't think we're so strong that we're going to kill "Bonanza" but at this time of "Bonanza's life , it's ready for competition."

In one of their speedy bits of patter, the brothers summed up their assets and liabilities: "Dickie," said Tom, "is not the best singer in the world and I'm not the best comedian and we're not the best duet, but we combine the talents we have with an honest relationship and empathy."

"We never wanted to be slick and show biz," said Dick.

"We're very close. As adults, we feel fortunate to have each other. Talk about brotherhood: the only people who experience it are those who have a brother. Brothers are the only true brothers, but it shouldn't be that way."

The New York Times April 16, 1967

 

 

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