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
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."
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
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
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."
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
"Our sheets are whiter than
white," Klowned Tom. "No, we are," Kracked
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."
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."
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
"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."
New York Times April 16, 1967