In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter gave me the opportunity to write an oral history about a passion of mine, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the groundbreaking variety program anchored by Tommy Smothers, who died Tuesday at age 86, and his brother, Dick. Airing on CBS from 1967-70, the controversial show offered an alternate television universe for a young generation, filled with sharp humor, political satire, rock music and relevance. Not ahead of its time but rather right on it. 

I compiled countless interviews with what felt like every surviving performer from the show, including Steve Martin and Rob Reiner. Everyone except the brothers themselves, who had proved rather elusive.

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Through back channels, I finally acquired Tommy Smothers’ cellphone number, along with a series of warnings. First, I was told, be persistent because he hardly ever answers his phone. Second, be persistent because he probably won’t return your call. And third, don’t be too persistent because it’ll just piss him off.

I called Tommy first thing on a Monday morning. Listening to the phone ring, I practiced in my head the message I would leave him. I figured I would have two sentences, tops, to win him over. Lost in my own thoughts, I initially missed his whispery, somewhat self-deprecating voice answer, “Hello?”

Caught off guard, I froze momentarily before proceeding to spout out 100 sentences of admiration in maybe 10 seconds flat. Tommy laughed, not about anything I said so much as out of empathy for my frantic state.

We made plans to talk the next day. My timing could not have been worse. California wildfires had ravaged his neighborhood in Sonoma County, forcing Tommy to evacuate. He didn’t know if he still had a home, a fate he anticipated discovering before our scheduled call. Hearing my trepidation, Tommy quipped. “I might not be in that great a mood if my home isn’t there.” The home survived.

Throughout the years, I recorded our conversations about the artist and his art, like how he blazed the path for political satire on television for programs like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and countless others. “I always wanted something relevant,” he once said. “I felt everything on TV wasn’t accurately portraying what’s going on out there in the world, and I thought it important to do that.”

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became the first prominent television show to attract the counterculture. “I was aiming for college graduates and a white-collared educated type of audience,” he told me. “It turned out we were No. 1 with 13-year-old boys and 15-year-old girls. Kids are always a little ahead of the arc.”

With the guidance of the show’s producers, Saul Ilson and Ernice Chambers, the comedy uniquely crossed generations, combining rock and roll with Hollywood’s leading stars. Imagine an episode with Bette Davis and The Who, Tallulah Bankhead and The Temptations or Jonathan Winters and Jefferson Airplane.

No one ever equaled the brothers’ unique rapport, blending folk music and natural conversations with sibling rivalry and comical bickering. “We were always fighting from the time we were little kids over everything.” Tommy recalled. “Whether the window should be opened or closed. We slept in bunk beds and fought about eating crackers in bed.”

I marveled at his ability to find talent. “Mason [Williams] said we have to go down to the Ice House in Pasadena. There’s a guy there. Steve Martin. He’s kind of funny and really weird,” remembered Tommy. “I watched the show and said, yeah let’s bring him in.”

The show’s lasting legacy ultimately became Tommy’s censorship battles with CBS, which cost the brothers their show and almost their career. “When we tried something and were told no, I wanted to know why,” he said. “I never got a good reason not to put substance in the show.”

At times, he’d hide the master tape of an episode from the network, sending it in at the last possible moment before airing so that no one had time to edit it. “I became extra stubborn. I can laugh about it now because all my tears are gone,” he admitted half-jokingly.

He played ping-pong with a censor once on the CBS roof, best two out of three, to see if he could keep a joke in. He won. CBS once tried to slip a spy into the writers room. “We all knew it. So we did things that were so bad, just to keep him busy. We entertained him a lot.” He believed the network eventually started bugging his office.

For everything he lost, Tommy had empathy for the censors. “Some of them were really nice,” he said. 
“They were stuck in a place where they’d never been before. It was a ’50s mentality. You couldn’t say ‘pregnant’ or ‘sex education.’ It was difficult for them when it got into social things about the [Vietnam] war, voter registration and race issues. And they didn’t know how to handle it.”

Eventually, the network canceled the show, a term the brothers never found accurate. “Dickie always gets pissed off when people say that,” Tommy said. “We were fired.” They thought they would never work again. They went out on the road to do 200 dates a year in small venues. Vegas shunned them. Friends felt awkward. “If your friend is really ill, there’s a lack of eye contact,” said Tommy. “I felt that they felt for me but didn’t know what to say.” Through it all, he always admired Dickie for standing by him. “My brother was never angry with me,” insists Tommy. “He said, ‘You know what you’re doing?’ I said, ‘I’m sure.’”

I think the most poignant aspect of my interactions with Tommy came courtesy of Dick. About a half-hour after my first call, Dick called (Tommy had apparently passed along my number to him). Dick told me that Tommy had been feeling depressed and a little forgotten. My call had meant something to him. Imagine hearing that from one of your idols.

In Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech, he mentioned how old soldiers never die — they just fade away. I agree with that first part, as long as we keep their memories alive. But I also feel special performers don’t fade away, either. We keep their artistry in our hearts. In that sense, today is but another day in Tommy’s life, one for which I remain eternally grateful.

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