1968 was perhaps the most dramatic year of the 20th Century. The United States was deeply embroiled in the war in Viet Nam. There was a strong protest movement at home, but almost none of the protest was shown in the entertainment media. NASA was getting ready to land a man on the moon to fulfill a mission given it by a President who was assassinated five years earlier. But the memory of assassination was still strong, having been refreshed by two more assassinations, those of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. 1967 had been the summer of love and the generation of the hippies was still going strong. Young people were still painting themselves, talking about the grooviness of love--especially the free kind--and of flowers. The Beatles were extolling the virtues of psychedelic drugs and their music mingled with that from other groups who followed suit. In the spring of that year the USSR had suppressed its dissidents in Czechoslovakia and in the fall the United States had suppressed its dissidents in Chicago. I went from being the high school senior who never dated to being the college freshman, deeply in love with the same woman I am in love with today. The TV news did not see itself as a profitable entertainment medium in those days, so the entertainment media saw itself as an escape from just about all that was happening that was momentous.
There was one exception to all this high-powered silence. On television there was one network TV show that still was trying to comment on the world and give its unapologetically liberal, non- evenhanded message. The program was the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour". This would run Sunday night opposite the western "Bonanza". I will be honest. I was not a fan. First I did not find the comedy team particularly funny. Their jokes always played the same note. Tom always played a frustrated child in a man's body and his brother always played a bemused straight man. If there was more than just vague interest, it was for the viewer to decide how much of Dick's reprimanding Tom was part of the act and how much was sincere. They had good singing voices, and they combined good folk singing with heir monotonous humor.
But what this show offered is that it actually said something. The Smothers freely pushed their liberal agenda and challenged power in the United States. And they got their share of licks for it. They program was heavily censored by the network and eventually cancelled. It is not that their political satire was all that powerful. Certainly it does not seem that way from the vantage point of a year when a "Saturday Night Live" routine became the subject of national debate. But in the three years that the program was on under constant threat of cancellation, they were the only game in town. Seen from 2008 their humor seems mild, as Tommy Smothers points out in a surprisingly self-deprecating prolog, but for 1968 and 1969 it was amazing what they got away with. Because I remember the political situation of the late 1960s this material is for me more impressive today than it was when it was first broadcast. The Smothers Brothers were determined to push the then limits of what was being shown on television. They talked about minority relations, war, and even got some sexual material past the censors. They also kidded the network about its censorship. CBS was probably the most liberal of the three commercial networks, but in those days the Smothers Brothers' kidding was beyond the limits of what the network was willing to tolerate. Each episode shows the telltale jumps and scars of censorship cutting. Within weeks the show would be completely cancelled, not for ratings--it was in the top twenty programs on television--but because the show was going too far to often in the opinion of the network. The battle with CBS is documented with actual memos in the bonus material.
The political humor is still fairly impressive. What is not political was not really funny for me in the 1960s and it is less so today. Just as the comedy they did in the 1960s was not my cup of tea, their music was not the kind I liked at that time either. My taste ran more to classical music. What I am finding surprising is how enjoyable their musical interludes are. This was a time when melody was very important in most popular music. Singers like Donavon, Dion, Judy Collins, and even Mama Cass Elliot did very listenable songs with lyrical melodies. Much of this music has become classic.
Not all of their artistic decisions make sense. They included a short film about the National Hot Rod Association that I certainly could have done without. But there are plenty of chapter stops. If something less interesting is on, one can always hit "Next" on their remote. There is also something amazing about seeing comedians like George Carlin, Steve Martin, and Bob Newhart as they were when they were at the beginnings of their careers when they still were young.
For reasons known best to themselves Time/Life is releasing the three seasons of the program in reverse order. They have started with season 3, will go on to season 2 and then will release season 1. Not all of the broadcast episodes are in the package. As the title suggests, these are what the Smothers Brothers consider their best material. Before and after each episode there is a commentary on the episode by the two brothers and perhaps some of the guests from the episode. There is a lot of additional supporting material including more interviews and candid shots of rehearsals.
This time capsule of the late 1960s is a lot of fun, some of it edifying, and quite worth the effort to find.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper