We return to our ongoing reexamination of mainstream America's uneasy-yet-lucrative relationship with late-60s/early-70s counterculture with a variety show that ruffled so many feathers in its time that after repeated instances of censorship, CBS ultimately canceled the show mid-season in 1969 despite its popularity. In these days of premium cable, The Simpsons, South Park, even the decades-past-its-prime Saturday Night Live (or The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, for that matter), it's hard to imagine a world where the Smothers Brothers could be considered dangerous. Nevertheless, they were, which in itself is sufficient reason to check them out.
I only have vague memories of this show at the time it was broadcast. As a kid, I was sent off to bed on Sunday night before it came on, but I recall hearing it from the other room as my parents watched it, and I must have seen at least a few episodes, because I remember the video for Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" and some of the "Pat Paulsen for President" sketches. I swear I remember seeing the segment where a pre-hippie George Carlin does his "Indian Sergeant" routine; I got some serious deja vu when he went into the "leaping into the gorge" bit. But overall, I think we were usually protected from this stuff at the time. So most of this DVD is fresh to me. Which naturally makes it a prime candidate for Netflix, and a subject for this blog.
The Smothers Brothers themselves tend to be the best thing about these shows most of the time. Tom's non-sequitur-spewing idiot savant and Dick's authoritarian straight man were a hilarious combination. Their music wasn't half bad, either, an outgrowth of (and spot-on satire of) the poppier end of the early 60s folk revival that I am already on record as having a weakness for. They nailed the conflict of sibling rivalry while simultaneously turning the genetic empathy of siblings into impeccable comic timing. Every stutter (and fiendish attempt to destroy decorum) from Tom, every pause (and moment of irritation followed by attempt to smooth things over with the world outside) from Dick turns even the dumbest jokes into something provocative and side-splitting. The funniest parts of their routines happen between the words.
The show itself is an odd (and quintessentially '60s) mixture of variety show conventions (silly dancers, Nelson Riddle Orchestra; corny sketch comedy) and envelope-pushing commentary. Each of the four episodes offered on this DVD has its share of "WOW" and "WTF?" moments. At the time these shows were taped, the brothers' TV show was in its third year, and they began filming in the aftermath of the Democratic Party clusterfuck/police riot in Chicago, a rash of political assassinations, international unrest, and the first inkling that the so-called summer of love had been overly optimistic and some ugly stuff was coming. In that context, showbiz-as-usual wasn't enough.
The first show of the fall was one of their most controversial, as the now-older brothers let us know immediately in the introduction. The highlight of the episode is a long segment featuring Harry Belafonte where, after joining the Smothers Bros. in a version of Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free", then delivering a smoldering solo love ballad, he jumps into a medley of his great calypso hits while footage of the Chicago Democratic Convention flickers behind him on the chroma key. It starts off jolly and snide, as images of clashing politicians are juxtaposed with Belafonte's buoyant party songs, then veers into pathos and discomfort as footage of cops and demonstrators becomes more violent while Belafonte twists "Mama Look A Boo Boo" into a Greek chorus: "My country can't be ugly so!" By the time he alludes to another hit, "Matilda", by suggesting Matilda should just stay in Venezuela and spare herself from what's going on here, all pretense of light ironic comment has been jettisoned and you realize everyone involved with the show had put everything they had into Making A Statement. It's an effective "the world's gone mad" moment, and more evidence that Harry Belafonte is a national treasure we should appreciate now while he's still with us.
Of course, no one saw this at the time, because CBS cut the segment after the aforementioned smoldering love ballad, leaving Tom Smothers (the more politically active of the two despite his airhead comedy persona) particularly livid, as we see in an audience Q & A piece they hastily put together to fill the empty space in the show. (Which, in a ridiculous bit of irony, was in turn cut out to make room for an extended ad for the Nixon campaign!) Immediately, it's clear that the brothers' days on network TV are numbered.
In the meantime, we get a weird time capsule of a transitional period in American pop culture. The next show gives us another veteran of the same comedy circuit that gave us the Smothers, Bob Newhart (I will admit, I was quite fond of his 70s sitcom, where he played a psychiatrist and was married to the delectable Suzanne Pleshette), and the cast of the musical "Hair". What a thing that was to watch; you start off going, "God, what an embarrassing showtune bastardization of hippies", and end up forced to admit what a stirring song "Let The Sunshine In" really is. We also get a glimpse of a young dark-haired Kenny Rogers (we also catch a few glimpses of a young, dark-haired Steve Martin here; he was one of the show's main writers) fronting the First Edition; unfortunately it's the kitsch of "But You Know I love You" and not the faux-psychedelic camp of "Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In", which would have been fun..
Show 3 features George Carlin (R.I.P. you magnificent misanthropic old bastard) and the Doors, who are caught in their uncomfortable Soft Parade phase, first awkwardly running through "Wild Child", which never gets as primal as it wants to be, and later showcasing their hit single at the time, "Touch Me", a Robbie Krieger composition that sounds like a good song if you don't pay attention too closely. (Am I too harsh here? OK, it's a catchy tune, but the lyrics don't seem to go together from line to line. Something about a promise being made, a demand to know what "she"---a third party distinct from the "you" being sung to?---said, then all that's dropped in favor of some vague sweet nothings about heaven stopping the rain and stars falling from the sky. Sounds sultry and romantic, but it doesn't add up or mean anything. And yeah, lots of Doors songs make very little sense, but there's a big difference between crazed surrealism and undistinguished bland goo.) Jim Morrison has a great voice, but he misses crucial cues and looks and sounds bored as hell with what he's doing. The guest sax player upstages the band at the end of the song. Krieger clearly has a black eye during the performance, supposedly from a car accident, but it's hard not to speculate that he and Morrison got in a scuffle. It is an intriguing look at a fascinating band slogging through one of their worst periods.
The last of the four episodes raises loads of questions. This one is clearly cut to ribbons, but the brothers offer no comment on this whatsoever, compared to the Belafonte incident. First off, the introduction mentions a musical guest called "Hedge And Donna", who we never see. (I had to Google them; turns out they were a sweet-voiced, obscure folk duo of their day who were also an interracial married couple. Did the network actually cut them out because they felt TV audiences weren't ready for a black woman and a white man as a couple and musical act? And if so, why weren't they restored to their rightful place on this DVD? Weird, huh?)
Second, the main guest on the show was an impressionist named David Frye, whose first appearance in the episode begins with him impersonating William F. Buckley. Suddenly, before he actually does anything funny, there is a sloppy cut to him taking a bow, and we move on to the next part of the show. No comment in the bonus features. WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED? Did Frye cross some sort of line? Did he actually do something humorous, perhaps? (Even now, I would welcome any appropriately snarky trashing of the pompous ass who who gave us the National Review, and whose most famous quotation, "standing athwart history yelling STOP" was a reference to stopping the civil rights movement in particular. Such a principled fellow.) From the evidence of what was left behind, that would certainly be welcome, since based on what we get to see here, Frye suffered from the flaw of many impressionists: he could create perfect imitations of his targets, but he couldn't come up with anything funny or interesting for them to say.
The show's staff of writers, many of whom went on to bigger and better things, should have taken up the slack here, but when we watch the Emmy-award-winning sketch, "A Fable For Our Time", the most stunning thing about it is how UN-funny it is. Sure, Frye gets to do Johnson, Humphrey, Wallace, and Nixon, and he does them all really well, but none of the lines the writers provide for them are the least bit cutting or amusing. Comedy is a fleeting thing for sure, especially 40-odd years on, but considering how hilarious the Smothers Brothers could be when left to their own devices, it's odd that they achieved industry recognition (bittersweetly, they got the award AFTER the show was shitcanned by the network) for one of their least funny sketches. (But then, it was sort of political, albeit in a SAFE way compared to other stuff they did, so maybe their peers were awarding them for other work that they dared not acknowledge at the time, like some sort of "referred pain" theory of humor?) Or maybe the writers got the Emmy for the bit in the same show that featured Liberace and a traffic cop; that was actually funny.
Well, from this taste, the Smothers Brothers were brilliant comedians, their show was an uneven but valiant effort with many great moments, and CBS were cowards to let them go when they did. We have more volumes of this series in the Netflix queue, but we have many other diverse things we want to see before we indulge further. We'll return to this particular time capsule later.