By William Grimes
Tom Smothers, the older half of the comic folk duo the Smothers Brothers, whose skits and songs on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in the late 1960s brought political satire and a spirit of youthful irreverence to network television, paving the way for shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show,” died Tuesday at his home in Santa Rosa, California, a city in Sonoma County. He was 86.
He died “following a recent battle with cancer,” a spokesperson for the National Comedy Center announced on behalf of the family.
The Smothers Brothers made their way to network television as a folk act with a difference. With Tom playing guitar and Dick playing stand-up bass, they spent as much time bickering as singing.
With an innocent expression and a stammering delivery, Tom would try to introduce their songs with a story, only to be picked at by his skeptical brother. As frustration mounted, he would turn, seething, and often deliver a trademark non sequitur: “Mom always liked you best.”
Hoping to reach a younger audience, CBS gave the brothers creative control over “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” a one-hour variety show that made its debut in February 1967. For the next three seasons it courted controversy as it addressed U.S. policy in Vietnam, religious fundamentalism, racial strife and recreational drug use.
Running features like Leigh French’s “Share a Little Tea With Goldie,” replete with drug references, either delighted or scandalized, depending on the age and the politics of the viewer.
“During the first year, we kept saying the show has to have something to say more than just empty sketches and vacuous comedy,” Smothers said in a 2006 interview. “So we always tried to put something of value in there, something that made a point and reflected what was happening out in the streets.”
Tom, more liberal than his brother and largely responsible for the production of the show, brought in writers attuned to the thinking of the baby boom generation — among them Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Pat Paulsen and Mason Williams — and stretched the boundaries of taste at every turn.
“Easter is when Jesus comes out of his tomb, and if he sees his shadow he goes back in and we get six more weeks of winter,” Tom said on one show.
Far more combative than his mild-mannered brother, who survives him, Tom fought network executives and censors until CBS, tired of complaints from its rural affiliates, especially in the South, abruptly canceled the show in April 1969 and replaced it with “Hee Haw,” a corn-pone counterpart to the fast-paced (and often controversial) “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” that featured country music stars.
“In any other medium we would be regarded as moderate,” Tom Smothers told reporters at a news conference the day after the show was canceled. “Here we are regarded as rebels and extremists.”
An Army family
Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born Feb. 2, 1937, on Governors Island in New York Harbor, where his father, a West Point graduate and Army major, was stationed. The family relocated to Manila, Philippines, when Smothers’ father was reassigned. Shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the family moved again, to the Los Angeles area, where Tom and Dick’s mother, Ruth (Remick) Smothers, had grown up. She found work in an aircraft factory.
Smothers’ father remained on Corregidor in Manila Bay to fight and was taken prisoner on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. He survived the Bataan Death March, but in 1945 he died of injuries sustained when American planes mistakenly bombed the prison ship transporting him to a camp in Japan.
Tom Smothers attended an assortment of schools as his mother descended into alcoholism and moved from husband to husband. In 1955, he graduated from Redondo Union High School, where he was a state champion on the parallel bars.
While in high school, he and Dick, two years his junior, sang in a barbershop group that won second prize on “Rocket to Stardom,” a local talent contest broadcast from the showroom of a Los Angeles Oldsmobile dealer.
At San Jose State College (now University), where Tom studied advertising, the brothers decided to ride the folk music wave and formed the Casual Quintet. In early 1959, by then a trio with Bobby Blackmore as lead singer, they began performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, a popular showcase for folk singers and comedians, billed as the Smothers Brothers and Gawd.
Gradually, the brothers introduced comic patter into their act, satirizing the folk music scene and turning their sibling rivalry — which was genuine — into shtick. The act “slowly evolved to be a running argument between two brothers who sang but never finished a song,” Smothers said in 2006.
The brothers became regulars on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar, “The Garry Moore Show” and “The New Steve Allen Show.” They signed with Mercury Records and recorded “The Smothers Brothers at the Purple Onion,” the first of several successful albums. They toured college campuses nonstop.
In 1963, Tom married Stephanie Shorr. The marriage ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Rochelle Robley. In addition to his brother, he is survived by his wife, Marcy Carriker Smothers; their son, Bo, and daughter, Riley Rose Smothers; and a grandson. His son from his first marriage, Thomas Bolyn Smothers IV, died this year.
In a statement, Dick Smothers said, “Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner.”
In 1965, CBS gave the brothers their own sitcom, “The Smothers Brothers Show,” produced by Aaron Spelling. It did not play to their strengths: Tom played a probationary angel sent back to Earth to move in with and watch over his brother, a swinging bachelor played by Dick.
The ratings were strong, but it was a miserable experience. Deprived of their instruments and a live audience, and saddled with a laugh track, the brothers struggled.
“It was a nothing show,” Tom told The New York Times in 1967. “There was no point of reference, nothing meaningful, no satire in it.”
After “The Garry Moore Show” failed to challenge “Bonanza” on Sunday nights, Michael Dann, the head programmer at CBS, took a chance on a Smothers Brothers variety show.
Connecting with the young
Expectations were low, but “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” connected with viewers, especially younger ones, and outperformed “Bonanza” in the ratings. The humor was irreverent, the writing was sharp, and musical guests like the Who and Jefferson Airplane broke the variety-show mold.
A war with CBS executives began almost immediately, and a pattern quickly developed. The censors would cut words, lines or entire sketches. Smothers would fight tooth and nail to have them reinstated, often successfully. When thwarted, he would complain loudly and publicly.
After CBS cut the words “breast” and “heterosexual” from an early sketch, written by Elaine May, about two professional censors (played by Tom Smothers and May), Smothers told the Times: “The censors censored the censorship bit. It’s a real infringement of our creative rights.”
CBS began insisting that an advance tape of each week’s show be sent to the network and its affiliates for their review. In April 1969, when the tape of a show that included a satirical sermon delivered by comedian David Steinberg, failed to arrive on schedule for the second time, CBS informed the brothers that they had broken their contract and that the show, whose option had been renewed two weeks earlier, would be canceled.
In an interview for the Archive of American Television in 2000, Smothers looked back on the show and its impact. “It was the ’60s that we reflected,” he said. “The country was going through a revolution — a social revolution, a political and consciousness revolution, about government and its part. We tried to reflect that.”