Political satire dying out, Tom Smothers says

Wednesday, May 30, 2001
Tom Smothers, left, with Ken Paulson.

NEW YORK — Political satire is a dying art form, Tom Smothers said yesterday during a taping of “Speaking Freely” at the First Amendment Center.

“To be a satirist is more difficult these days,” Smothers said. “In the 1960s there was a clear and present danger” with the Vietnam War. In that hot political environment, he said, satirists were doing what they do best: “questioning the government — one of the best reasons for the First Amendment.”

In the late 1960s, CBS gave Smothers and his brother Dick creative control over their TV show, “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Smothers said they set out to produce a show that made people think — “not exactly like the Red Skelton show.”

As the Vietnam War escalated, Smothers said he became “more aggressive” in his opinions about U.S. involvement. “We were just reflecting what was going on. It was a pretty spontaneous reflection.”

At the same time, the Smotherses had to deal with the industry’s Program Practices and Standards Committee, which Smothers says was “set up to cut out naughty words” on TV. However, when it came to political satire and Vietnam, “they didn’t know how to handle it.”

In one incident, singer Joan Baez was to perform a song on the Smothers show and planned to dedicate her song to her husband, “who resisted the draft and was going to prison.” However, the Program Practices and Standards Committee told Baez to delete reference to the draft. Thus what the CBS audience heard that night was that Baez was dedicating her song to her husband “who was going to prison.”

The right to question the government is being exercised by fewer performers these days — and even fewer in prime time, Smothers said. “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher, comedian Dennis Miller and the cast from “Saturday Night Live” are examples of surviving satirists, Smothers said.

Today the First Amendment is being put to other use, or rather, “abuse,” according to Smothers.

“Today when I hear First Amendment and free speech being thrown around like an old rag, my concern is the abuse of it,” Smothers said, citing rap star Eminem and radio talk show host Howard Stern as examples of performers who he feels take advantage of free-speech protection. “There’s an illusion that narcissistic … dirty language” should be protected,” he said.

Moderator Ken Paulson noted, however, that many people use Smothers’s argument when the First Amendment protects the minority view. He also said that older generations needed to “guard against the impulse [to say that] what we did wasn’t that dangerous.” After all, Paulson said, some of the cities that banned the musical production “Hair” also have banned performances of Eminem.

Still, Smothers said, “something is out of sync” when the country denies any connection between what children are exposed to in the media and their behavior. He urged kids today to raise their political consciousness and to search for the truth. And a little more satirical criticism of government, he suggested, wouldn’t hurt, either.

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