Tom Smothers

Tuesday, May 29, 2001

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 29, 2001, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Today we’re joined by a man whose inventive comedy with the Smothers Brothers made us laugh and made us think. We’re delighted to welcome Tom Smothers. Great to have you here.

Tom Smothers: Thank you.

Paulson: I got a kick out of reading your bio, indicating that you were once a big fan of George Goebel.

Smothers: I saw George Goebel when I was 15 years old on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” And I said, “God, that is pretty good! I’d like to do that!” I remember his first routine I saw was he lost his bowling ball. And he explained it to the police, he reported it stolen or lost. And they said, “Describe it.” He said, “Well, it’s round and it’s black with three holes in it.” They said, “Well, are the holes on the top or the bottom?” “Well …” (Laughs) It just went on and on without any real jokes. And I said, “I’d like to do that.” Before I knew I wanted to be a professional … I thought it was a monologuist, he stands up and gives things. So here’s my first impression. And Burl Ives was my first musical import where it struck me as something kind of neat. And between the two of them … and George Goebel played the guitar. He had a great big guitar. They took his guitar away. Not many people know that, but he was pretty good.

Paulson: Now you and your brother Dick essentially started as a folk-singing duo.

Smothers: We started in high school as singing pop music. The first song we sang was “Sh-Boom.” And we were singing Somethin’ Smith & the Redheads, some songs. And then the Kingston Trio and the Weavers came along. I said, “Oh, man, that’s really good stuff,” and we started singing folk music. It had a story. And we started listening to everybody. Judy Collins and all these people were singing songs. I just picked them up and played with them a little bit. And then we became known as satirists. (Laughs)

Paulson: What year did the television show go on the air?

Smothers: The “Comedy Hour” went on in 1966, ’67 … two and a half seasons. The first season, interesting. Had a few problems here. But I said I would like to have a show that at least has something that makes you think. And Mason Williams was my mentor. I mentored him, but he was my conscience, in a sense. We’d look at sketches and they were vacuous, we’d try to put something into them that would translate into a higher, more intelligent … not just a Red Skelton show, which I liked, but with a little thought in it.

Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship of a censor to a television show?

Smothers: They call them “Program Practices and Standards,” which were set up to cut out naughty words and things like that. And they watched it. But when we started getting into reflecting what was happening in Vietnam and stuff, they didn’t know how to handle that because it didn’t come to their purveyance of what this was (Inaudible). “War is bad for children and other living things.” They said, “Well, this is a Communist-front organization or something.” They didn’t know. This is 30 years ago. My take on it now in time, when I listen to today’s free speech/First Amendment being thrown around like an old rag and waved as a banner to allow anything to be said without any content, it’s being abused absolutely, in my mind. When you talk about Eminem or the rock groups, and I see Jack Valenti get up and defend Sony for their violent television games and gratuitous sex and violence and they say, “Free speech! Free speech!” — I say, what is this about? I mean, we were thrown off from the real reason of free speech, questioning the government. And Jack Valenti didn’t say a word. In fact, we couldn’t even get an attorney to defend us. We had to go to the ACLU, the first time I came in contact with them. I think they’re going a little wacko myself on the other side. (Laughter) But there they were for us to take our case to court. Nowadays every attorney in the world would love to have that case, it’s so litigious now and everybody’s looking to make a buck on these issues. But back then we were kind of on our own.

Paulson: I think a lot of people would be amazed at some of the incidents you faced in putting that show together and some of the battles. I guess words like “mind-blowing” would be something that would unsettle the censors at the time.

Smothers: Well, Pete Seeger, we had him on. We were folk musicians, we respected that. I never had any idea until just bringing him on the show that he was blacklisted. I was not politically aware at that time.

Paulson: There were 17 or 18 years that Pete Seeger appeared nowhere because they believed he was a Communist and he couldn’t appear on network television. Did you break that logjam? Did you just simply invite him?

Smothers: Yeah, we invited him.

Paulson: Did you have to go to someone at CBS?

Smothers: No, I had creative control, see? (Laughs)

Paulson: I see.

Smothers: So I had on whoever I wanted on. And I ask my guests, “What would you like to sing?” And he said, “I’d like to sing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.’” I said, “Fine, go ahead.” He sang the song. Program Practices said, “You can’t do that.”

Paulson: That’s a song that involves soldiers marching into a river and the fool says, “March on.”

Smothers: It was supposedly in 1942, a training — but it was actually a parallel to the Vietnam War. “Waist deep … deeper … deeper into it.” And he wrote the song and they took it off. I made a big stink about it. Got a lot of attention in the press. We invited him back again and said, “What would you like to sing, Mr. Seeger?” He said, “‘Waist Deep.’” And I said, “Be my guest.” And he sang it again. This time they left it on because things were changing. We reflected pretty much the counterculture at that time and everybody on the show was basically 30 or under. Mason Williams was a huge moral, ethical support for me. My concern now about First Amendment is this abuse of it. I remember being invited to “Seconding the First.” And I said, “I don’t know about that.” Because I see that guy from … what’s his … shock jock, Howard Stern. “First Amendment, First Amendment.” It’s mostly innocuous. I mean, people have said, “Don’t you wish you had your television show now, Tommy Smothers? You can say anything you want. Look at what’s going on.” I said, “Well, that’s not exactly true, is it?” There’s an illusion of narcissistic crotch focus, language, sexuality, but not much political satire or dissent in primetime. It’s all on the late … you have Dennis Miller and you have Bill Maher and you have “Saturday Night Live,” some of these programs. But they’re all on the fringes, there’s nothing in prime time. I think we’re the last show that said, “Hey, we think the American policy’s bad in Central America or bad in Southeast Asia and we don’t agree with that.” But we did it in an interesting way. But there’s no political satire being done in prime time. There’s taboo subject matters that were never discussed that the Program Practices were set up to stop from happening back in the early times of broadcasting.

Paulson: Did you watch the “Saturday Night Live” series of mock debates, Gore and Bush?

Smothers: Yeah, that was wonderful.

Paulson: That was pretty close to the spirit of what you’re talking about.

Smothers: All good stuff, yes.

Paulson: Let me challenge you a little bit about your sense that First Amendment may be misapplied today. When you think about a skit on your show called “Tea with Goldie,” not truly a political message, obviously hinting at the joy of drugs … you wouldn’t have wanted to be censored for that, although it really was not an overt attack on the government.

Smothers: No.

Paulson: Was that misapplying the First Amendment, to protect jokes about illicit use of drugs?

Smothers: Well, you got me there. Isn’t that pretty interesting? It might be.

Paulson: You had some extraordinarily powerful moments on the television show that never appeared. I’m specifically talking about Harry Belafonte being on, singing a song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival.”

Smothers: With new words to it.

Paulson: With new words and an interesting set. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Smothers: Well, we had him on the last season of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and each year got a little more testy. The disagreements got heavier and I became more politicized, became an advocate more than I should have been in hindsight. But we had Belafonte on and they wrote a nice piece with a collection of his calypso songs with the backdrop of the National Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, which was an incredibly violent thing. We had all these things happening with him singing these songs in a satirical way. And they said, “Tom, we told you, you can’t have any violence on the television.” (Laughs) And so they took it off and put in a paid commercial for Richard Nixon’s run for the White House. (Laughter) I wasn’t a very tolerant guy. I had a pretty good temper and I would have fits all the time, but it seemed to be effective. (Laughs)

Paulson: Were there early signs in that show that you were going to have rough going? Did you get more aggressive as time went on?

Smothers: I got more aggressive as the war escalated and we saw Kent State and these protests taking place. We in turn just were reflecting that. It wasn’t premeditated. It was a pretty spontaneous reflection. We came back in 1988 and did some shows for CBS. About the sixth show into these one-hour specials, one of the CBS guys said, “Pick it up a little bit. A little controversial, a little edgy. Can we have a little more edgy?” And so I said OK. And Dick was doing an introduction. I came out in a bunny suit with just my face showing with these big ears and a pink bunny suit. He says, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m protesting our policies in Central America.” “So, wearing a bunny suit doesn’t make any sense.” I said, “Neither does our policy in Central America.” “Well, that looks stupid.” “So does our policy!” “Well, get out of that bunny suit!” “We ought to get out of Central America!” Big laughs, very funny. And that was at dress rehearsal. The guy says, “Well, now, you’ve got to say at the end there, ‘But it’s up to our elected officials to get us out of this.’” (Laughter) So I said, “OK.” Then that was even funnier, like they’re gonna do that. So that kind of entertainment still is not seen where most people are watching.

Paulson: You aggravated at least two presidents, LBJ and Richard Nixon —

Smothers: (Laughs) I love that.

Paulson: … maybe more. And clearly, there was this sense that you had power. Do you feel like you influenced policy, that you influenced people, that you in some modest way helped change the world?

Smothers: I think it’s a modest way somewhere along the line. To see what other power it was, obviously it was influencing because we were thrown off the air. So people said, “You were ahead of your time.” I said, “Well, if we were ahead of our time, no one would have paid attention to us. We were right on time.” That was a very powerful move, to take us off the air at that time. It’s kind of nice. We get a lot of residual respect from people in their ’40s and ’50s who said, “Oh, you were a breath of fresh air for us, and we watched you.” And that’s a nice feeling. At the time we were doing it, of course, I had no idea. I’d have kept better records, a journal. Because I’m asked more about this than anything. I kept getting these interviews about John Lennon. They’d say, “We want to do a thing on VH1 on the Who, on Steve Martin, on Mama Cass. They come to me. I said, “What am I, a suppository of information?” I said, “Geez, that sounds exactly like George W.” (Laughter) So I get that, “aren’t you a suppository?” “I’m a repository of information.” (Laughter)

Paulson: You mention John Lennon. You were there at the bed-in and you were part of “Give Peace a Chance.”

Smothers: I was playing the guitar and he corrected me, you know.

Paulson: You have to tell. Very few people were sitting there and we need to hear about that.

Smothers: We were in … Montreal, I think it was. The Bed-In for Peace, it was 1969. And I was invited to show up. They were in bed and they were laying there. Timothy Leary, a bunch of kind of radical people were there. “We’ll sing the song, Tom. Here’s another guitar.” And they start playing, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” And he was playing in D or some simple chord. So I went up the next chord inversion, I was playing in another version, put a little diminished passing chord. He says, “Oh, stop.” He says, “Play it exactly like I’m playing it. Don’t play that.” I thought I was showing him all my good stuff. He says, “Just repeat exactly, double the guitar. That’s what I want.” I said, “OK, OK.”

Paulson: And you sang on that. You were on the video. I gather you’re not getting royalties from that performance.

Smothers: No. Doesn’t matter, does it?

Paulson: Did that surprise you, that a song that was overtly political, sung by a Beatle or not, would become such a best-selling record and really an anthem?

Smothers: It was a beautiful song, wasn’t it? Just so simple.

Paulson: Did it feel that way in the room?

Smothers: I kind of had a feeling, yeah. I had a feeling it was going to be that kind of song.

Paulson: One of the overriding themes of this show is that artists often use their work to make a statement, to make a difference. And one of the remarkable things about your program was the number of people you had on who did precisely that. Joan Baez once came on and wanted to dedicate a song to her husband, which for most people would seem like a rather innocuous thing to do. But that unsettled the censors as well.

Smothers: She dedicated — Harris was his name. “I dedicate it to my husband who resisted the draft aboveboard and is going to prison for it.” And they cut out the reason. “I’m dedicating this to my husband who’s going to prison.” And it was very upsetting. But that’s when the pressure was coming on. That was 1969. It’s hard for people to remember that aren’t old enough to remember, it was the most divisive time that I recall, maybe since the Civil War as far as difference of opinion. You were either a longhair or shorthair, a hawk or a dove, love it or leave it. There was no room at all for any kind of equivocation in this. And Joan Baez, my goodness, she’s done so many good things. And I only had a television show with my brother that at the time reflected a thing. We never have put out the effort most of the people we were reflecting out there actually did, to do the marches and stuff the envelopes and do all the real things. But Joan was one of them and Seeger was one of them, a lot of people. We had Buffalo Springfield, the great song, “There’s something happening,” ["For What It's Worth,"] you know. Great songs. Great music then, too.

Paulson: You had some momentous moments.

Smothers: But I am concerned, and it does upset me, about the same way the Second Amendment has expanded itself to the point … the First Amendment … I’m not hearing anything being said.

Paulson: And that can offend you, but what’s the alternative? To say that these are words that can’t be used?

Smothers: Well, I don’t think that we should be trotting out the First Amendment when nothing’s being said.

Paulson: But help me with this, because I’ve had this conversation with a number of people who —

Smothers: Steve Allen, too, was probably very adamant about this.

Paulson: Steve Allen was extraordinarily adamant about how the culture had gone to seed.

Smothers: And he’s bright. He’s got all the marbles going, too.

Paulson: But how do we guard against a sort of generational impulse — and I have it, too — to think that what we did was not all that shocking and not that appalling, and what they’re doing today is shocking and appalling? Chuck D. of Public Enemy was in that chair last week and he said, “My rap with Public Enemy was not dangerous, but today’s stuff I need to protect my children against.” And I’m sure there are people who viewed you as Public Enemy No. 1 in ’68 and ’69. There’s a classic quote from a woman in the Daily News saying that she hates the Smothers Brothers and if this were a totalitarian country, you’d be taken out and shot.

Smothers: (Laughs) I thought I would have been, too, in any other country.

Paulson: And it was a close call in this country, too. (Laughter) How do we protect against that?

Smothers: Well, maybe it’s already done. It’s been done. We’re now sitting here intellectualizing and philosophizing about the First Amendment, and we’re dealing with the rights of the Eminems and Tommy Smothers and the arts going over the edge, while this country is about what it’s about. And we’re sitting here in this little glass room discussing the rights of bad speech and its protection, the rights for Nazis to march in so-and-so, and ACLU protecting every little piss-ass piece of crap that comes up.

Paulson: (Laughs) Could you be a little more candid?

Smothers:Well, and then we have this stuff going on when the First Amendment was the right to (inaudible) by the government, to be able to criticize. That was the concept. We don’t hear any criticism.

Paulson: If I could talk about one final chapter on the television show — because I think a lot of people miss the direct correlation between the First Amendment and government — in the case of your being fired from CBS, and it’s a remarkable story in that the show is profitable, the ratings are good, and suddenly we have a new president, Richard Nixon, and within six weeks you’re off the air. The controversy builds around a show to be broadcast on Easter. One of the most frequently cited reasons for CBS’ objecting was a sermonette to be done by David Steinberg. But less often reported is that you took the opportunity in this show to make fun of a senator.

Smothers: Pastore?

Paulson: Yes, who was holding hearings on the content of television. Oddly enough, just weeks before your firing, Frank Stanton at CBS took a very strong stand and said to Senator Pastore, “We are not going to submit our programming to this industry organization to have them do pre-screening.” That was the proposal. The theme always is the government doesn’t want to censor you. “We don’t want to have to censor you so please censor yourself.” And CBS took a very strong First Amendment position. And then, like that, you’re gone.

Smothers: They also took a position and turned around and had all of our shows pre-screened for every single affiliate. But we got some of these Nixon tapes and it was very powerful. It’s a different dynamic now, media versus government. It’s reversed. But then, when Nixon said, “I want those guys off,” they’re off. Now if Humphrey had been elected, we would have been on. So those are just the way things happen.

Paulson: And you think Richard Nixon had something to do with —

Smothers: Oh, absolutely.

Paulson: How would that message come? A memo from the White House?

Smothers: No, they wouldn’t send you a memo. But William Paley, Dr. Stanton and Mr. Annenberg who owned TV Guide wrote a scathing thing on the Smothers Brothers. This was not all of a sudden they just kind of synched in. It was an organized thing. They both wanted ambassador to the Court of St. James, and I think Annenberg got it. But William Paley wanted it, also. The Smothers Brothers are small fish, don’t mean anything in that big picture. And that’s true. This country always allows dissent if it’s not too dissentful. (Laughter) If it’s not too  that’s our token allowance, we have freedom. There’s a lot of freedom in this country. But in the name of the United States we’re doing such damage, and it’s going to be sad. “Oh, so what would you do if you had a show now?” I said, “Mostly it’d be cash. People would come and I’d give them cash, I’d give them kickbacks.” It would be that or a lot of satire on business, how we export this and who controls what. It’s just it seems it’s hopeless and it’s just getting so … people out there, they’re going, “What can we do?” They see this last election, you see the money both parties are bringing in. And that’s the First Amendment? Excuse me? Money is the First Amendment? Freedom of speech? It would be if everybody had the equal amount of money to spend on these elections. But until that is the case … the Supreme Court’s saying that money is free expression. Now if I was really clever, I could come up with a punchline. But I’m not.

Paulson: Does any of this material make its way into your current act?

Smothers: Not very much, unless I get someone to write it. The old show, we had writers writing all the time. We had a staff of 24 writers working on sketches, working on concepts.

Paulson: And boy, did you have writers. You had legendary people working for you who in turn shaped the face of comedy for at least another decade, maybe two. Certainly Steve Martin was a major player. Who else wrote for you?

Smothers: Rob Reiner. Oh, he was a radical, too. “Come on, Tom, let’s go. Let’s get passionate here.” Steve Martin is not a social/political animal. I guess he watched me and he said, “No, I don’t want to do that.” And I watch Bill Maher. “Oh, Bill, relax. Just be observational.”

Paulson: It’s clear that you continue to feel very strongly about issues and having a social conscience is very much a part of who you are. We are also, though, looking at a generation that’s less politically connected, less politically passionate, a younger generation coming up. What are your hopes for that generation?

Smothers: Oh, man. People out there that watch this show are very bright, and I keep thinking there’s going to be a presidential candidate or some party thing that’s going to step in there. I think in this country there’s a huge amount of an innate sense of fairness, a sense of fair play. We love the underdogs. It’s the nature of our society where we do revolutionary things. And someone’s going to tap that because it’s sitting there waiting. Perot tapped it for a second, didn’t have all the things. Nader taps it a little, didn’t have the thing. But somebody will tap this and it’s going to be incredible. I mean, I’m hoping for this, knock on wood, that it becomes fair and true and honest and equitable. And there are people in this country, and I think a majority of people, who feel that way. And they haven’t been connected to the right nozzle or fire hydrant of truth. (Laughter)

Paulson: Fire hydrant of truth.

Smothers: That was pretty pathetic, wasn’t it? (Laughter)

Paulson: I’ve always enjoyed your comedy. Today I deeply appreciate your candor. Thank you for joining us today, Tommy Smothers.

Smothers: Thank you.


Paulson: Our guest has been Tom Smothers. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. Hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”