The Late Tommy Smothers Was Canceled Back When That Meant Something

The Late Tommy Smothers Was Canceled Back When That Meant Something

Tommy Smothers, one-half of sibling comedy team the Smothers Brothers, passed away yesterday at the age of 86 following a bout with cancer. Tommy and his brother Dick were famously canceled for the comedians’ courage to tackle social issues of the day on their titular TV show. The National Comedy Center released a statement celebrating Tommy for being “a true champion for freedom of speech, harnessing the power of comedy to push boundaries and our political consciousness. Tom was a true pioneer who changed the face of television and transformed our culture with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which satirized politics, combated racism, protested the Vietnam War, and led the way for Saturday Night LiveThe Daily Show, today’s network late night shows, and so much more.”

Click right here to get the best of Cracked sent to your inbox.

You wouldn’t know Tommy and Dick were counterculture icons to look at them. They started out in the early 1960s as a folk music/comedy act and their square haircuts made them unlikely candidates to lead the free speech charge. 

“Tommy told me he wanted to talk about things that were real in the world, but he wanted to do them seriously,” says comedy writer Saul Illson in Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy. One of the ways the brothers’ show took on 1960s hypocrisy was through a two-faced politician character played by Pat Paulsen, a funny bit that caught on with disenfranchised voters. “I want to be elected by the people, for the people and in spite of the people.” He was so popular that the deadpan Paulsen actually ran for President as a gag. 

By the third season, Tommy replaced the show’s original writers (many who dated back to the Jack Benny era) with hip young scribes like Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Bob (“Super Dave” Osborne) Einstein. To protect new, edgier material, Tommy would delay delivering the show tape until the last possible moment to avoid censor cuts and edits. Somehow, the network still found a way to screen the show for its affiliates — a transmitter engineer would dump the sound on jokes that the local stations found unacceptable. 

Tom’s practice of submitting late tapes was the official reason CBS canceled the brothers after initially renewing them for a fourth season. But it was the show’s content that was the real issue. For example, LAPD police chief Ed Davis wrote to CBS about the way the comedy portrayed police officers (played by Super Dave himself): “I think it is extremely reprehensible, irresponsible, inconceivable and totally malicious for your network to carry this pro-dope, anti-police theme into the homes of millions of Americans,” according to Nesteroff’s Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars

Tommy’s defiant response: “I want to tell Chief Davis that Officer Judy was not a real policeman,” he said. “I also want to tell Chief Davis that the Beverly Hillbillies do not live in Beverly Hills, the Flying Nun doesn’t really fly, and the bear on the Andy Williams Show is not a real bear.”

On another episode, the show welcomed blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger — he’d been banned from television for years. He sang his “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song widely understood to ridicule President Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War. CBS refused to air the segment, but Tom and Dick brought Seeger back and he sang it again, this time making the air. Segments like these, along with others poking fun at religion, racism and the establishment, led to CBS giving the brothers the ax.

In a statement, Dick Smothers remembered his brother and comedy cohort. “Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” he said. “Our relationship was like a good marriage — the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed.”

Scroll down for the next article


Forgot Password?