Interviews

Tom Smothers discusses his life in comedy

Tom Smothers

_____________________________________________

Time has been an essential ingredient in the Smothers Brothers’ success. They have been considered ahead of their time, masters of timing and practitioners of timeless comedy. Now as they mark over 42 years in show business, the Smothers Brothers are being saluted as time-honored legends whose lengthy career has surpassed all other comedy teams in history.

With their singular blend of comedic and musical talents, the irrepressible brothers have made a sweeping impact on diverse generations of fans. Such lasting power is a testimonial to their intuitive humor, natural warmth, superlative showmanship and the pure unadulterated joy they bring to audiences of all ages.

The contributions Tom and Dick have made to the entertainment world throughout their careers are so highly respected that the Museum of Broadcasting in New York produced a retrospective and seminar on their work, an honor not lightly accorded. On the other coast, Hollywood ceremoniously distinguished them with one of its most valuable awards: a star on the noted Hollywood Walk of Fame. The “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” is now studied in universities across the country as an important factor in the revolutionary changes undergone in the U. S. during the 1960′s.

In our exclusive interview with Tom Smothers, he discusses the evolution of their act, their early days in San Francisco, and the challenges the brothers faced as the entertainment industry’s free speech “poster boys” during the turbulent 1960′s.

 

_____________________________________________

 

 

 

JJM I wanted to ask you a question about your Purple Onion days in San Francisco. Where did you hang out in North Beach? Did you ever check out Mort Sahl or Dave Brubeck at that time?

TS Oh, yes. We worked the Purple Onion in April of 1959, when we started working regularly there. We were the opening act for a couple of people, Phyllis Diller and Ronnie Schell and some other people. I used to take the Gray Line tour on my day off, and I would go to all the jazz and show places, including the Blackhawk and Finocchio’s. I can’t remember all the places but I just loved going to the clubs. I caught Brubeck, yes. The Purple Onion would be across the street from the Hungry I, and there would be Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, Professor Irwin Corey, the Limelighters, the Kingston Trio. I used to go over and ask for 8 x 10′s and have them sign them for me. It was great fun. I was 21 and my brother Dick was 20. There was good music around there then – North Beach was a happening place. I distinctively remember taking Lenny Bruce water skiing at Strawberry Cove out in the San Francisco Bay area. We kept kidding Lenny, telling him to watch out for the sharks. There had just been a shark killing there, and he had done some material on it, and it happened that a person in the audience’s friend had just been mauled by a shark, and a fight just about took place.

JJM It was a great age for comics…

TS I remember what a great comedian Professor Irwin Corey was. He had one of the greatest openings in comedy. He would take about five minutes before he said his first word. He would take out a piece of paper and look at it, put it back in his pocket, and go back and look at the paper again like he had forgotten what was on it. It was so funny. He was referred to as the “world’s foremost authority.” I met Pat Paulsen in San Francisco, at the Purple Onion. Later on in his career, he had one of the greatest endings in show business. I always thought that would be great, in fact, to have Irwin Corey start and Paulsen finish. Paulsen’s finish usually took ten minutes. He would tell the audience that he was going to leave, and it would take about ten minutes for him to say goodbye. He would drag it out forever.

JJM I was very young at that time, but I can still remember the impressions they left on me. These guys seemed so different and their sense of timing drew me in.

TS Professor Irwin Corey had some of the best timing in the world, and that is something you can’t steal. He talked nonsense, not punch-lines, per se. It was a great performance thing he did and his timing was impeccable. Pat Paulsen was a master of comedy too. The Smothers Brothers’ strength was not in the content, but how it was said. We had a couple of our albums, including the Purple Onion album, translated in script form. It didn’t work at all. It is no wonder that writers had a hard time writing for the Smothers Brothers, because they wrote impressions, but there was something else. We were at the Purple Onion for the first time for 13 straight weeks. Cruz Luna was a flamenco dancer, and we had auditioned one Saturday, and they said they liked us and would use us maybe in a month or two. A week later they called and told us that Luna got sick, would we come in? So, we filled in, and worked 13 weeks before going off to do a job in Eureka, California. We came back and did another three or four months. That was the essence of where we got our professional “chops” done, where we learned our craft. Sometimes we would do three or four shows a night, little 10-15 minute sets. There were three acts on the show, Ronnie Schell, Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers. That was a great way to learn what you do. You learn your craft very rapidly in front of an audience.

JJM You find out what does and doesn’t work instantaneously.

TS Yes, right away. Since we were doing three or four shows a night, by the end of the week we had more shows than most comedians get generally in a month.

JJM  Can you talk a little about how the act evolved from there? Did you start out playing it straight?

TSWe pretty much started out as singers. I wanted to be a bandleader when I was a youngster, at 10 or 11. I had a band – clarinet, accordion, drums, piano player, and me, the guitar player. We played everything in my key. Clarinets were written in Bb, but I didn’t care, he could play it in C! I was always involved in some kind of musical thing, and Dick and I were in choir in Redondo High School and we had a barbershop quartet, and started singing other things. We sang “Sh-boom” by the Crewcuts, and I backed up other singers with guitar. Dick and I started singing with a trio, along with Bobby Blackmore, and the first three or four months he was with us. He sang the lead and we did the harmony parts. He decided to leave, since there was no future in it, and Dick and I took off and went to Aspen, where we worked at a place called the Limelight, with Judy Collins and Don Crawford, two folk singers. We learned a couple of songs, a Belafonte song, and we started doing take-offs on other people’s stuff. Judy Collins would sing a song that took forever. We would do it, and wreck it. Don Crawford would do the “John Henry” song, we would do a fun version of it. So, we started to satirize folk singers, and the comedy started evolving. Dick used to say nothing, I did all the talking. I told him he needed to say something because it was too hard for me. So, he would write an introduction to a song. Pretty soon, when I started talking, he would say, “That’s not right.” Or, “That’s stupid.” That was about 70% Dick and about 30% me, as far as the dialogue goes, and it balanced better that way. I watched Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello and many of the comedy teams on old television shows. I noticed that the straight man was the one who did most of the talking, therefore the comedian had a breather and didn’t get overexposed. In 1979 or 1980, after doing some theatre, we started working again. We changed the balance of the act around, which has given us some longevity. It let the act “wear” better. How would Lou Costello be with Abbott? Dick saw Jerry Lewis and I asked him how the show was. He said it was pretty good but after awhile you can’t help but think he is missing somebody. During the early time of vaudeville, the straight man was paid more money because it was a skilled position. It was the one that took the skill. Bud Abbot was a very famous straight man in vaudeville before he met Lou Costello. He was paid more money, and I can understand it, although Dickie doesn’t get paid more than me. The straight man is the drummer, the bass player. He is the person who keeps the tempo going, and keeps it real. If the audience believes the straight man, then they will believe the comedian. We are the last comedian team, it seems.

JJM Seinfeld picked up on that a little bit. I know they had an ensemble, but most often it was an interaction between two people…

TS I don’t know if it picked up on that, but it was a lot like the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” where he was a reactor more than an instigator. As far as a working team in clubs, no one is doing it.

JJM You were the driving energy in terms of keeping it going. You mentioned a little earlier that some of your cohorts in the business didn’t see a future in it. At that point did you always sense there was a future in it, or were you mostly driven by your passion for doing it?

TS I was mostly driven by the fun of doing it. I saw no farther ahead than the next job. Dick and I were constantly surprised by the success we had, and had no idea where it was going. We started in 1959, in April, and we were fired from CBS in April of 1969. We had a decade of uninterrupted success in all areas – records, television, personal appearances. Everything was just a big success. That was the high point of my career, during the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Everything went downhill after that. We were sort of black-balled, and the work dried up. I became a kind of poster boy for the First Amendment freedom of speech and got caught up in that thing, and lost my sense of humor for a while. I ended up doing some dinner theatre in the mid 70′s, and in the late 70′s Dickie did some dinner theatre. I did “Play it Again, Sam,” and Dick did “Not Now Darling” and a couple of other things. Then, we were approached in 1977 to do a Broadway show and we jumped at it. We didn’t play brothers, but it was a wonderful show called “I Love My Wife,” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Right across the street was Jack Lemmon in “Tribute.” Next door was Claudette Colbert and Rex Harrison in a play…It was wonderful, a whole new life that we had never experienced before. At times when I was studying, I would watch daytime television and watch Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy. In 1980, Robin Williams asked us to come down and do a benefit for battered children at a Hollywood night club. Prior to the performance, Dick and I listened to an album of ours because we hadn’t done our act in four or five years. It went over pretty well, so we decided to try it again. We tried to find an agent, but no one was interested, and we thought we were dead in the water. Finally, someone said they would take us on. So, we started opening for people in Vegas, and started doing comedy clubs around the country. We wound up doing about 300 dates a year on the road. Then, we got a commercial for Magnavox, and for four years we were national spokesmen for them. That led to a Smothers Brothers 20th reunion show. We performed 19 specials, and all of a sudden we are cooking again. So, its been 43 years now. The first ten years were perfect, the second ten were the dark ages, where we learned a lot of theatre work to apply to our act, and the third decade was trying to work our way back into it. Now it’s 43 years and we are icons, I guess, historical figures! People call me and say “Tell me about John Lennon and Steve Martin,” as if I were a repository of information.

JJM It shows you that the public is fickle. Many people have a dedication and drive and don’t get any hours in the limelight until later. You guys certainly found yourself at the forefront of a movement. I wanted to talk about that a little bit, your battle with the censors and the TV show. Your show was quite traditional in form and style. Were you surprised to find yourselves in the middle of this clash of two social movements? Were you surprised by the censorship that took place?

TS It was all a surprise. Everything amazed us during the first part of our career. Every project we got we just barely qualified for. We barely had the skills. It was risk taking all the way from our first sit-com to the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”  When I took that show, the first sit-com was 32 episodes on CBS, and the writing was just awful. We had a difficult first night. I had no control, I couldn’t change the writing, I couldn’t say anything, so when I was dropped, CBS said there was a variety show spot open. I said if I take it, I want creative control over the writing and directors. They said that was fine, thinking it wouldn’t last for a minute. It turned out to be a big hit, and I started bringing in young writers like Mason Williams, Lorenzo Music, who has done a lot of voices for Garfield and such, and guitar players and pickers that I knew. People like Pat Paulsen. We had a say on who we booked on the show, and it was quite fun. The Vietnam War was starting to heat up, and we were all in our twenties. There was a point of view that was happening in the country, and we just reflected it. Rob Reiner came on as director, and everyone was pretty much young at heart and idealistic. We all agreed to put little sketches in the show satirizing things, promoting peace. The civil rights movement was going on, so we had stuff on that. We put a little bit of an edge into it. I remember when I started the show, I didn’t want to be vacuous. I wanted it to have some content that meant something, that made people think. Then, when they started censoring, I was surprised. I didn’t think they could do that. All of a sudden I was involved with the FCC, who ruled that I wasn’t doing anything that would jeopardize anyone’s license. I started reading the book on codes and all that stuff, and it became quite gritty – the confrontation with CBS. Richard Nixon got elected by a very close margin. If Hubert Humphrey had been elected, perhaps there would have been a much different story concerning our career. CBS picked up our third season before the election. After the election, we were filming our second year and they fired us. It was basically from Nixon on. Even today, there is no prime time satire. People ask me if I wish I were in television today because I could say anything I wanted, but I say, what is being said? Nothing is being said. Once in a while on the fringes, for example, there is Bill Maher, but that is on late, when a very small percentage of people are watching. Nobody is saying anything during prime time, particularly about challenging and satirizing policy. So, it is a strange time to celebrate the first amendment when this country seems to have taken freedom of speech in another way, with the Howard Stern’s and that kind of thing. That is kind of disappointing.

JJM The media has a way of segmenting that stuff now, and basically dissolving it.

TS Yes, putting it on the fringe. Bill Maher got in trouble for his point of view after the 9/11 attacks. This country is still walking around in lock-step pretty much. You are not hearing much criticism. There is a little more legitimate criticism coming out, but still…

JJM The personality of the leadership has an awful lot to do with the climate too.

TS Whether Republican or Democrat, as Ralph Nader said, they are pretty much the same people. They were both paid by Enron also. Not enough people in this country are holding this government responsible for what we do around the world. What Enron did to the American shareholders here, can you imagine what the corporations do to the other countries? Talk about exploiting people. And then we can’t understand why people walk around muttering about why they hate us.

JJM You did get some pretty edgy stuff on the air though…

TS Yes, we did get edgy stuff on. At the time, because on prime time you don’t criticize the President or the policy. People on the streets were doing it, so we reflected it also on our television show, so we paid the price by being fired. In hindsight, although that was very painful, years later I get this residual respect from people who tell me that the show really helped form them, helped expand their thoughts. That is a good thing.

JJM The censorship thing…were you ever sure what you could get away with, or were you just giving it a try to see what would happen?

TS I was pretty sure of what free speech was, and I pretty much knew where we could go, and they had an idea of where I couldn’t go. So, we locked horns many many times. We put in red herrings – things that meant nothing but were very powerful – and then we would take them out and argue with them so other things would get through. During the 60′s when the drug culture and grass was around, we would put in little references that they didn’t know just to keep it interesting. There was a gal named Leigh French on the show in a segment called “Share a little tea with Goldie.” She was a hippie, and she had this little intro she would use to get to the women. “Good morning ladies, I would like to welcome you as I always do. Hi.” It was so subtle that a lot of people wouldn’t get it. There were some very important things that we said, and there are people who are still resentful of that, whether hawks or doves, right wing or hippie, you had to be one or the other, there was no middle ground, kind of like it is now. It is not a good place to be.

JJM Dan Rowan of “Laugh-In” once said that his show used politics as a platform for comedy and the Smothers used comedy as a platform for politics. Was that accurate?

TS Yes, that is pretty accurate. If politics is free speech, then that was politics. I am not hearing a lot of comedians speaking out in righteous indignation, but you hear it in music – in folk music. A song is a great way to say things. You put it in a song and all of a sudden its art, and it has a message. We had no characters to hide behind. It was Tommie Smothers and Dickie Smothers. We weren’t playing Archie Bunker. The character can get away with more.

JJM There was a headline in today’s paper, “TV Giants Get Win in Court.” A federal appeals panel ruled that cable and broadcast networks can consolidate now…

TS Deregulation. It is going to end up with two broadcasters with control. You are not hearing a lot of stuff coming from networks anymore. The freedom of expression is really on the Internet. That is where the real stuff is happening. The real caustic, uncensored passions are certainly not on mainstream broadcasting.

JJM That is one of things we are hearing from a lot of the people we are talking to. They are saying that the compelling writing, literature and reporting will be on the Internet.

TS I believe that is true. It is a sad commentary that we are not hearing on the big things because we have a nation of ignorance. The masses, based on these polls, you can’t help but wonder who are they interviewing? What is going on here?

JJM I have to admit that sometimes I feel I am on a skit on a TV program, because all the stuff seems so orchestrated.

TS It sure does to me too, and thinking people are aware. Good patriots are the people who criticize the country when they see there is something going wrong. Ones who embrace patriotism in the name of unity are the opposite. That is that. I still get angry when I read the papers…Dick and I were not clever enough, as are Bill Maher or Mort Sahl. We were comedians who have a passion about right and wrong and ethics, but not clever enough to really place it in our show as much. When we had our television show, we had a lot of writers, Steve Martin and Rob Reiner and Mason Williams and many others. We could make a point. Now it is just Dickie and I, and we have observations in our show. One of our lines has to do with him catching me in a lie. He catches me, and asks me why I lied. I say “national policy.” It always get a big laugh, no matter what side of the political spectrum you are on – right or left – most people feel they are not getting the straight stuff, and that politicians are bought, we know that.

Anyway, Dickie and I can look back at our work with some pride. So, that is kind of nice. There are other things I am not so proud of. We could have done better work, we could have made some moves maybe we didn’t. But, overall, I am pleased with where the Smothers Brothers are. We are in the twilight of our careers. It’s been 43 years. I am 65, my brother is 63, and it has been a good solid career. A good vaudeville and comedy team with a little moment on the road where it went beyond comedy and it made a statement. Otherwise, we are having a good time. We do 100 dates a year, and we will keep doing it until people stop showing up or we are not funny and we know it, or we lose our edge.

JJM You have young children. Has this altered your view on censorship in any way?

TS Not at all. Things that are being said so freely are so vacuous. Our kids are going to read and see movies. You go to a PG movie and you hear the word “asshole” or “fuck” all the time. So, that is not a problem. At home is where we set the standards. Let’s just hope we get them educated, keep them ethical and encourage them to become truth-seekers. That is the best thing you can teach your children. To maintain integrity and keep your word, all of those basic things you are taught in the home. That is our job. I perform for my kids, and I do a little show for children, and they love it. Yo-Yo Man, they go crazy for. They like to see two guys arguing, and so the kids like the show too. We are a family show. In the last year, we put a ten minute video tape of the show within our concert performances that gives a retrospective on the Smothers Brothers and some highlights from the Comedy Hour. For example, Pete Seeger singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Overall, it’s a good life.

JJM One last question. Who would you say your heroes were?

TS The first comedian I saw who had a great impact on me was George Gobel. I saw him in the early 50′s on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” He didn’t tell jokes, he just had this wonderful timing. He had a guitar, and talked about losing his bowling ball. He went to the police station, and told the cops someone stole his bowling ball, and described it. He was describing how it was round, and had holes in it. They asked him if the holes were on the top or the bottom. I was falling on the floor. It was very funny stuff. He was the first guy that got me interested in comedy. Also, Laurel and Hardy I loved very much, the way they have stood up to the test of time. Genuine, wonderful air, a lot of air in there, silent spots. Jack Benny was the same thing. Political heroes…Ralph Nader still stands out in my mind as a man who has stayed the course and not been swayed by a lot of things. Ted Turner is a hero of mine. I like where his head is at. He has a sense of putting his money where his mouth is. He puts on those Goodwill Games, and tries to do the best he can to make things better. I like him. Otherwise, the good people we all recognize, and the good ones right thinking people know. It is getting harder and harder to find the white hats though, because everyone is wearing gray. Earlier in our lives, it was pretty clear. We tend to demonize people and we are quick to apologize for expressing views.

 

 _____________________________________________

Dick and Tom Smothers

*

This interview took place on February 20, 2002

 

_______________________________

Smothers Brothers products at Amazon.com

_______________________________

*

If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Lenny Bruce biographer David Skover.

 

*

Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews