The Best and Worst of Humanity: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

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“The Best and Worst of Humanity”

Seemingly non-threatening, brothers Tom and Dick Smothers were born in New York City. However, by the time the brothers had reached thirty, they managed to create one of the most controversial shows on television of its time. In 1968, the Brothers dealt with topics such as the Democratic National Convention and the Vietnam War using comedic elements that sketch comedy shows still employ today, illustrating the pervasive memory of the Smothers Brothers. Today, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour still influences sketch comedy and the boundaries of television.

In the sketch, “Pat Paulsen” the brothers satirized presidential candidates in response the election in 1968. The fictional candidate, Paulsen, claims that although he’s not the charismatic candidate at least he “doesn’t embarrass the entire nation.” Throughout the sketch, he continues to satirize presidential speeches—a mix of pathos and promises without any real substance. He praises his supporters while also referring to humanity as “crybabies.” Paulsen represented the presidential candidate chosen by the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Hubert Humphrey. In the time leading up the convention, the party became distinctly divided after the primaries and Kennedy’s assassination. As a result, Humphrey was chosen as a safe option, much like the neutral “Pat Paulsen.” Politically satirical sketches such as these later inspired other comedy sketch shows to mock the political process. Notably, Saturday Night Live today still performs sketches that satirize political figures such as Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, and Sarah Palin. The Smothers Brothers influence and willingness to cross the line created a precedent for comedy shows to make a statement on the political atmosphere.

In addition to the political commentary provided, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour set a familiar trend in comedic satire—conversations with the subjects at hand. For example, the Smothers brothers often mocked President Lyndon B. Johnson, from his barbecue sauce recipe to his policy. As a result, Lyndon B. Johnson made calls to the network, CBS, and CBS pressured the Smothers Brothers to censor their content. Ultimately, the Brothers persisted and put their show at risk as a result. Today, President Trump frequently criticizes Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him, even calling SNL “Sad.” However, the persistence of the Smothers Brothers serves as an inspiration for comedic shows today to not be influenced by the political figures that they criticize and actively pursue their satirical comedy.

In 1968, one of the most popular shows, and the biggest competition to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, was NBC’s Bonanza, a Western Drama that centered around a mid-western ranch family that dealt with familial struggles. Bonanza’s content and ideals were better suited for older generations while, in contrast, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour made political statements that better represented the younger generation and yippies, such as criticizing religion and the NRA. In one instance, the Smothers Brothers called the Vietnam War a “folly,” during the Vietnam War with viewers being parents of soldiers. As a result, Comedy Hour did not run nearly as long as Bonanza’s fourteen seasons, it only ran for three. However, the commentary and overall tone of Comedy Hour produced an array of creative voices such as Steve Martin and Rob Reiner that would later produce creative works of their own that would affect the television scene. It is important to distinguish that during the second season of Comedy Hour, in 1968, audiences were not looking for television as an escape into similar times, like Bonananza, they were looking for voices that entertained their similar ideas. Television was not meant to be passive, but active in the political conversation. The modern day equivalent would be The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, comedic shows with over-arching political commentary. But, while The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight have been applauded by critics and beloved by audiences, Comedy Hour did not have the same success. A combination of viewership complaint and risky political commentary, led to censorship by CBS and ultimately its cancellation after three short seasons in 1969, despite dominating Bonanza in ratings at times.

The Brothers continuous battle with censorship led to several pieces being cut, even those with the most political and social justice influence. In 1968, the Brothers wrote a sketch in which the calypso-style musician Harry Belafonte sang a modified “Don’t Start the Carnival” as videos of the Democratic National Convention protests played in the background. While singing “Shake, shake, shake America, shake!” videos of police brutality highlighted the unfair treatment of protest goers. Cheerily, Belafonte sings “don’t stop the carnival,” while a video of a woman dancing inside the Convention plays. Through this, the Brothers illustrate the subtle truth that while the Convention is busy celebrating inside, citizens practicing their rights are subjected to unfair and hostile treatment. In the end, the sketch never made it to air, but in the years after, it found its way onto the internet. In many ways, this unique format of commentary still exists in modern sketch comedy. Today, Saturday Night Live produces musical sketches such as “Welcome to Hell” (highlighting sexual assault) and “This is Not a Feminist Song” (highlighting the feminist movement). Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour created a distinct format of musical comedic criticism in 1968 which is still employed today in entertainment.

The Smothers Brothers were once introduced as “The Best and Worst of Humanity.” Their Comedy Hour produced 71 episodes of comedic entertainment (The Best) while also illustrating harsh truths in the political and social world (The Worst). Some regarded them as tasteless while others felt they were the voice of their generation. Today, their influence in 1968 is felt in sketch comedy still as a way of preserving informative and critical comedy that is still entertaining.

 

More information on how television influenced 1968.

Another example of politically aware pop-culture.

 

Works Cited

Bianculli, David. “The Smothers Brothers: Laughing at Hard Truths.” The New York Times, 3 Feb. 2017.

McKairnes, Jim. “50-Year Flashback: The Rebellious ‘Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’.” USA Today, 31 Jan. 2017.

“Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Performance by Dick Smothers, and Tom Smothers, YouTube, 22 Feb. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofkWquKmUIU.

Bianculli, David. “50 Years Later, The Biting Satire Of ‘The Smothers Brothers’ Still Resonates.” NPR, NPR, 10 Feb. 2017, www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514104444/50-years-later-the-biting-satire-of-the-smothers-brothers-still-resonates.

Author: Claire Goray

PlayMakers Repertory

2 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Humanity: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”

  1. This was a really awesome post! I think you definitely showed how The Smothers Brothers memory is still relevant today because of shows like SNL, and I think you displayed how it the show itself was representative of the political activism present in 1968. There were a few grammatical errors, so I would read through the post to make sure it sounds how you would like it to, and I think if you could add some photos of the brothers or some of their sketches it would make your work really visually appealing. Other than that, I thought this was a really good piece. Great job!

  2. I was fascinated by this post because it made me think of political climate in recent years. During the last election, we saw many people satirically treating both candidates. I am interested to hear if you think this is similar, but emergent behavior or comes as a result of the Smother Brothers. I also wonder how the memory of these shows has changed now that presidential candidates are so highly criticized.

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