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Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Smothers Brothers Story Reviewed by Wesley Britton

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

By David Bianculli
Touchstone Books, Dec. 2009
ISBN-10: 1439101167
ISBN-13: 978-1439101162



Reviewed by: Wesley Britton originally posted at Wesley Britton’s Entertainment Scrapbook


Books about the stars of stage and screen do run a wide gamut. There are over-priced volumes devoted to a specific actor, director, film, TV series. There are fan-oriented overviews of any given production complete with opinionated episode guides and production notes. There are memoirs and quasi-memoirs by performers, their families, or those who knew them. There are academic studies analyzing entertainment and how contributors have been influenced by or how they helped shape popular culture. Only every once in a while do we get a title that deserves the term “definitive,” that is, a focused history/biography that will become a standard reference that future writers will have to pour over should they take up the challenge of expanding on such books.

Such is the case of David Bianculli’s Dangerously Funny. It’s not surprising that a major publisher issued this contribution rather than a small house devoted to their genres of choice—The Smothers Brothers were and are an act worthy of serious consideration and Bianculli gave the act their honest and sometimes painful due. After all, while the classic late ‘60s “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” remains the high watermark for both the act and their place in cultural history, Tom and Dick’s legacy is worthy of attention for both what came before and after their legendary entertainment challenge to network decision making.

In fact, while the book’s title implies the “Comedy Hour” is the principal subject of the overview, Bianculli offers considerable background on the brothers formative years and the creative milieu in which they developed. Had they never hosted the “Comedy Hour,” Tom and Dick would still have played an important role in musical trends as they were true pioneers in the early days of the “folk revival.” Their interest in what is now dubbed “World Music” helped the new genre expand the pool of “traditional” standards heard all across America. In addition, their stage act was a transitional presence that bridged the generation of radio and stage vaudeville singers and comics with the “hip” interests of Baby Boomers purchasing vinyl albums and watching their favorite performers on TV variety shows. While Bianculli doesn’t make this connection, I was often reminded of the development of the Marx Brothers; the earlier ensemble started out as a musical group doing comedy and turned into a comedy group that sometimes played music. Likewise, the Smothers started out doing folk music akin to the Kingston Trio and ended up using the music to frame their comic routines. Likewise, Harpo Marx picked up the harp to have an instrument like his brothers as playing the instrument added $5.00 to the group’s appearance fees; Dick Smothers picked up the bass mainly as a prop while his brother taught him how to play it.

Then came the “Comedy Hour” and its importance cannot be understated. But can the circumstances of its creation, evolution and ultimate demise be clearly understood? In the hands of David Bianculli, we get the sense we’re hearing stories we’ve been hearing for years but in a context that is balanced, copiously researched, and drawn from primary sources like Tom Smothers himself. For example, the myth is that CBS was so loopy and narrow-minded that cancelling the “Comedy Hour” was a disastrous decision akin to NBC’s recent late night debacles. But, just as the evidence shows Decca Records had good reasons to reject The Beatles, the full story of the “Comedy Hour” demonstrates both sides of the controversy contributed to an almost inevitable parting of the ways. For their part, the network was flat-footed dealing with a younger audience seeking television with a freshness and variety showcasing younger faces and concerns. On the other side, Tom Smothers, in particular, made a point of challenging the hand that fed him so often and so stubbornly that the higher-ups almost yearned for an excuse to get this monkey off their backs. As a result, the so-called reasons for cancelling the show—an alleged late delivery of a particular episode—was simply a means to give executives an out to get relief from the ongoing battles over program content.

Bianculli, of course, isn’t championing network decision making but rather, as with the rest of his history, presenting the contexts of a multi-faceted career from a wide menu of perspectives. The Brothers obviously didn’t operate in a vacuum, and Bianculli is often at his best bringing in stories that flesh out how the Smothers Brothers fit into the continuum of both music and television. For example, he retells the story of Jack Paar briefly leaving “The Tonight Show” over NBC’s censorship of one joke several years before the Smothers Brothers entered the censorship fray. Bianculli sketches how Hal Holbrook had to wrestle with CBS over material he wanted to include in his “Mark Twain Tonight” special. He discusses the changing climate in tastes that contributed to the “Generation Gap” of the 1960s and how the brothers changed their program from a variety hour that mixed the old with the up-and-coming into a full-fledged participant of the “Counter Culture.”

The aftermath of the “Comedy Hour” cancellation might seem like a long denouement with two failed series in the 70s and 80s, but there are lessons here as well. For example—at least in my opinion—the Brothers were at their creative zenith when they came back to CBS in the late 80s with a superb re-invention of their earlier show, only to be undone by a Writers Strike and no fault of their own. (That is my most fervent DVD request—for the brothers to issue a full set of that outstanding series.) Not to overstate the case, one might be forgiven for coming away from this book seeing brother Dick as a virtual sideman to Tom, a performer more into his hobbies and outside interests than being a cultural motor. That’s not a criticism of the team’s straight man, rather a reality of what Dick did and didn’t do over the years.

Gratefully, when talking about the Smothers Brothers, comedy can’t be avoided, and there are plenty of laughs along the way, most notably the re-tellings of some of the benign and caustic routines they performed on stage and TV. This is an important book, an entertaining book, and readable for fans of the act, of an era, of television, and no library shelf should neglect it. To paraphrase Dick Cavett describing DVD releases of his own show, if you need more than the Smothers Brothers to entertain you, than I can’t help you very much.

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Dr. Wesley Britton is co-host of online radio’s “Dave White Presents” which features interviews with a wide range of entertainers. Past programs are archived at www.audioentertainment.org/dwp. He is also author of four books on espionage and runs www.spywise.net. Wes teaches English at Harrisburg Area Community College.





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