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Two boy-next-door brothers — Dickie, a skilled, rhythmic straight man, and Tommy, a naive-looking comic genius — singing folk songs and improvising comedic conversations about everything and nothing, and who mom liked best: This was CBS’ The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Their antics turned television upside down, blending slapstick humor with political satire, making them comedic heroes who blazed the trail followed today by satirists such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee.
Premiering on Feb. 5, 1967, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour launched the careers of wet-behind-the-ears writers and performers including Rob Reiner (All in the Family), Bob Einstein (The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour), Carl Gottlieb (Jaws) and a quirky, then-unknown comedian named Steve Martin.
CBS News hated the show. “They felt we were invading their territory,” recalls Saul Ilson, one of the show’s original producers and writers. Conservatives despised them. “They were angry we were making fun of the war,” recalls producer-writer Allan Blye. The pious abhorred them. “A Jew saying ‘Christ’ for a laugh was unheard of on TV,” remarks comedian David Steinberg, whose improvised sermons stirred up controversy. Daily hate mail piled in. The brothers even ended up on Richard Nixon’s enemy list.
American audiences young and old, however, embraced the show. Celebrities lined up to make appearances. Rock acts like The Who and The Doors performed. The writers even ran a comedian for president. “The show was really rebellious and in its own modest way, dangerous,” Martin tells The Hollywood Reporter.
But Tommy Smothers wanted more. He wanted to give a voice to a movement. That rubbed some CBS executives the wrong way. “Standards and Practices looked at us with contempt,” says Ilson. The producers did their best to shield the brothers. Tommy did his best to shield everyone else from his network battles. He created his fair share, though, particularly during the show’s third and final year.
Among other incidents, CBS pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and Harry Belafonte’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival” with its video collage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. More and more skits were removed and language softened. The battle between Tommy Smothers and CBS finally came to a head, with the network firing the Smothers brothers after three years and a mere 72 episodes.
A lot of time has passed since then. But TV comedians remain indebted to the pioneering brothers who sacrificed their careers in support of their belief in questioning authority with laughter and challenging power with humor and satire. Now, 50 years after the show originally launched on CBS, THR gets a behind-the-scenes look at the controversial show that helped inspire generations of comedians.
In the first half of the 1960s, the Smothers brothers built an audience making albums, playing venues and appearing on TV shows like The Tonight Show. The act was built off their sibling relationship and improvising off what the other threw.
Dickie Smothers: Tommy was an overenthusiastic 5-year-old who thought he had a grasp on things. He was like Gracie Allen; dumb/smart, smart/dumb. The louder he would protest he was right, the more I knew he was wrong. So, I’d try to correct him.
Tommy Smothers: People don’t know how important straight men are. They’re the bandleader. They keep the beat going. I admire Dickie so much. He made our career. He was the most important part of the performance.
Dickie: We were two brothers in conversation who had disagreements with each other. It wasn’t just my turn/your turn/my turn. People liked it and could relate to it.
After their first sitcom, My Brother the Angel, didn’t get picked up for a second season, the brothers were offered a variety show.
Dickie: CBS was being pushed to get younger. They had Danny Kaye and Red Skelton. The ball team was getting old. We were young and tested well.
Tommy: I had such a terrible time on the sitcom. I said if I ever get another show, I wanted a real audience and some creative control. So, when we put the show together, CBS said OK. It meant I could hire and fire and argue and discuss material.
Saul Ilson, original producer-writer: Tommy said he wanted to do a show that would reflect what’s happening in the world today.
Rob Reiner, writer: It was probably the most traumatic time in our country in terms of the shift in the social and political landscape. Tommy, with his cunning intellect and strong desire for social justice, wanted to tap into that.
Ernie Chambers, original producer-writer: We took the brothers’ routine and started applying it to contemporary issues. We made them court jesters.
Reiner: You had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other one with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.
Steve Martin, writer: When you have power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say, “You can’t say that.” It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour premiered with big promotions but little expectations.
Dickie: Nobody thought it would work. You can do a show that’s good, but you have no control over who will watch it.
Ilson: Ernie and I thought we were going to be canceled. We were running on Sunday nights, opposite Bonanza. No one ever survived against Bonanza. Lorne Greene, a good friend of mine, laughed at me and said, “Good luck.”
Chambers: Anytime your show gets picked up, you hope it’s going to run for 10 years, but you’re perfectly aware it could get cut after one episode.
Unexpectedly, the show became a hit.
Ilson: We didn’t take away Bonanza‘s audience. What we got were the kids. They were a whole new body to watch television.
Tommy: Kids are always a little ahead of the arc. I didn’t know we were talking to those people as loudly as we were.
Mason Williams, writer-performer-musician: We provided an alternative universe, an inspiration for people to pick a different perspective on how they fit into the culture.
Sam Bobrick, writer: We became the freshest thing in the country. We appealed to parents because we were funny and kids because we were rebellious.
Tommy: Within three shows, I knew we had a hit. I think everybody felt it. We thought something is happening here and no one expected it.
Ilson and Chambers built a winning mixture of guests: famous actors, young talent and, with the input of the brothers and Williams, rock ‘n’ roll acts.
Chambers: We started by booking stars like Jack Benny and Bette Davis with the idea that if they did the show, we could show people the brothers were OK. Tommy and Mason added rock acts like Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane, many of whom were appearing on TV for the first time.
Tommy: We were checking out Cashbox and Billboard to see the fastest-moving records. We wanted groups that were happening. We also knew some of the people in the bands personally. People started to want to do our show because they knew they were treated well.
Martin: Any part of The Beatles was like being visited by an alien god. George Harrison came on. We also got the premiere of their “Hey Jude” video. I thought that was going to kill. The ratings were good. Then a few weeks later, we have Kate Smith on and the ratings go through the roof. It showed me that popular entertainment in America runs deep. The Beatles were new. Kate Smith went back 30 years.
Allan Blye, producer-writer: The Who wanted to do a big explosion at the end of their performance. In dress rehearsal, it was a powder puff. So, I say to the special effects guy, “We have to make a bigger boom.” Unbeknownst to us, The Who had told their own guy the same thing. When the explosion went off, it affected Pete Townshend’s hearing permanently. Keith Moon got blown off his drumstand, but was too out of it to know.
Dickie: I was standing in the wings with Bette Davis, watching. The rumor was that she fainted when she heard the blast. Bette Davis could see an atom bomb go off and wouldn’t faint. I don’t even know if she blinked. She finished her cigarette, probably stepped on it and said, “Well, that was a good bang.” She was so cool.
Tommy: The bit was supposed to end with Townshend smashing my guitar. There was shrapnel everywhere. I thought there was going to be dead bodies. Pete staggers over to me, shell-shocked. He takes my guitar and starts banging it. Everyone assumed this wasn’t part of the act because I was looking around panicked. It was a real authentic moment. One of the great moments in rock ‘n’ roll.
The guests gave the show richness, texture and authenticity. Everyone wanted to be on. Some people got the humor, while others, not so much.
Bob Einstein, writer-performer: I did a skit with Tommy as Stan Laurel and Kate Smith as Oliver Hardy. She comes into the writer’s room and says, “Who wrote this?” I would never take credit. You just don’t do that. I thought it was a great bit, though, so I say, “I did.” And she says, “You’re the reason I’m not doing the show” and left. We had to take a rope and bring her back.
Tommy: We thought it was funny, but she was so offended because it was a weight thing. We never did the sketch with her. I finally did it later with Dom DeLuise.
Blye: We had Jack Benny and George Burns. Jack was a little forgetful and slower than George by then, so George never left his side. When he’d perceive something was happening with Jack, he’d say to me, “Let’s take a little break.” He and Jack would go arm in arm to the dressing room so Jack could take a nap. George was such a sweet friend. I’ll never forget it.
Williams: Tommy told me Robert Kennedy wanted to come onto the show and do an anti-smoking bit. I worked a month on it, coming up with material. He was supposed to come talk about it the week he got assassinated.
Einstein: Sid Caesar was in this skit where he has a rubber ax. He said he needed a real one. I said, “If I give you a real one, it’s going to be a problem.” He says he won’t do the sketch. So, I get him an ax. Twenty minutes later, I’m driving with Sid in the back seat with an ax embedded in his thigh.
Nobody had ever heard of Pat Paulsen when Tommy handpicked him to join the show. By 1968, however, the deadpan comedian found himself running for the nation’s highest office as the “Simple Savior of America’s Destiny.”
Steinberg: He was totally unique, a deadpan from the Buster Keaton world.
Tommy: He once claimed he learned the secret to walking on water. He got radio stations and a newspaper to cover him. He stood in a suit at the top of a water tank and asked for complete silence to concentrate. Finally, he steps into the tank. The newspaper said he seemed to sink beneath the surface faster than normal. He steps out, looks around and says, “Someone talked.”
Martin: Pat was a brilliant comedian. I saw him at a nightclub once. His opening line was, “I’ve had a great career and have been really happy with the exception of 1968, when unfortunately, I passed away.”
Dickie: Comedically, he was the best thing on the show.
Tommy: He had great charisma. Anytime I had problems with a sketch or an ending, we’d put Pat in.
Editorials evolved into candidacy, making him the first celebrity to run for president, but not the last.
Chambers: Local stations used to have these editorials given by the vp of programming. Tommy wanted to do them. We thought it was a great idea until he told us he didn’t want to do funny, he wanted real. We told him he’s not here to be serious. So, we had Pat do them.
Tommy: It was such a natural fit, like he’d been waiting his whole life to look into the camera. It kept growing and growing.
Ilson: We told viewers to send us their name and address and we’d send them a copy of Pat’s editorial. Before you know it, we had 10 people filling up envelopes and us paying for the stamps. Finally, we said, send a self-addressed envelope.
Williams: Once we established the character and the ideas he represented, it was easy to move him from editorials to political speeches.
Einstein: Pat was the perfect person to run for president. There wasn’t an evil bone in his body. Whatever he said wasn’t hurtful. It was funny and sometimes stupid. He had an attitude and dry voice that made people laugh. He was hysterical and as sweet a human being as God ever made.
Williams: We thought if we made politics entertaining, we’d get people more aware of and interested in issues. Everyone got involved to create a whole domain for Pat’s character. It was the most elaborate political satire in TV history. Soon he was appearing at campaign rallies and testimonial dinners around the country.
Reiner: We held a fundraiser where we charged 99 cents a plate.
Tommy: He went to cities and spoke in front of the state senates and local councils. He’d say, “I love Toledo. This is where the real people are. I’m going to settle down here sometime.” He did that in seven different towns.
Williams: I named his party the Straight Talking American Government Party … the STAG Party. We hired California governor’s political consultant to tell us what he should be saying and doing.
Reiner: We did bits like where he says he talks out of both sides of his mouth and then we show a split-screen of his face with both sides talking like it was two different conversations.
Williams: Art is the lie that makes us see the truth. That applies to satire because it’s not exactly facts, but it is the truth. Pat won 51 votes in the 1968 New Hampshire primary. Hubert Humphrey told him he might have cost him the election.
A wild and crazy guy finds his first television home.
Martin: I had a handful of creative writing that I’d done in college. My girlfriend at the time was a dancer on the show. She knew Mason and gave him my stack of papers.
Williams: I thought Steve’s comedy ideas were good enough to pass on to Tom. I thought he might be good for the show.
Blye: He was very unusual. He did an audition sketch about a tailor trying to convince a customer to take a terrific deal where he could buy two pairs of pants and an extra vest. The customer turns it down. The tailor then keeps revising the offer and the customer keeps negating it. Finally, the tailor ends up offering him “a nice pocket.” It was simple and funny.
Martin: I used a bad review I got at the Troubadour that said, “He does nothing to make you remember him or his material.” I put two banana peels on my shoulders and cracked an egg on my head and read it.
Tommy: His humor was a little off to the side. Different is important. It makes things happen for you that don’t if you aren’t. He did his first TV performance on our show.
Steinberg: He was so unique. You never saw stand-up like that before. He was silly, but extremely smart.
Martin: Looking back, I see there was an intellectual element I brought in from my studies at college and a pure show-business, vaudeville element rooted in Jack Benny’s character of complete confidence in saying something stupid, not knowing I’ve been chagrined. I did irony and parodies of show business which hadn’t really been done yet. Ideas behind the silliness.
Blye: Tommy didn’t know what to do with him. I said use him as a writer. We ended up paying him under the table until he proved himself.
Martin: I was hired, but not hired. I got $300 a week, which was about three times more than I’d ever made in my life. I found out later that Mason was paying me out of his own pocket. He was very generous to me.
Martin, with a résumé filled with amusement parks and comedy clubs, had to learn how to write comedy for television.
Martin: I was extremely inexperienced and a little insecure about what I was supposed to do.
Tommy: He was so wonderfully straight. Mason looked at his material once and said, “This is very good, Steve. Try placing the punchline at the end.”
Martin: Tommy came to me once and said he needed an opening joke. I knew I was being tested. So, I said, “Absolutely.” I went up to my office filled with terror because I had nothing. I had a blank piece of paper in a typewriter. Then I remembered this joke Gary Mule Deer, a friend of mine, had. I called him up and asked him if I could use it. And he said, “Absolutely.” The joke was, “It has been shown that more people watch TV than any other appliance.” I gave it to Tommy and he was really happy. That sort of relaxed me and I was able to start writing.
Einstein: We were kids. Tommy said I’m going to put you together with this comic from Knott’s Berry Farm. It was Steve. We ended up living in the same building for a couple of years.
Martin: Connecting with Bob changed my career. We spent almost 24 hours a day together talking about bits and ideas. We became a really solid writing team. And he stood up for me. After my first six months there, there was a movement to get rid of me. They weren’t aware of what I was doing, but Bob supported me. He told them, “No, he’s good. He’s good.”
Every show mixed irreverent skits with undertones of protest against topics such as the war and political leadership.
Reiner: Steve and I wrote the first fart joke ever done on national TV. Pat played the president of the Acme Novelty Company. He’s demonstrating all their gags like dribble glasses and Chinese finger traps. At one point, he sits down and you hear this enormous fart sound. He says, “Somebody put a whoopee cushion underneath me,” and then gets up. There’s no cushion there.
Blye: Tommy and Carol Burnett did a sketch about being in an awkward situation where you can’t get away from a person. They’re naked at a nudist camp and suddenly realize they know each other. The audience laughed for a solid minute.
Einstein: Liberace turned out to be a really funny and sweet guy. He was gold. We had him play “The Minute Waltz.” I come in as Officer Judy and arrest him for playing too fast.
Williams: As early as 1966, I was trying to get music videos to air on variety shows. [There were] no takers until the Comedy Hour.
Tommy: I had dinner with John Lennon at my house and we were watching the show and he saw the “3000 Years of Art” video with Mason’s “Classical Gas.” He said, “I’ve never seen anything like that. What’s the guy’s name?” He was always looking for something, just like we were.
Reiner: Steve and I wrote this satire of a Hollywood premiere for a biker movie called, Renegade Nuns on Wheels. We acted this thing out, playing all the different parts. It got big laughs from the writing staff. Then Allan Blye, one of the head writers, said “Mmm, I don’t think we’re going to use that one.” A couple of weeks later, the censors throw a sketch out and Allan asks if anybody has anything. Steve and I say we have the Hollywood premiere thing. Allan says, “That was good. Let’s hear that one.” So, we do it again and everyone laughs and Allan goes, “Mmm, I don’t think so.”
Blye: They did it four or five times. Everyone laughed harder and harder each time, but we never used it.
Reiner: I think they just wanted to see us perform.
Tommy: We did a “Mom liked you best” sketch. Our mom was in the audience and Dickie brings her up to prove that he’s right.
Dickie: She was supposed to say, “I’ve always wanted to do this,” and slap my brother. I’m looking at Tom, all relaxed, waiting for her to do the slap. She wheels around and whacks me. It hurt my jaw. I was shocked. I said, “God, Mom” and she says, “I always wanted to do that.” The trouble is I believed her.
Tommy: When she turned and slapped him … it was the funniest. Nobody else saw it as funny as I did.
The heavier bits presented political satire or silly situations with biting undertones.
Bobrick: The best sketches were relevant to what was happening. We did an anti-gun skit once where Tommy shot fish in a barrel with a rifle. You criticized situations more than you did people.
Williams: The only guest who came in and wanted to say something was Harry Belafonte. Everyone else wanted to know how we would present them.
Martin: The show did a lot of great political satire with David Frye. Frye was not afraid to offend people. He’d do Nixon and present him as a buffoon.
Einstein: I remember this time when everyone was ready to go onstage and no one could find Frye. I go to the bathroom and in one of the stalls, I hear Frye as Nixon saying, “I am not a crook.” He was doing Nixon while taking a shit.
Ilson: We did a sketch about Johnson’s family. It turns out his kids were huge fans of the show, and the sketch upset them. Johnson wakes up CBS chairman Bill Paley at 2:30 in the morning, shouting “Get those bastards off my back.” The next morning Ernie and I fly to New York expecting to meet Paley and get fired. Instead, he tells us how much he enjoys the show, but wonders if we could lay off it a little bit. He then asks if there’s anything he can do in return. We said to book Pete Seeger, who’d been blacklisted for 17 years, and he said by all means. I’m very proud of that.
Almost from the beginning, the show found itself at odds with the network. Some of it came from a generational gap. A lot of it ultimately came from Tommy’s friction with the powers that be.
Steinberg: Tommy was a comic genius who was only happy when he pushed the envelope. If something was volatile to the network, he couldn’t wait to get it on air. He wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
Martin: Tommy was a fantastic leader and very inspiring. If you had an artistic doubt, he and Mason would alleviate it. You followed them because you felt like you were doing the right thing politically and morally. They kept you fired up.
Carl Gottlieb, writer: Tommy and Mason would stress that if you start self-censoring, then you’re doing program practices’ job for them. To get the controversial stuff in the show, we had to be encouraged to write to the limits of our imagination rather than trying to guess what might play with program and practices.
Tommy: When we tried something, and were told ‘no,’ I wanted to know why. Why is content controversial, putting in something real, something with meaning? I couldn’t understand why that would be an issue and when it became one, I became extra stubborn.
Williams: My position was I didn’t care if I was in the industry or not, so, I don’t have to accept their censorship. I thought you might as well push things and at least get to say what you want.
Tommy: Mason was my muse. He was the one I batted things back and forth with about whether they were moral, where the ethics were, the value, whether it was funny or not.
Gottlieb: Mason would tell Tommy, “If it makes you laugh and it’s funny, then what else is there to consider? You don’t serve the network’s agenda. That’s not our job.”
To get around the censors, the writers came up with a series of tricks and clever distractions.
Williams: We’d load a sketch full of things we knew they’d take out. Then we’d say, “Man, you’ve taken out so much and hardly left us with anything,” thinking they’d leave the things we really wanted in. I remember writing a piece about France that ends with Tom saying, “I’ve never flunked a French woman in my entire life.” We knew they’d cut that one out.
Tommy: CBS slipped in a spy once. We all knew it. He sat in on the writers’ meetings. So, we put in lines like “rolling to Galveston” and then all laugh. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t anything. They came down and told us to take it out.
Blye: For the “Share a Little Tea With Goldie” bits, we named Leigh French’s character Mary Jane Roach. We knew they’d never let that fly, so we changed her name to Goldie O’Keefe, which were both slang terms for pot.
Tommy: Some of those censors were really nice. They were stuck in a place where they’d never been before with sexual, political or social commentary. It was a 1950s mentality. It was difficult for them. They didn’t know how to handle it. They’d say, “Say something dirty so we can edit it.”
Dickie: Perry Lafferty [then-CBS vp programming] told us television was uncomfortable with “now” because they don’t know what “now” is, but they’re very good with the past. Networks don’t want to be surprised. We were surprising.
Was it Steinberg’s sermons, hiding master tapes from affiliates, CBS executives with a personal vendetta or Nixon threatening the network that did the show in? No one knows with absolute certainty where the smoking gun lies, but the one fact everyone agrees about is that the brothers were fired, not canceled.
Tommy: Dickie and I always get pissed off when people say we were canceled. We were fired. Death can come in two ways, natural causes and murder. We were murdered.
Chambers: A court jester can make fun of the king all he wants, as long as the king thinks he’s having fun. But the day that he realizes the jester is serious, it’s off with his head. I think that’s what happened with the brothers.
Dickie: We were passengers driving the bus, but we didn’t know where we were going. That was an accident, but when we wanted to push it further, it was unacceptable to CBS.
Steinberg: I did this piece where I’d let the audience give me the name of any Old Testament personality figure and I’d improvise a sermon. In my mind, I was playing the most reformed rabbi, who didn’t quite know what he was talking about. It was considered screwing around with God.
Williams: We thought it was funny. Since we’re supposed to be made in God’s image, we assumed that he had a sense of humor. And if it wasn’t funny, God would forgive us, even if the Christians wouldn’t.
Ilson: We’d always get letters like, “This show will not go unpunished by God.” We got a lot of those.
Steinberg: After I did the first sermon, the amount of mail that came in was astronomical. Tommy took me to a room and shows me all these duffel bags and gleefully says, “It’s your hate mail,” as if I would be celebrating that with him. That’s a memory I’ll have forever.
Tommy: I thought the sermons were great. There was humor in it. And when we got all these letters, I asked David to do another one. I don’t know why. Because they said you can’t do it, so I did it.
Ron Clark, writer: Tommy was a rabble rouser. That’s his personality. He went overboard that last year and got a lot of the network people annoyed.
The news shocked some, angered others and ultimately left everyone in a state of flux. And the show would go on to win an Emmy for outstanding writing after its cancellation.
Gottlieb: We were a top 10 show when CBS dropped us. As a matter of fact, the show had been renewed for the next season.
Einstein: When you get canceled out of the blue, that’s like a board to the back of the head. That never happened in the history of anything. You don’t get picked up if you’re going to get canceled. It doesn’t happen.
Martin: I found out while I was driving to work. It was on the radio. I was so young then and remember thinking, “So this is how it works.”
Dickie: How do they cancel you if you haven’t even started your contract yet? Lafferty said it wasn’t any one thing. It was the perception in the industry that CBS couldn’t handle us. We were manhandling them. We were taking up too much of their time.
Tommy: I begged them not to pick us up. I said, “We’re so difficult.” If they dropped the show, however, we would have just been on another network or somewhere else. But by firing us, they could make it a legal thing.
Einstein: Once you’re canceled, there’s a stigma. It was a shame because they had so much to give and were so talented.
Tommy: We thought we would never work again. We were blackballed for a while. Friends felt for us but didn’t know what to say. It felt awkward. Three years later, when people started talking to us again, I said in hindsight it was a gift in a funny package because I think the show was getting tired and the arguments were getting tough.
Reiner: I was so young and naïve about what Tommy was going through. He protected us while fighting tooth and nail to put things on TV that no one had before. As time goes by and I see what he had to deal with, I was so stupid for thinking he wasn’t pushing for things. Little did I know it ultimately caused our being taken off TV.
Tommy: My brother was never angry with me. He said, “You know what you’re doing?” I said, “I’m sure.” Never once did he say, “You fired me.”
Dickie: I don’t blame him. Tommy has given me a life I never could have had. He’s the one that got us that. And if what he did got us fired? Look where we are now and where we were before. It was a no-brainer. I was always with him. We were always on the same page.
Many people today get their real news through comedians. The Smothers brothers paved the way for politics to become part of entertainment.
Tommy: I never perceived we were doing more than we were doing right then. I didn’t see the significance or the effect and feelings some people carried beyond the show. I’m always surprised at that. It makes me feel pretty good I was on that show.
Dickie: It was the first show to deal with the White House, Congress, war, counterculture, drugs, civil rights. We were the first in and first out. We made comedy for TV relevant and not just escapism. We nailed it.
Bobrick: Comedy is a great delivery system. I think the brothers opened the door for a lot of comedians getting their own shows.
Einstein: Tommy’s responsible for my career and everyone else’s on that show.
Martin: The show really started political commentary on TV. It’s a big part of our late-night life now. It grew from the brothers into what it is today.
Chambers: We were part of something groundbreaking. The show proved you could do topical satire, which has led to great shows today like The Simpsons and South Park.
Ilson: We did things that in today’s world are considered innocuous. If you look at it, you’d laugh. But in those days, it was important and we did make noise.
Gottlieb: The brothers were a product of their time. The show was successful because the audience was ready for it. They did what all artists are supposed to do — illuminate the times and open the door for the subsequent waves of intellectual and comic exercises that brought us, for better or worse, to where we are today with Colbert, Stewart and Saturday Night Live.
Dickie: People said we got hired for being ahead of our time. If you’re ahead of your time, nobody watches. We were right on the times and pushing the times.
Clark: The fact that the show was done at all is its legacy. Whenever people talk to me about TV in general, I mention working on Smothers and it always gets a reaction.
Williams: In retrospect, I think one of the things that made us unique was allowing the “cultural revolution” to flow through the show; like beams of light through a prism, it reflected all these new cultural expressions, a refraction of the times.
Reiner: For Tommy to utilize his talents to comment on what was going on in the world, I have the greatest respect for him. He was the champion. If I’m ever in a room with him, I still look up to him. My dad often says the best comedians are great observers of the human experience. The reason you’re laughing at Lenny Bruce is because it’s true. They corroborate our feelings of anger and outrage and motivate us to be part of the resistance. I learned you can blend comedy, politics and theater together and be very effective and stand up for what you believe is right.