Arts & Culture » Arts

See Dick, and Tom, Run

In comedy -- and comebacks -- it's all about the timing


A respected comedy writer sits over lunch with a man who, in the late 1960s, was very, very famous. This man, slender and balding, was a comedian who, with his younger brother, hosted a network television show that caused quite a ruckus--they talked too much politics, and pot, for prime time. For his sin of spouting off to the press and to the president of the network, this man was booted off television and shoved from spotlight to shadow. He and his brother, who played straight man to his crooked grin, would continue to work but never again be so famous or infamous. Still, three decades after the medium left him well-done, this man wants badly to get back on television, so he has contacted this writer about helping him.

The writer, Alan Zweibel, is excited to work with this man, Tom Smothers, whom he regards as a pioneer, his comedy stepfather. But he is blunt. He tells the 66-year-old Tom, "Look, your audience right now consists of two groups: those who never heard of you and those who think you're dead. Somehow we gotta get those people to know who you are and like you and let them know you're still alive." This is all Tom Smothers needs to hear. That's all he wants. For them to remember.

There are signs they're beginning to. Tom and Dick Smothers received their own chapter in Gerald Nachman's new book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, alongside Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Ernie Kovacs and others. Three years ago, at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, the Smothers Brothers were given a tribute hosted by Bill Maher, their angry bastard son; they were joined onstage by Steve Martin, who got his first break writing for the Brothers' CBS show. And just last month, Tom and Dick received the Freedom of Expression Award from the Video Software Dealers Association at its annual gathering in Las Vegas, not long after Maureen Muldaur's Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour documentary was released on DVD.

"It's the residual respect, and it feels real good," Tom says. "I ran into Martin Sheen at a golf tournament. He was shooting some balls, and I went over to him and I said, 'Hey, man, thanks for keeping your mouth going; everybody puts down actors and stuff, but we really appreciate you out there on the streets doing your thing.' And he said--and it was really heartfelt--he said, 'Hey, man, thank you for doing it in the '60s.' We take a lot of abuse. We'd get these letters from people that were just, God almighty, 'Your father was a West Pointer, and he'd turn over in his grave if he knew what you were doing. You're not an American. Why don't you go live with Ho Chi Minh?'"

"It's amazing, isn't it, after all these years?" the 63-year-old Dick says of the hints of new interest. "It's amazing that so many people find us interesting. We're a little moment in history...and all these years later people are saying, 'Well, that was something else.'"

Tom and Dick never really disappeared, though much of their work has. Their shows are unavailable on DVD, and all of their comedy albums have been long out of print. Still, the Brothers never stopped touring, save for those occasional breathers brothers need to take from each other to keep from going Cain and Abel. Their tour schedule each year includes some 125 dates, more in recent years. And just a few weeks ago they returned to their old Los Angeles haunt, the Comedy Store, for a few nights in front of famous faces and network executives. And it is there the latest chapter begins.

In early June, Zweibel, a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live during its first five seasons, received a call from his agent asking what he thinks of the Smothers Brothers. He had no response. Zweibel remembered Tommy and Dick from their CBS show in the late 1960s. Thought they were funny. Liked their lefty politics. Dug the bands they used to have on the show--The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel.

Zweibel was in college when the Smothers Brothers were on TV, then off TV after CBS tired of fighting with Tommy over his anti-Vietnam War diatribes dolled up as comedy routines. Zweibel remembers them fondly--"Being one of the original Saturday Night Live guys, I always felt we wouldn't have had our show if they hadn't had theirs," he says now--but also dimly, with faint nostalgia and not much else. What does he think of the Smothers Brothers? Uh, ya know. God knows he doesn't think of them often.

His agent was asking because the Smothers Brothers were doing an industry-invite gig at the Comedy Store on Sunset. It was gonna be a red-carpet reunion: Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hugh Hefner, HBO boss Chris Albrect and Carl and Rob Reiner were going to be there; so was comedian-turned-director David Steinberg, who used to get the Smothers Brothers in all kinds of trouble with his stand-up sermons. So Zweibel went and brought along his 19-year-old daughter, who asked her father two things on the ride to the club:

"Just who are the Smothers Brothers exactly, and why are we going to see them?"

He could answer the first part of her question: Tom and Dick Smothers were folk-singing comedians who, in the late 1960s, were given their own variety show on CBS. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was never intended to succeed; Tom and Dick were Sunday-night sacrificial lambs pitted against the Bonanza juggernaut at NBC. When the show debuted in February 1967, the Brothers wound up drawing some 30 million people, most of them the prized college crowd.

It was intended as little more than your average variety series aimed at The Kids, anchored by a team best known for its butter-knife-edged "Mom liked you best" routine. But Tommy, the smartest man in the history of comedy to play dumb, viewed the show as his private pulpit. He and his brother were the least likely of TV's troublemakers--Boy Scouts who turned out to be anarchists beneath the milk-and-cookie facade. "They had a huge set of balls, those guys," Zweibel says. "They were doing things in Daddy's room they shouldn't. They were misbehaving."

They took on the network's censors in a sketch with Elaine May, invited folk singer Pete Seeger to perform his anti-war ballad "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," got Harry Belafonte to sing "Don't Stop the Carnival" in front of violent footage from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, had Pat Paulson run for president, interviewed Dr. Benjamin Spock about his work helping draft evaders. The Brothers and their writers, among them Mason Williams and young unknowns named Rob Reiner and Steve Martin, loaded the show with so many drug references it gave off a contact high. And CBS fought the Brothers during the show's entire run, from early '67 till June 1969, when it got tired of cutting sketches and excised the Brothers from the schedule altogether.

"There were times there when it was very lonely," Tom says now. "Probably the loneliest time was after we were fired, when I went to the Emmys. The show won an Emmy for best writing, and I remember the thing that bothered me the most was the lack of eye contact from peers. It's like if you get cancer and stuff, you kind of look away, you feel sorry, you don't know what to say. So I immediately moved up to Northern California and got out of that and didn't deal with the Hollywood thing. When you're not working, there's kind of a thing over your head. They say, 'God, that was really great what you did,' or, 'I'm not sure; maybe you made a big mistake.' Just don't tell a comic he can't say something or do something, because he will do it."

And he will also blow it. But that's the stuff of history books, one of which is being written about the Brothers by critic David Bianculli. Those were the ancient doings of martyred pioneers who laid the ground, and then were buried beneath it, for the likes of Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller, Bill Maher and any other satirist making a nice TV living off the headlines.

So Zweibel could tell his daughter who they were. But...

"I didn't even know why I was going to see them, really," Zweibel says. "I think I went out of respect that night--just like I would go to old-timers day at Yankee Stadium, out of respect for older guys who did something important and enjoyable."

As it turned out, the Brothers killed that night. They were as funny in the summer of 2003 as they'd been 40 years earlier, when they were young men not long removed from their days singing fake folk songs in a bar near San Jose State College. They were still clean-cut boys hiding the barbed wire in the brownies, making fun of politicians and national policy with the wicked grin of a little boy who insists he doesn't know he's said something he shouldn't have. Zweibel was stunned: "They're still very vital and very funny."

Next thing he knew, he was having lunch with Tommy Smothers and discussing a TV special the Brothers and Zweibel are currently pitching to the networks, chief among them CBS and HBO, where Zweibel is consulting producer for Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Maybe the world will remember the Smothers Brothers after all.

Tom is not so interested in doing a "political show"; he says he's no longer "balls-out invincible," the reckless and angry young man he was 35 years ago. He hasn't voted for a Democrat or Republican in 12 years and says he now sees "the gray more than the black and white." He has no interest in rehashing old yesterdays.

The special, as Zweibel explains it, would take place in a Hollywood old-age home populated by the formerly famous; Tommy's been there for 35 years, literally covered in dust. He's freed from the rest home by a comic--Jon Stewart, perhaps--who tries to reunite Tommy with Dick, now a successful game-show host who still harbors a grudge against his brother for ruining their network deal. It eventually becomes like The Magnificent Seven, with Steve Martin and Rob Reiner and the rest of the old gang riding into a network to pitch a new series to fetal-faced executives who've never heard of the Smothers Brothers. In other words, it'll be just like real life.

"Getting these acknowledgements now isn't like getting a Kennedy award, where you have to go out on a walker and you're shaking, and they give you an award just before you die," Tom says. "This is kind of neat, because our act is great, and we're working and might have another shot at doing something. It's all a nice coincidence."

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