Question: I'm doing a term paper on TV and politics and came across some stuff saying how controversial the Smothers Brothers show was. I watched some tapes at the library, and they don't seem so crazy to me. What was the big deal? Thank you. — Charles G.
Televisionary: Y'know, Charles, in my day I was one of the laziest students to ever drag down the Upper Dublin High School GPA (bottom third of my graduating class, baby — hoo-hah!). So I can't believe I'm enough of a sucker to play right into your hands. (C'mon, kid — if you're online and reading this, you can do a lot of your own research without even having to go to the library.)
Be that as it may...
First off, keep in mind that we're talking more than three decades back, when the people in Standards and Practices were far less forgiving and the networks were even more sensitive than they are today. (And let's not kid ourselves, Charles — they're still plenty sensitive.)
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which debuted in February 1967 and was unceremoniously booted off the air in May 1975, got Tom and Dick Smothers in hot water with the suits because its skits, guests and overall humor often carried a counterculture political flavor, and people took that stuff very, very seriously. The country was, after all, in the middle of the Vietnam conflict at the time, and 1968 alone saw the Tet offensive, the massacre at My Lai, the violent Chicago Democratic Convention and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. People were nervous, and the network executives worried about offending them were even more so.
It was structured much like any standard variety show (the not-as-threatening Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, for example), with production numbers, comedy routines, singing, dancing and celebrity guests. But there were plenty of incidents to raise the CBS hackles. Comedian Pat Paulsen ran for President in '68 on the campaign slogan "If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve," which spooked execs worried about other candidates seeking equal time. Leigh French's hippie creation Goldie O'Keefe hosted a mock afternoon tea-party show for housewives. (Amazingly, the censors didn't get that the "tea" represented pot, even though she greeted the audience with: "Hi... and glad of it.")
Singers such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte ran into problems with plans to do protest songs (CBS nixed said plans, though the network permitted Seeger to reschedule after catching flack from the public), and antiwar doctor Benjamin Spock was also barred from the show. Add to that the frequent accusations of anti-religious attitudes and overall anti-establishment leanings plus the brothers' loud objections to network meddling, and it's surprising the show stayed on as long as it did. Despite healthy ratings, it was replaced by the considerably safer Hee Haw.
Now, I'm safe in assuming that if this column ends up in your paper, it'll be properly quoted and footnoted, right?