Tom Smothers, half of the Smothers Brothers and the co-host of one of the most socially conscious and groundbreaking television shows in the history of the medium, has died at 86. The National Comedy Center, on behalf of his family, said in a statement Wednesday that Smothers died on Tuesday at home in Santa Rosa, California, following a cancer battle.
“I’m just devastated,” his brother and the duo’s other half, Dick Smothers, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “Every breath I’ve taken, my brother’s been around.”
When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on CBS in the fall of 1967 it was an immediate hit, to the surprise of many who had assumed the network’s expectations were so low it positioned their show opposite the top-rated Bonanza.
But the Smothers Brothers would prove a turning point in television history, with its sharp eye for pop culture trends and young rock stars such as the Who and Buffalo Springfield, and its daring sketches — ridiculing the Establishment, railing against the Vietnam War and portraying members of the era’s hippie counterculture as gentle, fun-loving spirits — found an immediate audience with young baby boomers.
“We were moderate. We were never out there,” Dick Smothers said. “But we were the first people through that door. It just sort of crept in as the ’60s crept in. We were part of that generation.”
The show reached No. 16 in the ratings in its first season. It also drew the ire of network censors. After years of battling with the brothers over the show’s creative content, the network abruptly cancelled the program in 1970, accusing the siblings of failing to submit an episode in time for the censors to review.
Nearly 40 years later, when Smothers was awarded an honorary Emmy for his work on the show, he jokingly thanked the writers he said had gotten him fired. He also showed that the years had not dulled his outspokenness.
“It’s hard for me to stay silent when I keep hearing that peace is only attainable through war,” Smothers said at the 2008 Emmy Awards as his brother sat in the audience, beaming. He dedicated his award to those “who feel compelled to speak out and are not afraid to speak to power and won’t shut up.”
During the three years the show was on television, the brothers constantly battled with CBS censors and occasionally outraged viewers as well, particularly when Smothers joked that Easter “is when Jesus comes out of his tomb and if he sees his shadow, he goes back in and we get six more weeks of winter.” At Christmas, when other hosts were sending best wishes to soldiers fighting overseas, Smothers offered his to draft dodgers who had moved to Canada.
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In still another episode, the brothers returned blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger to television for the first time in years. He performed his song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” widely viewed as ridiculing President Lyndon Johnson. When CBS refused to air the segment, the brothers brought Seeger back for another episode and he sang it again. This time, it made the air.
After the show was canceled, the brothers sued CBS for $31 million and were awarded $775,000. Their battles with the network were chronicled in the 2002 documentary “Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
“Tom Smothers was not only an extraordinary comedic talent, who, together with his brother Dick, became the most enduring comedy duo in history, entertaining the world for over six decades — but was a true champion for freedom of speech,” National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson said in a statement
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