Donna Levin on the Smothers Brothers

The story of the career of the Smothers Brothers is a sad one.

The brothers, Tom and Dick (real last name Smothers) started out as combination folk-singing comedy duo, back in the 50s, when folk singing became trendy-mainstream with Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, and others I’m simply too young to remember. Honest.

They got their big breaks right here in the City by the Bay, San Francisco, at The Purple Onion and The Hungry I, comedy-music clubs where Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller and He Who Must No Longer Be Named (Woody Allen) also got their starts. Proud to be a native San Franciscan, I am. Born in Oakland, but I can fake it.

I became a Smothers Brothers fan when I saw the pilot of their short-lived TV show, cleverly named The Smothers Brothers Show. I saw it because in those days there were four channels, and that was including the educational one. I had just turned eleven; I had parked myself in front of the television set six years earlier and rarely moved. I spent Saturdays watching Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges movies from the 40s, even though I didn’t think any of them were funny. More on that in a mo.

In the half-hour sitcom, Tom and Dick, also played brothers, but the premise was that older brother Tommy had drowned in a naval accident and was now returned to earth as an angel.

Okay, first, whence all these movies/television shows in which people die and become angels? It’s a really nice idea, one that I would happily sign up for, but if you read your Judeo-Christian scripture, you’ll see that angels are immortal beings that have always existed. Touched by an Angel, got it right, if on the sappy side.

That didn’t stop me from developing a huge crush on the Smothers Bros. It had nothing to do with them-as-them. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with any depiction of an afterlife. I watched every single episode of Touched by an Angel, and most of Highway to Heaven, despite the particularly flawed scripts of the latter.

The angel show was cancelled, but my devotion remained. My parents didn’t understand it, but it wasn’t anywhere close to the weirdest thing about me, so they let it pass.

I don’t remember which of their (the Smothers Brothers, not my parents’) albums I bought first, but I bought them all, and listened to them at night on my turntable. If you’ve never had the pleasure, they combined their folk singing with this template: Dick introduces a song, or starts singing a song, and Tommy interrupts. This launches an argument, often centering around Tommy’s accusation: “Mom always liked you best.” One of their better-known, and early routines was their take on “I Talk to the Trees,” from the musical Paint Your Wagon. (If you’ve seen Clint Eastwood sing it in the movie version, you’ve had an even better laugh.) Tommy points out that talking to trees is stupid, and off they go.

Their routines aren’t funny now. I don’t hold that against them. I have a theory (I have a lot of theories, some more persuasive than others) that comedy simply doesn’t age well. The Marx Brothers aren’t funny anymore. If you see a Marx Brothers movie and laugh, it’s nostalgia that moves you. Is Harpo chasing a woman while tooting his little horn amusing in the slightest? No, it’s offensive. Groucho baiting Margaret Dumont? Let’s go back further: any belly laughs in Jonathan Swift? Not a one, and he was the John Mulaney of the 18th Century. You might appreciate his satire, but I dare you to chuckle.

The Smothers Brothers were funny in their day. Funny, and talented enough that a few years after the failure of the ill-conceived sitcom (it didn’t allow either of them to sing, and they sang beautifully) they got their own variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

From the beginning, the Comedy Hour gave airtime to performers who were controversial, like Pete Seeger (his first appearance since he’d been blacklisted as a Commie), and Harry Belafonte (controversial because he wasn’t white). Then they started getting irreverent. They made oblique references to pot smoking. They spoke out against the war in Vietnam.

They got cancelled.

CBS said it was because they ignored a clause in their contract that required them to provide the censors with a script ten days in advance.

Four years later, the Smothers won a lawsuit against the network. It was what they call a Pyrrhic victory. (How the hell do I know why? Look it up.) They were off the air. The one-season revival of the show in the late 80s sailed under my radar.

They paved the way for political satire, but it led them to a cliff. The most scandalous sketch of the show (possibly David Steinberg’s faux sermon about Moses) wouldn’t cause an audience member of Saturday Night Live to shift in their seat today. And if fart jokes make you laugh, Family Guy has you covered.

Does that mean that if we have the Brothers S to thank for SNL, we have to blame them for Family Guy? No, that’s not what I came to say at all. Where have you been all this time?

The basis for the Smothers’ comedy was that Tommy was slow. Mentally challenged. Developmentally disabled. The “R” word. He stammered, searched for words, then mispronounced them. How hilarious is that?

Cancel culture has run amok. Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the most admired composer-lyricists of our time, has to grovel to his fans, apologizing for less-than-perfect casting in the movie adaptation of In the Heights.

Imagine the blowback against a comedy duo in which one makes fun of the other for his (sorry, their) disability. That’s not cancel culture; that’s humanity.

I just came from watching the Smothers on YouTube, doing a routine called “I Am a Pilot.” Tommy’s “slowness” has morphed into something much more guileful. I still love them.


Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.