Don’t Stop the Carnival

The story of the rise and fall of the Smothers Brothers in the late 1960s is fairly well-known: clean-cut folksinger types start doing political commentary on their TV show to the consternation of CBS officials, who eventually yank them off the air. Many of the details are less well-known, though. Tommy Smothers became politically radicalized after being beaten by police following a 1964 concert, and while The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour imploded in March 1969, the seeds of its destruction were planted practically from its beginnings two years before.

For the last couple of evenings, I have been engrossed in Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli. I can’t recommend this book enough—I’ve read plenty of behind-the-scenes TV books, but this might be the best one. The book has reminded me how The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which at first was carefully designed to straddle the generation gap, was instrumental in boosting (and in some cases, launching) the careers of several prominent rock bands.

For example, the Turtles appeared on the second episode, broadcast on February 12, 1967, and performed “Happy Together,” which had cracked the Billboard Hot 100 just the day before. A month or so later, after “Happy Together” had blasted into the Top 10, the Turtles would return to perform it again.

Also appearing that spring was the Buffalo Springfield, performing “For What It’s Worth” as it was climbing the charts. There’s a fragment of it at YouTube, which will give you a taste of how the Smothers Brothers tried to have some fun with it. The clip will also give you a look at Neil Young as you may never have seen him before.

More classic performances are on the flip.

The Jefferson Airplane appeared in May 1967 and again in June. The video below features both “White Rabbit” (which was not yet a hit when it was performed) and “Somebody to Love.”

The psychedelic colors behind the Airplane, especially visible on “Somebody to Love,” were created by an artist working with colored oils on glass—while the band was performing live, the artist was creating the effects live. The Smothers Brothers’ introductory remarks about bananas sparked an angry letter from the organization representing California banana growers, reminding the boys that there was no proof smoking bananas had any psychedelic effects.

In September 1967, early in the second season, the Who appeared. They were a couple of months away from scoring their biggest American hit, “I Can See for Miles.” To provide additional bang for their instrument-smashing finale, “My Generation,” Keith Moon packed his drum kit with explosives—only this time, he put in several times the usual load. That was the night Pete Townshend suffered hearing damage that plagues him to this day.

Other stars appearing on the show during its run included Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Blues Magoos, the Electric Prunes, the Association, the Buckinghams, Herman’s Hermits, Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Hollies, the Temptations, the Bee Gees, Donovan,  Steppenwolf, the Doors, the Chambers Brothers, Joe South, Joan Baez, and Ike and Tina Turner. But the biggest rock act of all appeared on the show early in the third season. The Beatles had made videos for their forthcoming single featuring “Hey Jude” and “Revolution,” and offered them to the Smothers Brothers, where they would be seen for the first time on American TV. “Hey Jude” was broadcast on October 6, 1968, and “Revolution” a week later. Tommy’s introduction to “Revolution” refers to a censorship controversy involving Harry Belafonte, whose performance of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” featuring a montage of scenes from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was cut from the show a couple of weeks before. I can’t embed the Beatles videos, but I can show you George Harrison’s surprise appearance a few weeks later.

Reading about the show and watching clips makes clear just how ballsy Tom and Dick Smothers were about commenting on contemporary politics and culture and speaking the language of young people, long after CBS officials had expressed great hostility to all of it. In retrospect, it’s a wonder the show lasted as long as it did. It’s also clear that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour deserves an important place in the history of rock.

4 responses

  1. Exclusive offer: let me borrow your book and I’ll get you a copy of the McCartney CD

  2. I always loved The Smothers Brothers. While everyone else was watching the very unfunny Laugh In I was “turning on” to Tommy & Dick. I remember the night The Doors played “Touch Me” complete with a large horn section. GROOVY!

  3. Was not Steve Martin a writer? Woody Allen? Gorge Carlin? The Smothers Brothers opend more rock and roll doors for me more than any other TV show.

    1. @Randy: In the interest of keeping my post from becoming as long as Bianculli’s book, I didn’t mention that Steve Martin was a staff writer and occasional performer toward the end, or talk about how the brothers essentially gave Glen Campbell his career as a headlining act. Neither did I discuss the influence of Mason “Classical Gas” WIlliams as writer and musical director. Carlin appeared as a guest, but wasn’t a writer on the show.

      @Charlie: “Laugh-In” and the Smothers Brothers couldn’t have been more different in outlook. Kliph Nesteroff of Classic Television Showbiz wrote a fascinating story at WFMU.org about “Laugh-In” writer Paul Keyes, who had written material for Richard Nixon and who kept Laugh-In in Nixon’s good graces at a time when Tommy Smothers wound up on Nixon’s enemies list. Read Kliph’s article here:http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2010/09/richard-nixons-laugh-in.html.

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