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The Smothers Brothers' Anger Turns to Clarity

January 31, 1988|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

It hardly seems possible that TV entertainers whose repertoire included asking Mr. Bunny whether or not Easter bunnies really lay Easter eggs would be considered so controversial that they would be yanked off the air.

But that was what it was like in the sulfurous late '60s, when a spark in one place could ignite an atmosphere somewhere else, engulfing everyone in a conflagration of anxiety, suspicion and self-righteousness. "We were just at the scene of an accident, when America was searching for meaning," said Tom Smothers recently. "We were just directing traffic."

They had no idea that they would become casualties before their time.

Tom Smothers was Mr. Bunny. Dick Smothers was his earnest interrogator. The routine was a small one in their large arsenal of characterizations and sketches that filled one of the most appealing hours of variety show programming in the late '60s. The Sunday night "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" played from the 1967-68 season to 1969 until it ran aground in a squall of controversy that seems in retrospect overblown and anti-climactic. (They did book occasionally controversial guests, however, as well as making pointed references to drugs, racism, the draft and the dubiety of presidential politics.)

When and if you chance to see their 20th anniversary CBS special Wednesday (10 p.m., Channels 2 and 8), you'll probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

You will see what made them so popular. These clean-cut kids (though both have passed 50, they've hardly changed) might have been contentious nephews of "Father Knows Best." There was the smart brother who had all the conventional answers (Dick), and the dumb one who had all the disturbing questions (Tom). In a gentle and limited way--that is, in the context of sibling rivalry--their comedy pitted rectitude against iconoclasm, authority versus challenge and trouble lapping at smugness, all within the buttoned-down semblance of a middle-class family front.

In addition, in a handsomely produced and designed hour, you'll see some of the people who were part of the extended family, including Mason Williams (he plays his "Classical Gas" on guitar in front of Larry Cansler's hefty-sounding band); the presidential candidate-in-perpetuity Pat Paulsen (our show-biz equivalent to Gus Hall); Glen Campbell; Leigh French's twee Miss Goldie, who shares confidences draped in every cliche of the time; and Steve Martin (he was a writer then, and does his self-mocking celebrity turn now).

Everyone is on his or her good behavior; but everyone was then, too. At least at first. In the Smothers Brothers, who had razor-sharp timing and filled the small compass of their routine with perpetual surprise, CBS had at last found an act that could convoy an audience through its Bermuda Triangle of Sunday night viewing--the 9 to 10 p.m. slot, when most of the rest of the country preferred to settle itself in front of "Bonanza's" Ponderosa on NBC.

Meanwhile, CBS had accidentally discovered a powerful new market--the young. But to the Smothers Brothers, who were 30 and 31 at the time, the young became more than a target audience; they became a constituency. Out with the Limelighters. In with the Doors. The brothers may have looked like post-graduates of Ding Dong School, but they had an ear for the groundswell of change that was sweeping the country with such mounting velocity that for the first time in living memory, a sitting President could be virtually deposed as the Lyndon Johnson presidency toppled under the weight of anti-Vietnam protest.

Neither of the Smothers Brothers was overtly political. They did have rebellious sympathies however, and the issue of censorship became the flashpoint between the show and the network. Tom Smothers in particular felt that CBS' Program Practices Department was too slow to pick up on the changes in a generation turned out of a gutted Camelot. The network, in the meantime, had its own antennae out for the conservative counterrevolution in which President Nixon was threatening to turn the FCC onto the media like the battleship Potemkin. Their differences spilled into the newspapers. In April of 1969, the show was canceled.

Tom was fairly devastated.

"We weren't political," he said, over lunch a few days after the taping. "We did have a sense of ethics, about the U-2 incident, and voting registration. But we weren't political. They politicized us. We had no strategy. We were winging it the whole time. Harry Belafonte said to me: 'Don't leave your platform. Don't lose your cool.' I thought CBS would call us in the next week to start up the show again. When they didn't, you think the sadness and pain will last forever." (The brothers did get a summertime show on ABC, which failed, and as far as TV is concerned, they dropped out of sight.)

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