Tom Smothers admits he was never particularly interested in having episodes of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" resurface on television.
"Maybe if people see them again, they wouldn't remember them with such fondness," Smothers said in a recent interview. "The emotions and feelings about the show are beautiful now. Why show them?"
But cable's E! Entertainment Television is dusting off all 71 episodes of the landmark CBS series, which aired from 1967 to '69, and will air them weeknights beginning Monday. "The people who have seen the episodes are very excited about it," Smothers said. "The editors (at E!) are saying 'God. These are great.' I might be too sensitive about the show. My opinion doesn't matter any more."
Smothers and younger brother Dick (who were 30 and 27 when the show debuted) hosted the popular comedy-variety series, which is remembered for being irreverent and controversial. The comedy team poked fun of everything from government to religion. Series regular Pat Paulsen ran for president in 1968. The show aired during the height of the Vietnam War and the guests tended to be the left-wing, anti-war variety, such as Joan Baez and blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger.
Run-ins with the CBS censors became more frequent and volatile. In 1969, a sketch spoofing religion caused so much outrage that the Brothers were forced to make an on-air apology. Finally, CBS decided to bring down the curtain on the bad boys of comedy and fired them in the spring of 1969.
Each hour episode on E! features new interviews and introductions from the Smothers Brothers and with original guest stars. "The concept of wrapping them up and putting a context on them was attractive to me," Smothers said.
In one interview, singer Grace Slick, who performed on the show with her group Jefferson Airplane in blackface, didn't even remember her performance until she was shown her clip. According to Smothers, "She said, 'I wonder why I put blackface on? I didn't know why I did it. Nobody said a thing. Nobody questioned it.' "
Smothers was shocked when he saw some of the earliest episodes. "You didn't call black people blacks (then); you called them Negroes," he said. "That is how far back it goes."
Despite being more youth-oriented, the series attracted such legends as Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Greer Garson and Lana Turner as guests. "I remember them as major movie stars we grew up with and they were available," Smothers said. "They said, 'Geez, we would love to do the show.' We had Bette Davis and the Who together. Lana Turner was scared to death because she hadn't been in front of a live audience."
The series also launched the careers of such notables as Steve Martin, Bob Einstein ("Super Dave") and Rob Reiner. All three were writers for the series; Martin and Einstein performed as well.
Smothers said the problems the series incurred wouldn't happen today. "We were fired," Smothers said. "It was a revealing time in our history and we were coming out of naivete and just becoming cynical."
The series, Smothers said, began losing its sense of humor near the end of its run, about the same time its ratings began to slide. "I got very serious and that is probably what happened to the show a little bit," Smothers said. "It got message-oriented and (in) true satire, you kind of ridicule the style of the people saying things. If you get into (ridiculing) the content, you lose the satire. Sometimes it can become strident.
"Pat Paulsen, he mimicked the style and never quite got into the issues. I got caught in my emotions."
"The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" airs weeknights at 8 beginning Monday on E! Entertainment Television.