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CALENDAR | Television/ Howard Rosenberg

When the networks tried to smother controversy

November 29, 2002|Howard Rosenberg

A new documentary on the Smothers Brothers recalls just how lock-jawed much of television was years in advance of today's wildly careening speedway of instantaneous blather.

The Who Brothers?

A brief history: More than three decades before late-nighter Bill Maher was zinged for his hot-button comments about Sept. 11 terrorists on ABC, and long before the U.S. was wired for cable, folk-singing comedians Tommy and Dick Smothers were in weekly prime-time combat with censors at CBS.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, much is owed the Smotherses for their fight last century on behalf of popping off in prime time.

As Maureen Muldaur notes in "Smothered," her film Wednesday on cable's Bravo channel, these guys were hardly anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Nor were they itching to tell dirty jokes, shout obscenities, parade nude across the screen and flash for the camera.

At issue instead was social comment and satire in "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" ranging from biting anti-Vietnam War digs to David Steinberg's wittily irreverent sermonettes about God and Scripture that were benign by today's standards (think "South Park"). The Smothers' story is always relevant, but especially now when war looms with Iraq. The stakes and environment are much different, of course. But would scripts voicing skepticism about that possible war meet resistance like that encountered over Vietnam by the Smotherses? Surely not, one would hope.

The squelching of "objectionable" material in the 1960s did not occur in a vacuum. TV's own scripture had been censorship in its infancy, which many now recall generously as the medium's golden age. Instead it was largely television's Golden Age of Blahs, a time when sponsors dictated much of program content, and blacklisted topics and talent were unreasonably excluded from the airwaves in deference to the nation's whipped-up Cold War frenzy.

It's one thing for a network to responsibly oversee what it beams to the public, another for it to suppress legitimate speech for questionable reasons.

And extending that tradition of keeping TV pastel is the blipping of opinion that "Smothered" reprises with ample clips from the late 1960s, along with comments by the brothers themselves, their show's writers and performers and CBS programmers of that era.

"We were trying to get through as much as we could," says Tommy.

His few years on this hot-seat with his brother overlapped the Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon presidencies, and also the Vietnam conflict their show sought relentlessly to protest under an umbrella of entertainment. As it turned out, though, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" would be canceled before the war was.

This was not a pretty time for television in general.

How paradoxical that a medium so energized by advances in technology was guided at the very top mainly by executives who shrank regressively from using public airwaves to present ideas that rippled the waters even slightly.

And how quaint this all seems today when prime time welcomes just about anything raunchy short of bestiality, when cable's all-news channels give knee-jerk live access to one talking head case after another, when public figures and their policies are drilled repeatedly in the monologues of Leno, Letterman and others.

Is some of it witless, even repulsive? Yes. Better that, however, than more gutlessness and repression.

With cable as a major player, the industry today views its audience as not one faceless mass, as it did in the 1960s, but as splintered into individual groups whose interests are shaped by age and background. One result is more diversity in programming.

Restraints are still in place, naturally, and even moderate insurgency often unable to elude blue pencils and fight through the blubber of TV's programming bureaucracy. Yet the contrast between eras is striking.

In tumultuous 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were murdered, and U.S. boasts of triumph in Vietnam were contradicted by the Tet offensive, CBS was trying to keep a lid on an hour of TV with the contours of a mainstream variety show. It had big production numbers. It had resident dancers and singers. It had Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. It had establishment guests like Kate Smith and Jimmy Durante.

But guests, also, whose controversial politics must have made CBS big shots shudder.

CBS allowed Joan Baez to dedicate a song to her husband, David Harris, for example, but edited out her explanation that he was being imprisoned for resisting the draft.

It vetoed folk singer Pete Seeger's appearance to sing his anti-war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," moreover, with only an ensuing public outcry causing the network to relent and let him sing it on the show later that season.

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