'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' and the Beginning of Socially-Conscious Television
David S. Silverman, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Communications
Xavier University of Louisiana
Justification and Literature Review
On Sunday, February 5, 1967, 9:00 PM Eastern Time, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (SBCH) aired for the first time to phenomenal ratings (Brooks, 1987). Conceived as "a youthful folk song act with a little brotherly comedy banter mixed in" (Brooks, 1987) by executives of the Columbia Broadcasting Network (CBS) in an attempt to counter-program the perennial Nielsen rating champ Bonanza.i The show eventually accomplished that task, knocking Bonanza from first to sixth place by the end of its second season (McNeil, 1991). Despite such success, SBCH rode a whirlwind of controversy that eventually led to its own demise--sparking "the biggest debate on network censorship in the medium's history" (Brooks, 1987). The controversy of this breakthrough show paved the way for politically and socially conscious shows like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and Saturday Night Liveshows that entered into the mainstream through both initial commercial success and acceptance (and a highly lucrative syndication market).
Given the sudden and publicly devastating demise of the SBCH in April 1969, contrasted with the longer running successor for the counterculture audience that was NBC’s Laugh-In, the modern viewer is left to wonder what was so controversial that merited the Smothers Brothers firing.ii By placing the show into historical perspective, however, one begins to see a much different picture. In the late 1960's, inane shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. were CBS's standard family fare; however, violent programming found in shows like Mission: Impossible, Gunsmoke, and Mannix were beginning to fall under the specter of pending federal legislation to censor network television. During the societal upheaval and in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and growing generational unrest, a show that featured counterculture comedy directed towards baby boomers, with McCarthy-era blacklisted performers, psychedelic acid rock bands, critical sketch comedy aimed at gun control, Vietnam, and the presidencystood out as dangerous, non-conformist, anti-Establishmentarian, and a prime target for corporate censorship fearful of governmental interference.
Counterculture, Humor, and Social Hegemony The concept of hegemony was introduced by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist theoretician and activist. In seeking to explain the failure of European socialist movements in the early twentieth century, Gramsci argued that capitalist societies were sustained not only by the formal and potentially coercive power of the state, but also by complex cultural and ideological processes that secure popular consent to the established social order.
Kevin M. Carrageeiii
During the late 1960’s, the Smothers Brothers found themselves in the middle of what Gramsci called a “crisis of authority” (Bodroghkozy, 2001), where the ruling elite dominate with coercive means rather than the consent of the subordinated groups in question. In an era when activism over the Vietnam War and segregation sparked Free Speech movements and a (healthy) debate over the breadth and depth of the First Amendment, it was determined that “government is not the only enemy of freedom....the marketplace can also act as a serious constraint to freedom” (Jhally, 1989, p. 81). According to Tony Hendra, author of Going Too Far (1987), the humor that developed during this era was consumed primarily by the postwar or Baby Boom generation:
The humor of this vast groupwhich we shall call "Boomer humor"has been at various times described as 'black,' 'radical,' 'underground,' 'tasteless,' 'sophomoric,' 'gross,' 'Communistic,' 'anarchist,' and a host of other contradictory labels, but the term that still sticks, as it did when it first appeared in the mid-fifties, is 'sick'.
Boomer humor, Hendra notes, was called the product of sickv minds by those who denigrated it, as "only a lunatic would want to rock a boat so firmly on course; only a madman would want to smash the windows of such an august century-old edifice; only a disturbed child would want to break into a country club exclusively reserved for grown-ups with Big Things on their minds" (Hendra, 1987, p. 2). In other words, boomer humor sought to deal in subjects that had been completely off-limits in popular comedy as what was seen as traditional family values were themselves to become the object of satire (Hendra, 1987).
The satirical boomer humor that the Smothers Brothers produced and attempted to present via the public airwaves represented a challenge to the established order that CBS wanted to maintain. In this sense, CBS acted as the "First Filter"vi of mass mediaand tried to prevent the Smothers Brothers (and all others) from using “their” airwaves to subvert this order (Gitlin, 1977; Hendra, 1987, Bodroghkozy, 1997), while the Smothers Brothers saw the airwaves as public and protected by the First Amendment (Bodroghkozy, 2001). In this sense, the CBS Standards and Practices acted as gatekeepersthose in charge of the information flow that decide what you will and won’t see through their information channel (Real, 1996). Gitlin (1994) adds that this gatekeeping filter provided programs that rehearsed social fixity "to affirm the sovereignty of the audience while keeping deep alternatives off the agenda. Elite authority and consumer choice are affirmed at oncethis is one of the central operations of the hegemonic liberal capitalist ideology" (Gitlin, 1994, p. 520). James Lull (1995) clearly defines this type of power as follows:
Owners and managers of media industries can produce and reproduce the content, inflections, and tones of ideas favorable to them far more easily than other social groups because they manage key socializing institutions, thereby guaranteeing that their points of view are constantly and attractively cast into the public arena.vii
In this sense, social hegemony offers a non-traditional qualitative approach to studying the power structure of mass communication (Hardt, 1992).
Examining this power structure closer, we see that the Smothers Brothers (as Gramsci’s intellectualsviii) attempted to upset the power structure that CBS, as the proletariat superstructure, reinforced through its corporate censorship role (Adamson, 1980). CBS was eager to hold onto its privileged position by monitoring the conditions that facilitate or retard the unfolding of a political moment that Gramsci (in his Selections from the Prison Notebooks)claimed “brings about not only a unison of economic and political aims, but also intellectual and moral unity, posing all the questions around which the struggle rages not on a corporate but on a ‘universal’ plane” (qtd. in Adamson, 1980, p. 161). Gramsci argued that as ideology is linked to hegemony (Cawelti, qtd. in Combs, 1993), social institutions establish and maintain power and status by a particular combination of social mythologyin the case of the Smothers Brothers, their antiestablishment ideology threatened CBS’s power.
Enter Two Clean Cut Kids
Into this atmosphere of tight control entered the Smothers Brothers, who (for the early 1960's) "could be relied upon to provide a pleasant and funny evening whose gentle romps through Americana we no more threatening than the folksy ditties they jollied their way through" (Hendra, 1987, p. 203). Using what Zillman defined as "refined" humor (qtd. in Brown and Jennings, 1983, p. 147), the Smothers Brothers introduced into their college circuit folk singing act an element that many contemporary mass media producers and writers find as a key: reality. "Performers should reflect the times they live in," Tom said in an early TV Guide interview, "Why shouldn't TV do wild things?" (qtd. in Whitney, 1968, February 10, p. 19). Yet by the end of the decade, after pushing the boundaries of network television for two and a half years, the Smothers Brothers were removed from the air becauseas humorists and clownsthey were "incompetent to make social comment" (qtd. in Hendra, 1987, p. 3).
The shows that I have chosen to review had never been aired as reruns in syndication until 1992, at which point the censored skits and musical sets were restored to each show for rebroadcast by the E! Television Network. Included in these rebroadcasts were introductions by the Tom and Dick Smothers, and interviews with the show’s writers, producers, and guest stars. In my season-by-season review of the show, I will look at the following five key areas that brought increasing censorship by CBS: the draft/Vietnam War, gun control, acknowledgement of network censorship, countercultural elements, and political/presidential satirization. In doing so, I hope to (re-) examine, and perhaps, rediscover, the forces that were at work that eventually forced the Smothers Brothers off the air.