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VSDA SHOW: The Smothers Brothers Recall Their Storied Fight With Network Censors

29 Jul, 2003 By: Kurt Indvik

During the mid-1960s, the comedy duo Tom and Dick Smothers — the Smothers Brothers — stood on the front lines of the battle between the counterculture and the establishment, and, on network television, waged their own battle for the freedom to speak out against the Vietnam war and the Nixon administration. It was that battle that eventually cost them their own network comedy show, which brings the brothers to Las Vegas as recipients of the VSDA's George Carlin Freedom of Expression Award during the opening ceremonies today. Their story is the focus of Smothered: The Great Smothers Brothers Censorship Wars, available on video from New Video Group. Before they landed their now-famous gig, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS beginning in February 1967, the Smothers Brothers had not been particularly known as politically controversial comedians. But the two brothers and their writing team, which at the time included Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Mason Williams, seized upon the counterculture for cutting-edge comedy that touched a nerve.

VSM: What does the George Carlin Freedom of Expression Award mean for you?

Tom: It's nice to be honored, retrospectively. It's a strange thing; there is only once or twice in your life when you have the audacity to really stick your chin out for something, as we did. You look back at what you did and ask yourself, “Who was that guy?”

Dick: We didn't do what we did to get credit, but when the Smothered DVD came out and helped to set the record straight, and people started to honor us all these years later, I find it very gratifying. We earned it on that show. We were young, we wanted to be relevant, and we felt like what we were doing was right. We did, what, 72 shows, and people are still talking about it.

VSM: Do you see any similarities now, with some of the protests against the Iraq war and the administration's handling of the war, and back when you were dealing with the Vietnam war and the Nixon administration?

Tom: It feels a lot like it did back then, but this time it seems like there is a feeling that to dissent was almost treasonous. At least the press was freer back then. I see the national press as a handmaiden, almost, to the administration and the war effort.

Dick: I think the climate today is more repressive. It's funny, what's not accepted today in terms of free speech politically was accepted back then. But what we advance today as free speech, in terms of violence and sex, you know, the right to say anything we want, is, to me, freedom of speech that's not always worth hearing. It's getting all tumbled around.

VSM: Looking back on your experience with CBS, would you do anything differently in hindsight, or would you do it the same way?

Tom: Looking back, I would hope I had the balls to do it the same way again, but maybe a little smoother. You always hope you have that audaciousness. We played it right by the book with CBS, but on the edge, we toyed with them. Before the show, we were never political, we were satirical in our comedy. We were politicized during the course of the show. We were a product of the times. There was protesting in the streets, and we just happened to have a camera and be at the scene of the accident.

Dick: I think Tommy would. I am the conservative one. I would have rather been on the air longer and said more things over a longer period of time, but that's selfish on my part. I think we were the most effective we could have ever been handling it the way we did.

VSM: You're busier than ever, but how would you like to be remembered as performers?

Tom: I'd like to be remembered as a damn funny comedy act. Those were funny guys, and, for one moment, they stood up and were heard.

Dick: As the oldest living comedy team in the history of the world.

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