Happy Birthday Tommy Smothers

In late 1960s, before cable television had been invented and there were only three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS), Tommy and Dick Smothers challenged those who tried to tame their wildly popular show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Their show premiered on CBS in 1967 and was cancelled suddenly in 1969. Because the show reflected the counter culture and the anti-war movement, there were frequent battles with network censors.

🔹The Smothers Brothers had quite the following and by 1967, Tom was an occasional onstage presenter, at the Monterey International Pop Festival, scouting such breakthrough acts as the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Ravi Shankar.

🔹In 1968, Tom was an early champion of the Broadway show Hair, and instrumental in bringing the show to the West Coast.

🔹In 1969, Tom could be found at the bedside of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, playing guitar and singing with Lennon as a group of friends recorded the classic anthem “Give Peace a Chance.”

Most families had just one television and they watched it together. Tom and Dick Smothers used their show as a platform to young writers, like Steve Martin and Rob Reiner, new bands like The Who and Jefferson Airplane, and performers who opposed the war in Vietnam, like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.

They had Kate Smith and Simon and Garfunkel on the same show. They had Mickey Rooney and The Who on the same show and appealed to both, you know, generations. But they were known for giving network censors fits.

“And so they would put in things that really meant nothing and instruct the crew and the writers and everybody around to laugh, like, dirty, sniggering little laughs,” explained TV critic, David Bianculli, author of book about the Smothers Brothers, called Dangerously Funny. “And so the censors would say well, you can’t say ‘rowing to Galveston.’ And they’d say, well, why not? Well, you just can’t say it. So they would drive them crazy just for the fun of it, too.”

In 1964, the Beatles made history with their first American appearance on Ed Sullivan, CBS, Sunday night. It made the Beatles, the whole British Invasion and changed society.

Four years later, the Beatles have stopped touring. They’re still the biggest thing in the world, and they’ve made this new thing called videos – of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution,” – and so for the United States premiere, instead of giving them to Ed Sullivan, Sunday night at eight, they gave them to the Smothers Brothers, Sunday night at nine. Attitudinally, the Beatles wanted to side with their generation. They wanted to be where the Smothers Brothers were in society.

At the beginning of an episode, George Harrison walks on stage unbilled–a Beatle, just to show up on the Smothers Brothers.

Looking a bit startled, Tommy Smothers asks, “Do you have something important?”

“Something very important to say on American television,” Harrison replied.

“You know, we don’t, we – a lot of times, we don’t opportunity of saying anything important because it’s American television, and every time you say something…”

The surprised audience roared with laughter and applause.

“…and try to say something important, they…”

More laughter.

“Well, whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it,” Harrison encouraged.

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born February 2, 1937 at Fort Jay Army Hospital on Governor’s Island in New York City. His brother Dick would be born over a year later.

They were the sons of Ruth (née Remick), a homemaker; and Major Thomas B. Smothers, an army officer who died a Prisoner of War in April 1945.

After moving to California, he graduated from Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, California. Tom was a competitive unicyclist, a state champion gymnast in the parallel bars and at San José State University, participated both in gymnastics and pole vault for the track team.

The Smothers Brothers initially set out to be folk musicians. Tom did not feel that he was good enough to be a professional musician, but he was funny enough to do comedy. The two began adding comedy bits to their act.

It was a series of performances when we started out as a duet in Aspen. I did all the introductions. I’d just make up stuff for every song. And Dickie said, “Why don’t you try repeating some of that stuff?” I said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t know that you could repeat the stuff. And I started repeating it and Dickie would say, “That’s wrong.” And pretty soon he’d say, “That’s wrong, you’re stupid.” It sort of became an argument.

Tom’s first foray into the medium of television was as a regular on The Steve Allen Show in 1961. He followed that role with a single episode of Burke’s Law.

The brothers next appeared on the CBS sitcom The Smothers Brothers Show from 1965 to 1966. Tom felt that the show did not play to the brothers’ strengths and gained creative control over their next venture: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

“The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen,” said Tom.  

The brothers’ oppositional politics led to their show’s demise, with David Steinberg later observing that “The most innovative variety show on television shut down because of political pressure”. 

After television, “Yo-Yo Man” became part of their touring shows with Tom’s mostly non-speaking character performing of tricks using a yo-yo. The term “Yo-Yo Man” is registered in his name. In their 2008 tour, Yo-Yo Man was listed as the group’s opening act.

In 2008, during the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards, Tom was awarded a special Emmy. 

Tommy Smothers is now the owner of Remick Ridge Vineyards in Sonoma County, California, with his wife Marcy Carriker and two children, Bo (born 1991), and Riley Rose (born 1996). He also has a son, Thomas Bolyn Smothers IV (Tom Jr.), from his first marriage, and one grandson, Phoenix Parrish-Smothers.

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From award-winning Texas author Cynthia Leal Massey.

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