Saturday, November 20, 2010

Feast of Saint Dick

My Fellow Comedists,

This week is brings us the birthday of Dick Smothers, straight man and stand-up bass player with his brother Tommy as part, of course, of the legendary Smothers Brothers. Before there was Saturday Night Live, before there was Laugh In, there was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The country was exploding in the late 60s, yet television still looked like it did in the 50s. Anything that smacked of criticism of the government or the war in Vietnam, or that pointed to the social problems of racism or poverty were forbidden, indeed there were network censors who made sure dissent did not make it the people over their Swanson tv dinners.

The Smothers Brothers, clean cut, looking like the Kingston Trio lost someone in Kingston seemed harmless enough. Good folk music with some well-timed silliness thrown in, they were a way to attract kids away from the ratings bonanza that was, well, Bonanza.

But, of course, there was folk music and there was folk music and despite their look, the Smothers Brothers came from the tradition in which folk music was a tool of emancipation and political protest. Their show quickly turned from cutsie to a censor's nightmare. They knew exactly where the line was and intentionally put clever material right on it, material that that was smart and sharp and not obscene or over the top, just dead on point and right. But it was the sort of criticism that supported the side of the cultural divide in the late 60s that the corporate networks did not care to bolster.

Their writers were the younger version of the Sid Cesar gang, including Albert Brooks and his brother (who played Super Dave Osborne), Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, and Don Novello (who would go on to be Father Guido Sarducci). Their material intentionally ranged from the innocent to the edgy, but the edgy was always done with an incredibly smart sense of humor and timing. They were pros and darn good at what they did...and that is what got them canceled.

But their brave fights on the side of what is right and what is funny were every bit as important to the history of American comedy on television as what Lenny Bruce was doing for American stand-up in the night clubs.

Thank you, Dick Smothers and happy birthday.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve