The Smothers Brothers dressed in Roman outfits as centurion and statesman

The Smothers Brothers. The work of the best jesters is timeless.

Firedoglake’s Elliott recently reminded me of the immortal humor of the Smothers Brothers. Though this duo was before my time, their humor resonates today in political satirists and jesters like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. From a lengthy discussion between David Bianculli, well known media critic and author of Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross:

I think that it’s most visible right now in places like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Saturday Night Live and Bill Maher. All of them are outside of prime time, but they’re all sort of doing elements of what the Smothers Brothers did.

Stephen Colbert tried very briefly to throw himself into the presidential race, just as Pat Paulsen had. A lot of Jon Stewart’s humor is very much what the Smothers was, and he admits that they were a very strong influence. Bill Maher says the Smothers were a very strong influence. And Saturday Night Live I sort of see as what the Smothers Brothers almost had the chance to become.

Their appeal was cross-generational:

GROSS: And that’s one of the things that makes the story so interesting. You know, it’s the second half of the ’60s. The youth culture has become the counter-culture. Youth culture has also become, a lot of it, the anti-war movement. The country is, like, divided, people are going wild, and television is reflecting somewhere between very little and none of that.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, it’s almost – there are so many parallels to today that it amazes me, in that now you think of red state, blue state, and we have this giant divide, and the parties are divided, and the whole country seems, you know, ideologically divided.

[...]

And the Smothers Brothers came on, and at a time when there was one television in the house, and everybody watched it; for the first couple of seasons, they pulled this amazing magic act and straddled the chasm of the generation gap. 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.

As Elliott said, “even my businessman dad liked the Smothers Brothers!”

Censored for years, they kept on satirizing. In the end their uncompromising political message drove them off the air, with CBS firing the duo and the rest of their comedy ensemble under pressure from the White House. Though the Brothers and the ACLU fought a successful legal battle in response, their careers were effectively over. A documentary, Smothered, tells the whole story — but only clips seem to be available online.

Who Goes to Jail?

Compare the lyrics of “Big Time Crime,” the video above, with this story from yesterday’s Democracy Now! In “Who Goes to Jail?” Amy Goodman interviews Matt Taibbi about his new book, The Divide.

Well, first of all, this idea that some companies are too big to jail, it makes some sense in the abstract. In a vacuum, of course it makes sense. If you have a company, a storied company that may have existed for a hundred, 150 years, that employs tens or maybe even 100,000 people, you may not want to criminally charge that company willy-nilly and wreck the company and cause lots of people to lose their jobs.

But there are two problems with that line of thinking if you use it over and over and over again. One is that there’s no reason you can’t proceed against individuals in those companies. It’s understandable to maybe not charge the company, but in the case of a company like HSBC, which admitted to laundering $850 million for a pair of Central and South American drug cartels, somebody has to go to jail in that case. If you’re going to put people in jail for having a joint in their pocket or for slinging dime bags on the corner in a city street, you cannot let people who laundered $800 million for the worst drug offenders in the world walk.

[...]

That whole thing about the innocent white-collar employees perhaps losing their livelihoods keeping [the Justice Department's Lanny Breuer] up at night, I want to know what his response is to, you know, the idea that maybe a single mother on welfare is going to lose her kids because she’s going to lose custody in an $800 welfare fraud case. You know, I saw so many of these cases that it was—that is was just overwhelming to me. Those are the kinds of things that would keep me up at night if I were the attorney general, thinking about the consequences that ordinary people feel—suffer when they are caught up in the criminal justice system.

The Peace Song

The Peace Song” is another timeless Smothers Brothers classic — whether applied to the Vietnam war or the modern widespread campaign of military-backed destabilization for peace we’re currently waging throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Which is why it’s delightful that Acme Arts Collective’s ”Civilian Conservation Corps” just released this smooth and clever cover:

You can download the song here or read on for lyrics.

Lyrics

I’m upset and angry and eager for peace
I’ll kill anybody who doesn’t love peace
If you really want peace we could have it today
If all of our enemies would just see things our way
convince them with soldiers
and a bombing increase
we might wipe out mankind
but at last, we’ll have peace

so wage a war for peace
drop a bomb for peace
shoot a gun for peace
kill everyone for peace
peace is our goal
that is what we’re for
we may achieve peace but it won’t be through war

and those collateral kids in the peasant home
need pacification by American drones
and the bombs that we drop on the schools and the stores
are the lessons of humanitarian war
and you better watch what you think and say
we got our own gulag
in Guantanamo Bay

I’m upset and angry and eager for peace
I’ll kill anybody who doesn’t love peace
If you really want peace we could have it today
If all of our enemies would just see things our way
convince them with soldiers
and a bombing increase
we might wipe out mankind
but at last, we’ll have peace

so wage a war for peace
drop a bomb for peace
shoot a gun for peace
kill everyone for peace
peace is our goal
that is what we’re for
we may achieve peace but it won’t be through war

War is over, if you want it!

Thanks to Elliot for assistance with lyric transcription and other assistance with this article.

Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.