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.