Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

Back before Stephen Colbert ran for the presidency there was Pat Paulson.

Back before Jon Stewart criticized the government, there was the Smothers Brothers.

I was too young--actually not yet born--to remember the show during its original air dates in the late 1960s. But I was a bit familiar with the show and I did grow up a huge fan of The Carol Burnett Show--which owed much of its early existence to The Smother Brothers show. I also enjoyed Laugh-In (eventually), which was kind of like TSBCH's younger, more popular, hip brother.

David' Bianculli's book on this important show of the Vietnam Era has been a long-time labor of love. Bianculli, who I know best for his Friday hosting duties on NPR's "Fresh Air with Terri Gross" grew up watching the show and has long been a fan. The book grew out of the Smothers Brothers specific request to tell the story of their show, giving him absolute freedom (it seems) to tell the tale, warts and all.

And it is a good story. It shows how TV was beginning to shift from the hyper controlled studio/network-controlled system of the Tube's earliest days and shifting into a more "artistic" direction. Much like Hollywood film's simiar transformation from studio-controlled spectacle films to more auteur-driven works of art that are the reflection of a singular vision, TSBCH came along to challenge the television studios. And challenge is the central theme of the book, chronociling the ongoing and ever-increasing battle between Tom Smothers (the creative force behind much of the show) and the CBS censors. This battle, where Tom wanted to constantly push the boundaries of television in new directions while also using the televised platform to speak his mind against Vietnam, LBJ, and Nixon, led to the show's cancellation at the end of the third season.

One of the best things I can say about the book is that it made me want to seek out DVDs of the show's three seasons and experience the many skits, musical performances, and ideas that Bianculli carefully describes.

Of course, the things that were seen as so scandalous to the CBS censors in 1968 are laughably tame by the far more lax standards of today. But even just two or so years past the cancellation of TSBCH, Norman Lear's All in the Family was doing things far more scandalous than the topical variety show put together by Tom and Dick Smothers.

So, if you like the history of political protest; if you like television history; if you like a true story, well told, give this one a try.

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