Sunday, January 18, 2009

“Oh yeah?!!!”

There’s a little bit of backstory involved with this post, and since it’s going to be a lengthy one I’ll try to keep it brief. Last July, I received an e-mail from an individual who offered to send me a gratis copy of the Time-Life DVD box set release The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3 for review…but sad to say, I never received it in time to write it up before it officially hit the streets in September.

Still, I don’t want to leave an impression that this is the end of the story. I finally received it a few days before Christmas, and rather than browbeat this individual for an explanation I’m just going to assume that my old nemesis at the Savannah Post Office (Smock Lady!) is responsible. It is I who must apologize for not getting around to reviewing this sooner, and I do once again want to thank Erik for taking the time to send it.

When I first read the announcement that The Best of Season 3 would be released to DVD, my immediate response was “Did I sleep through the best of Seasons 1 and 2?” Not long after, of course, I learned that the decision was made to release the final season first because it was in this season that the team of Tom and Dick Smothers were fired by the CBS network, bringing their popular Sunday night comedy-variety series to a premature end—and as such, would be of more interest to fans and the mildly curious. (Both brothers continually stress even today that their series was not cancelled in the traditional sense, but was a casualty of their network firing. To paraphrase Dick, cancellation is like death from natural causes; television shows don’t stay around forever [though it seems like some of them do]. Being fired from a series is like death by gunshot. In the end, you get the same result.) Tom Smothers has gone on record as being somewhat reluctant to release the shows to DVD (and reiterates this in an audio commentary included in the box set’s generous extras) because of fears that those unfamiliar with the show will, upon watching a few episodes, wonder what the fuss was all about. His preference is to edit the shows further (the programs on the box set have already been edited; they’re the same versions that were featured on the E! Network back in 1993 and snips were made for various legal and copyright reasons) so that the deadwood is completely eliminated and only the political and controversial elements remain.

I’ll go on record to say that Tom’s idea is a bad one—and I’m glad he demurred to the outcry of the fans. To me, editing the shows more would undercut his argument that potential consumers are only interested in those segments that got him and Dick in trouble with CBS. If you're a fan of the Smothers' comedy, you'll be able to sit through (at least I was) sketches that will seem rather silly because you'll watch it through a 1960s sensibility instead of a 21st century prism. I’ve always believed to a certain extent that a goodly portion of the material on Comedy Hour wasn’t so much controversial (granted, a lot of it is fairly tame and innocuous when viewed today) as it was irreverent; that the Smothers and their young writers were audacious to the point of placing whoopee cushions in the chairs of the stuffy old guard at the Tiffany network in order to get them to lighten up. (An argument has been made, however, that CBS was influenced by the displeasure of the individuals targeted by the duo into giving them their walking papers...the powers-that-be still call the shots in matters involving the FCC.) In a reunion of Tom, Dick and writers Steve Martin, Mason Williams and Bob Einstein at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2000 (another extra included on the set; it’s a shame they didn’t set this up for telecast because the audio isn’t up to snuff and you miss a lot of what they’re saying), all five of them agreed that the only material on the show that guaranteed an avalanche of hate mail were those sketches that dealt with religion…which is a subject that has pretty much been taboo since the beginning of time.

The Best of Season 3 spotlights eleven shows that were, as previously noted, cherry-picked by the brothers to be featured on E!—and even though they’ve been edited, there is much goodness to be found among what remains. The first show on Disc 1 is their third season opener (September 29, 1968), which features guest stars Pat Paulsen, Mama Cass Elliot and Harry Belafonte. Already the Smothers and the censors have taken up opposing sides; when originally broadcast, “Standards and Practices” eliminated Belafonte’s incredible calypso medley of Don’t Stop the Carnival (because it was set against a backdrop of footage from the tumultuous Democratic Party Convention in 1968) and substituted an inane Q&A session in which a clearly pissed-off Tom has difficulty concealing his contempt (he eventually challenges this nonsense with an improvised editorial on censorship). For the DVD, the Belafonte number has been restored—with the Q&A material presented as an extra. Also in this show, Tom and Dick stick out their tongues at the powers-that-be with a ditty entitled We’re Still Here, and Mama Cass sings a couple of tunes including her big hit, Dream a Little Dream of Me. The final sketch is a funny Bonanza parody (Bonanzarosa) which casts Belafonte and Mama Cass as “Little Jerk” and “Hass,” respectively, and Tom and Dick are outlaws who have kidnapped the Nielsen families—agreeing to release them only if their terms are met. (Towards the end of this sketch, family patriarch Ben Cartwrong [Paulsen] reveals that the matriarch of the family is still alive—and out of a boarded-up closet comes former L.A. Rams player Rosey Grier [in drag]. As Grier gives Elliot a familial kiss, Tom cracks: “Now they’ll never get the Nielsens back.”)

Other shows in the collection include wet-your-pants funny routines from George Carlin (the one with the Indian drill sergeant: “…you with the beads—out of line!”), Bob Newhart (the air traffic controller bit), Jackie Mason, Jonathan Winters and David Frye (who participates in a sketch in which he impersonates LBJ, Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace). The improv group The Committee makes several appearances in these shows (you’ll glimpse members Peter Bonerz and Howard Hesseman) and there are also a couple of telecasts in which the Smothers imitated Steve Allen’s “Man on the Street” sketches (which, in turn, were lifted from another famous Allen and his “Allen’s Alley” creation) with “Minority Report.” Among the famous participants in the “Report” segments are Michael Constantine (later on Room 222), Mel Stewart (Henry Jefferson on All in the Family), and Kenneth Mars—who’s hysterical as a cheerful WASP bigot:

DICK: Tell me, what about the spending here at home?
KENNETH: Spending here at home…ow! Now that’s a real sore point with me…we’re dumping too much money into these so-called “ghetto areas”…there shouldn’t be any ghettos! Why, let them move into my neighborhood! Last week…a Jewish fellow moved in right across the way…and they say a Negro family bought the house right next door, and they’re welcome
DICK: Very good attitude, sir…excuse me, I have to move along now…
KENNETH (Muttering): And I’ll be moving right with you

In addition to being able to enjoy top-notch comedians at the cusp of their careers, the Comedy Hour shows also present amazing musical acts: the First Edition (with a young Kenny Rogers), the Doors, Ray Charles, Judy Collins, Joan Baez (whose intro to Green, Green Grass of Home—in which she dedicates the song to her then-husband David Harris, who was about to do a stretch in the Grey Bar Hotel for draft resistance—was snipped by CBS, and who does an amazing rendition of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released with tight harmonies from Tom and Dick) and the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. (Ike and Tina were always welcome on the Smothers show, since other variety programs generally kept their distance [they thought the act was “too sexy”]; they do a nice River Deep, Mountain High and the oddly prophetic I’m Gonna Do All I Can [To Do Right by My Man].) Two of the shows on this disc were telecast in an interesting “theater-in-the-round” format: the aforementioned Baez appearance and a program that featured both Donovan and Dion (who sings Abraham, Martin and John). The Donovan-Dion telecast had to do without the usual presence of Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra (a musicians’ strike was in effect that week) but the two performers get to sing together on the old Mary Hopkin hit Those Were the Days in the finale, performed among a series of blackouts from Tom, Dick and The Committee. (A young Jennifer Warnes—billed at that time as Jennifer Warren—sings an incredible Santa Monica Pier acapella, in addition to harmonizing with Donovan on Days; she can also be seen/heard on another show which features the West Coast cast of the stage musical Hair.) I also like the Donovan-Dion show because Tom and Dick do Cabbage, one of my favorites of their many routines (and, as this post from the past will attest, the bit that made me a Smothers fan for life).

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3 also includes the telecast (which was never shown on CBS) that the network used to fire the team, claiming that the videotape of the program was delivered too late (a ploy that backfired when Tom and Dick successfully sued CBS for breach of contract in a famous court case); it’s interesting to note that Dick wasn’t on the show that week (he got the time off for a auto racing engagement) and was replaced by Laugh-In’s Dan Rowan. David Steinberg was also among the guests (as was Nancy Wilson and Teddy Neeley—whose musical performance has been snipped but his participation in the final comedy skit has not), performing another one of his comedy sermonettes about Jonah and the whale (“And the gentiles, as is their wont from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.”). But one of the funniest bonuses is reserved for Disc 4: the October 20, 1968 telecast of Pat Paulsen for President; a rib-tickling “mockumentary” that covers the comedian’s quixotic quest (“If nominated I will not run…if elected I will not serve”) for the highest office in the land…narrated by Henry Fonda. (Most of the material in this special hasn’t dated in the slightest; you could run it today and still get big guffaws.) The absence of Paulsen from a lot of these telecasts (CBS took his “campaign” seriously and kept him off the show, fearing the real candidates would demand equal time) is another small disappointment, but Disc 4 contains some bodacious extras devoted to the man who achieved fame as the deadpan comedian who did editorials on Tom and Dick’s shows. There’s even a videotaped stand-up performance from 1992 in a club in Anchorage, Alaska that is most enjoyable; Paulsen works in a one-liner that I once suggested to my old boss at La Quinta he use for the marquee sign: “We’ve upped our standards, now up yours.” (After he got up off the floor, he told me that if there was even the slightest chance he could get away with a stunt like that he would use it in a heartbeat.)

As a Smothers Brothers fan, I was naturally predisposed to enjoy this collection—and despite the few disappointments, it’s simply a must-have for any comedy/classic television enthusiast. The extras alone are simply staggering: interviews with writers and guest stars about their experiences, interdepartmental memos and threats from the network, material that never aired (I particularly enjoyed the segment where Tom and Dick interview noted draft resistor Dr. Benjamin Spock), network promos and other assorted goodies. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that The Best of Season 2 is not too far around the corner.


Bill Crider said...

What a nostalgic kick. In the olden days before recording was possible, Judy and I never missed the Smothers Brothers shows. Seeing the guys in person last year was another kick. They haven't lost a step yet.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Seeing the guys in person last year was another kick.

Man...I am so envious!

Kliph Nesteroff said...

They're very good live, also very talkative and approachable in real life. They tour like crazy, I'm surprised they haven't made it to your neck of the woods yet.