Friday, November 21, 2008

Brothers To The End

Of all people to snag a network variety show, I wouldn't have bet on Rosie O'Donnell. Yes, she loves Broadway musicals and is a comedian -- or at least used to be. I can't remember the last time Rosie went flat-out comic. There's always a lesson or lecture attached to her public performances, most notably her speeches on "The View." Her steamrolling of hapless Elisabeth Hasselbeck was strangely fascinating to see, but hardly funny or satirical. And now Rosie reemerges to host a prime time variety hour, a format our generation grew up watching. I wish her the best, given the logistical complexity of this type of show. Whether or not there's a contemporary audience for variety remains to be seen.

Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett have been cited as possible influences on Rosie's project. But if she really wants to test the variety waters, Rosie should get a hold of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3," a four-disc DVD box set that's packed with music, comedy, satire, and social commentary, all artfully rendered and in many ways still resonant. It may seem curious that the Smothers' third and final season on CBS is the first DVD set to be released, but given how the show evolved and ended, it's the season you most want to see. And there's plenty to view here -- 840 minutes of great television, special features, interviews, and entire segments that the CBS censors clipped from the original programs.

While censorship and the Smothers Brothers seem interchangeable, there's a lot they did get on the air, buoyed by a writing staff that featured Mason Williams, Carl Gottlieb, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner (who apparently was the most radical of the writers, berating Tommy Smothers for being a "sell out" during meetings), and Bob Einstein, whose unique comic imagination has never been adequately recognized, especially when compared to the more famous Smothers alumni. (You may know Einstein better as Marty Funkhouser on "Curb Your Enthusiasm.") According to the other writers interviewed, Einstein, older brother of Albert Brooks, had the wildest ideas, some of which never saw the red camera light. But ultimate praise and credit goes to Tommy Smothers for assembling such a writing staff, and urging them to try anything.

Among the many things you notice while moving through the discs is just how tight the Smothers Brothers were and remain as a comedy team. Their timing is sharp, their chemistry undeniable. The audience loved them (and since Tommy wouldn't allow a laugh track on the show, what you hear is genuine appreciation), which is why they got away with so much for so long. By the third season, however, the Brothers were really pushing it, especially Tommy, who later admitted that his endless battles with CBS made him lose his comic balance, as he appeared less and less as the dopey brother character, and more as the politically committed satirist he actually was. Here's a fine example of Tommy balancing both sides, staying in character while sniping at then-California Governor Ronald Reagan.

A comic is only as good as his straightman, and Dick Smothers was easily one of the best, in the same company as Bud Abbott and Dean Martin. The one difference was that Dick's character was softer, seemingly less cruel than the standard straightman, even though he is continually frustrated by Tommy's inability to grasp simple concepts. This comic relationship transcended any political era, and still works today whenever the Brothers perform. Not many older comedians maintain their earlier personas, but the Smothers Brothers are a decided exception.

Among the many treasures you'll find in this set is the prime time special, "Pat Paulsen for President," which aired just weeks before the 1968 election. Head writer Mason Williams wanted to produce a satirical campaign, and thought at first about running the Statue of Liberty for president. Thankfully, he changed his mind and instead cast Paulsen as his mock candidate. Paulsen was already a well-recognized part of the Smothers show, delivering deadpan editorials about various social issues. But his presidential campaign took his character into the streets, where he drew large, enthusiastic crowds anxious to hear his proposals. As Paulsen put it, "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve." That set the tone for what proved to be a brilliant piece of political satire, so believable at times that the joke got lost in the madness of 1968 America. Given the surrounding chaos and fear, Pat Paulsen's campaign seemed as real as anything else.

Here are two clips from Paulsen's presidential run (what I could find online, anyway). The first is a brief look at Paulsen on the campaign trail.

The second is a piece produced for the Smothers show, a bit that would work in any era, this one especially.

Included in this DVD set is footage of Paulsen attending the 1968 Chicago convention, a violent, repressive four days that seemed beyond satire. When the Smothers' returned for their third season, they had Harry Belafonte sing "Don't Stop The Carnival" while images from the Chicago convention, still fresh in the public mind, played behind him. This proved too much for CBS, which cut the entire sequence from the broadcast. But here it is in full. Keep in mind that this was to appear on a Sunday after Ed Sullivan, then considered the "family night" of television. Also, note the passion of dissident Democrats, directly challenging their incumbent Party over imperial war. Another thing you don't see anymore.

There are so many other features to enjoy: the music (Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, The Doors, Donovan, Joan Baez dedicating a song to her husband who was convicted for draft resistance, her remarks about militarism CBS naturally edited out); the comedy (George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Jackie Mason, Jonathan Winters, David Frye, who in one sketch plays Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon, David Steinberg, whose comedy sermonette enraged so many viewers that his second appearance never aired, The Committee, the seminal San Francisco improv group who perform on several shows). Of course there's plenty of political material about war, racism, and censorship, the Brothers portraying CBS executives as frightened old men. And there's one remarkable segment where the Brothers interview Dr. Benjamin Spock, who at the time was on trial for assisting draft resisters. The candor expressed about the Vietnam war was something you just didn't see in prime time, much less on a comedy-variety show. And viewers didn't see it, as CBS cut the Spock interview as well.

CBS finally grew tired of all the controversy, and looking to appease the incoming Nixon administration as well as their sponsors, the network fired the Smothers Brothers, even though it had just renewed the show for a fourth season. Thrown off the air, the Smothers writing staff went on to win an Emmy Award, beating out perennial favorite "Laugh-In." The Emmy telecast is included in this set, and the happy disbelief expressed by the show's writers tells the final story. Well, almost. Not wanting to hurt the writers' chances, Tommy Smothers kept his name off the credits submitted to the Academy. But as everyone interviewed readily admits, Tommy was the show's driving creative force, and he more than anyone should've been up on that stage 40 years ago. At this year's Emmys, former Smothers writer Steve Martin awarded Tommy his long deserved statue. As you can see, the man hasn't lost his passion.