See Dick, and Tom, Run

In comedy--and comebacks--it's all about the timing

"Just who are the Smothers Brothers exactly, and why are we going to see them?"

He could answer the first part of her question: Tom and Dick Smothers were folk-singing comedians who, in the late 1960s, were given their own variety show on CBS. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was never intended to succeed; Tom and Dick were Sunday-night sacrificial lambs pitted against the Bonanza juggernaut at NBC. When the show debuted in February 1967, the Brothers wound up drawing some 30 million people, most of them the prized college crowd.

It was intended as little more than your average variety series aimed at The Kids, anchored by a team best known for its butter-knife-edged "Mom liked you best" routine. But Tommy, the smartest man in the history of comedy to play dumb, viewed the show as his private pulpit. He and his brother were the least likely of TV's troublemakers--Boy Scouts who turned out to be anarchists beneath the milk-and-cookie facade. "They had a huge set of balls, those guys," Zweibel says. "They were doing things in Daddy's room they shouldn't. They were misbehaving."

Tom, left, and Dick Smothers were clean-cut troublemakers in the 1960s...and not so different today, as they try for a comeback.
Tom, left, and Dick Smothers were clean-cut troublemakers in the 1960s...and not so different today, as they try for a comeback.

They took on the network's censors in a sketch with Elaine May, invited folk singer Pete Seeger to perform his anti-war ballad "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," got Harry Belafonte to sing "Don't Stop the Carnival" in front of violent footage from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, had Pat Paulson run for president, interviewed Dr. Benjamin Spock about his work helping draft evaders. The Brothers and their writers, among them Mason Williams and young unknowns named Rob Reiner and Steve Martin, loaded the show with so many drug references it gave off a contact high. And CBS fought the Brothers during the show's entire run, from early '67 till June 1969, when it got tired of cutting sketches and excised the Brothers from the schedule altogether.

"There were times there when it was very lonely," Tom says now. "Probably the loneliest time was after we were fired, when I went to the Emmys. The show won an Emmy for best writing, and I remember the thing that bothered me the most was the lack of eye contact from peers. It's like if you get cancer and stuff, you kind of look away, you feel sorry, you don't know what to say. So I immediately moved up to Northern California and got out of that and didn't deal with the Hollywood thing. When you're not working, there's kind of a thing over your head. They say, God, that was really great what you did,' or, I'm not sure; maybe you made a big mistake.' Just don't tell a comic he can't say something or do something, because he will do it."

And he will also blow it. But that's the stuff of history books, one of which is being written about the Brothers by critic David Bianculli. Those were the ancient doings of martyred pioneers who laid the ground, and then were buried beneath it, for the likes of Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller, Bill Maher and any other satirist making a nice TV living off the headlines.

So Zweibel could tell his daughter who they were. But...

"I didn't even know why I was going to see them, really," Zweibel says. "I think I went out of respect that night--just like I would go to old-timers day at Yankee Stadium, out of respect for older guys who did something important and enjoyable."

As it turned out, the Brothers killed that night. They were as funny in the summer of 2003 as they'd been 40 years earlier, when they were young men not long removed from their days singing fake folk songs in a bar near San Jose State College. They were still clean-cut boys hiding the barbed wire in the brownies, making fun of politicians and national policy with the wicked grin of a little boy who insists he doesn't know he's said something he shouldn't have. Zweibel was stunned: "They're still very vital and very funny."

Next thing he knew, he was having lunch with Tommy Smothers and discussing a TV special the Brothers and Zweibel are currently pitching to the networks, chief among them CBS and HBO, where Zweibel is consulting producer for Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Maybe the world will remember the Smothers Brothers after all.

Tom is not so interested in doing a "political show"; he says he's no longer "balls-out invincible," the reckless and angry young man he was 35 years ago. He hasn't voted for a Democrat or Republican in 12 years and says he now sees "the gray more than the black and white." He has no interest in rehashing old yesterdays.

The special, as Zweibel explains it, would take place in a Hollywood old-age home populated by the formerly famous; Tommy's been there for 35 years, literally covered in dust. He's freed from the rest home by a comic--Jon Stewart, perhaps--who tries to reunite Tommy with Dick, now a successful game-show host who still harbors a grudge against his brother for ruining their network deal. It eventually becomes like The Magnificent Seven, with Steve Martin and Rob Reiner and the rest of the old gang riding into a network to pitch a new series to fetal-faced executives who've never heard of the Smothers Brothers. In other words, it'll be just like real life.

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