Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Delanceyplace.com 05/09/06-The Smothers Brothers

In today's excerpt, we see television censorship circa 1969. By 1967, the Smothers Brothers, the charming, blazer-clad comedy team that had come to prominence lampooning the ubiquitous folk singing
groups of the time ('mom always liked you best'), had the biggest TV show in America, and were using it to comment on the social upheavals of the '60s. Since there were only three major commercial channels, plus PBS and a smattering of UHF channels, censors
held sway in a way that is, in theory, less possible than in our current age of video clips on the internet, and the show was cancelled as a result of censors in the 1969 season. But we see echoes of this in such things as the Comedy Channel's recently attempted
censorship of African-American Dave Chapelle's Niggah sketch--which led to Chapelle's departure from the highly successful show:

"Tom and Dick Smothers were the perky shills for the subversive satire that, between 1967 and 1969, turned their jaunty variety show into a comedy terrorist cell. The Smotherses were our jolly hosts, but also the secret instigators...of songs and sketches that aggressively took on Lyndon Johnson,
Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and racism while singing the praises of drugs, sex, the counterculture, and everything else that wasn't nailed down. Looking at the shows now, which give off the happy-go-lucky, devilish air of its chummy hosts, they seem
as innocent as old newsreels of the naughty Jazz Age.

"A TV executive once instructed them, 'We want you to be controversial but at the same time we want everyone to agree with you.' A station owner once told Tom that he was 'incompetent to make social comments.' One CBS memo said it was fine 'to satirize the president, so long as you do it with respect.'

"It all ended noisily in '69 when CBS stepped in and deleted a David Steinberg monologue, a 'sermonette' about Solomon and Jonah that was to have run not only on Easter Sunday but the week of President Eisenhower's funeral...CBS could hide behind religion,
not politics, by blaming the allegedly sacrilegious sketch by Steinberg. A single Steinberg line...caused CBS brass to explode: 'The gentiles, as is their wont from time to time, threw a Jew overboard, and Jonah was swallowed by a giant guppy.' The next line went, 'The New Testament Scholars
literally grab the Jews by the Old Testament.' "

Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny, Back Stage Books, 2004, pp. 446-452


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