Talkin’ DVD Politics with Tom Smothers

I find it interesting that you chose to start releasing The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on DVD (Time Life) with a collection of the best episodes from Season 3 (1968-69). That's the season we got fired from CBS. I was very, very, very reluctant to put this show out on home video. But we were constantly badgered by fans, most of them baby boomers: "You gotta put it out. It's my favorite show, man. It changed my life." We got a lot of that. So I started to look at the series and I thought, "Maybe it's better not to release it at all, and let it remain in their memories as great moments," you know? When you take something that's 40 years old and put it on now, it requires a mindset. We were on every Sunday night, and people tuned in because they thought, "sometime during that show, something's going to be said that means something." And it always was said, but it would be for 5, maybe 10 minutes of a prime-time variety hour. We were the only show that really reflected what was happening with things like civil rights, Vietnam, and voter registration. But a lot was censored right out of the show. I ultimately picked the third season for release because that's the one where we got fired, plus one of the episodes was completely taken off the air.

And how great is it that we now get to see that unaired episode, as well as 5 hours' worth of extras? That all cements the package. Isn't it cool to see Harry Belafonte sing "Don't Stop the Carnival," then watch him talk about what it meant? Maybe all of the interviews and other special material will make up for some of the show's slow pacing, compared with comedy nowadays. Hey, at least we were edgy.

After watching everything, I really feel you could shoot any one of those episodes as written and it would still be relevant today. The show itself was of more importance than anything, including the humor. Looking back, while I do love my sense of humor, I wasn't very funny in that third season. It wasn't the best work we ever did, but, look, freedom of speech is fine; it's okay. It's freedom of hearing that's the problem. If we put that in the Constitution, then we'd be fine. Even if corporations take away the microphone, you're still free to say anything you want, but we're not free to hear all of the viewpoints and dissents. Everybody is self-censoring themselves. Everybody's afraid to say one thing wrong. It's a scary time we're in.

You were able to do your show during a great era of creativity . . . And recklessness. You know, people look back at the '60s, and they just love it. It was a great time - the Roaring Twenties of the day.

Yeah. It almost seems like you got a chance to do everything then, and now we have to kind of be "cooler" about it all these days. [both laugh] There's a lot more oppression now than there was then. I think it came up when I was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recently along with Tom Brokaw. One thing that shocked me while we were doing the interview was when Stewart said, "Wow, back in the '60s when the Smothers Brothers were on TV, it was really, really tough. They got fired just for taking a position. It's so much freer now - you've got cable, you can say anything you want." But that's not the case at all! Seriously. It's called economic fascism. [both chuckle] When you see something like what happened to the Dixie Chicks a few years ago - the government didn't do anything. Private industry made sure no one was playing their record [Not Ready to Make Nice] or promoting their concerts. Hey, at least we were on the air for 3 years before we, uh, were fired - which was right after Nixon was elected, by the way.

Ah yes, the man who said "Sock it to me" on Laugh-In. [chuckles] Yeah. "Sock it . . . to me?"

Gotta have that pause and quizzical inflection, like "I'm not quite sure how to say this, but. . ." Right! [both laugh some more]

That was a classic moment on "the other guys' " show. Yeah, their show wasn't as edgy as ours, but it was faster-paced.

I look at your show as a time capsule of our pop-culture history. You showed us where we could and couldn't go at the time, and pushed the kinds of things that could and couldn't be said. You probably had to work twice as hard just to get your message across. As I said, a lot of things were censored right out of the show. I've seen reviews where people say, "They cut that out? Man, you guys were very critical!"

Besides the show itself, we get hours and hours of extra material. I love the Bob Newhart interview, the John Densmore [of the Doors] interview, all of that stuff. It's what makes a package a real package in the S&V world. Do you feel good about how it all came out? I do. I said to Brownie - that's Paul Brownstein, the producer of this thing - "I'm too close to it. I'm too critical." My decision was to go with the third season first and do "prequels" in the second package, which will have a bunch of interviews and some special stuff too. I feel pretty good about it. As I said, my first choice was to let it just hang there in people's memories. But maybe it's better that it's out there and people can look at it again. Just think of all the Pat Paulsen material - one of the most brilliant presidential campaigns ever run.

So true. On another platform, er, topic, we're still vinyl junkies here at S&V. Do you still spin records, literally? I've got cases of albums at home. I'm starting to move all this stuff around at the end of my career - I'm 71. If life is a ruler at 12 inches, I'm at 10 and a half. [both chuckle] The stuff is stacked up, all in boxes that fill up the garage. I have to go through and organize it all.

When the show was on the air, I remember listening to the Band's Music from Big Pink, and CCR singing, "rolling on the river" ["Proud Mary"]. Really good stuff, but not that radical, really.

Big Pink was very radical for the time, actually. Because of it, Eric Clapton completely changed course as an artist. Wow. "The Weight" is good. It's musical, but it's not radical. You know, the kids discover all this music on their own nowadays. My son will ask me, "Dad, did you know Jimi Hendrix?" And I'll say, "Yeah." Then I'm really cool! [laughs]

My mother used to say to me, when I was 20 or 21, " You're gonna love Cab Calloway." And I was thinking, "Nah, this is so square." But now I'm thinking, "Hey, it's pretty good." [laughs]

Does this DVD reinforce your legacy? Well, after the firing, I became the poster boy for free speech, and I didn't choose it. Everything was deadly serious. It changed my life. Jane Fonda on The Tonight Show with Cesar Chavez, talking about babies burning and Vietnam, the plight of the migrant workers, and something about animals - everything I agreed with, sure, but I felt uncomfortable. And then it struck me - there was no humor in it. She lost her sense of perspective. I told her that. I said, "Hey, unless you want to stop being a performer, doing what you do, you gotta have a sense of humor in it." You can't preach it. You gotta have some fun with it.

I like to preach levity whenever things get too heavy. It loosens the screws of despair. [laughs]

I like that. Maybe that can be the title of your next book. We have a book coming out. David Bianculli, TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air, is helping us with it. It's coming out next year, and it includes all the details about the firing. But we're still working on it. There's no title for it yet.

Call it Loosening the Screws of Despair. I'm telling you. Use it however you like. [laughs] Okay! So, last thing - Dick and I have been performing together for 50 years. Somebody asked me, "How long will you keep this up?" And I said, "Until our fans can't get their walkers up the stairs." We'll be working hospices and stuff.

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored History of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, by David Bianculli, will be published in October 2009 by Touchstone. It is fully authorized by Tom and Dick Smothers.