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Remembering the elder of the Smothers Brothers, Tom, who has died at 86

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tom Smothers, the elder half of the Smothers Brothers, has died at the age of 86. The duo was hugely popular in the late 1960s and known for subversive political humor. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMOTHERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Ooh...

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: When the Smothers Brothers showed up on TV, they looked like such nice boys. They wore nice suits and ties. They had nice short hair. They sang and played so nicely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM SMOTHERS: (Singing) Why...

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Tom was the one who messed things up. Dick was the good one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD SMOTHERS: You're going to sing like that, then you don't sing the rest of the show, OK?

T SMOTHERS: Yeah, well, Mom always liked you best.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Tom Smothers was also the creative force who pushed the envelope - first gingerly, then hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

T SMOTHERS: I think President Johnson should come up with...

ULABY: Here, the brothers are making fun of an initiative from then-President Johnson that would tax American tourists leaving the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

R SMOTHERS: What can the president do to make people want to stay in this country?

T SMOTHERS: Well, he could quit.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Making fun of the president on TV was then unheard of. Johnson called the network to complain. Tom Smothers said he would tone things down a little if CBS would let him book folksinger Pete Seeger, who went on the show with a song widely understood as critical of the Vietnam War and President Johnson's leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIST DEEP IN THE BIG MUDDY")

PETE SEEGER: (Singing) We're waist deep in the Big Muddy, the Big Fool says to push on.

ULABY: "The Smothers Brother Comedy Hours" (ph) was a constant battle against censorship. Tom Smothers snuck in drug references, skits about interracial marriage and the draft. CBS had to run every show past its stations in advance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID BIANCULLI: Tom Smothers fought for freedom of expression and fought for a whole generation and lost.

ULABY: That's WHYY's David Bianculli on Fresh Air in 2010. He said the hit show got canceled in 1970. Tom Smothers, free speech advocate, blazed a trail for comedians such as Jon Stewart and helped launch the careers of Steve Martin and Rob Reiner. Tom Smothers died Tuesday of cancer.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMOTHERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Oh, that man rowed, sailing down the river... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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