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The Smothers Brothers: A 'Dangerously Funny' Pair

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our TV critic, David Bianculli, is going to tell us about a show that was topical at a time when TV wasn't - so topical there were frequent battles with network censors; a show that premiered on CBS in 1967 and was suddenly cancelled by the network in 1969.

It was hosted and produced by the first members of their generation with a primetime pulpit. They used it to give a platform to young writers, like Steve Martin and Rob Reiner, new bands like The Who and Jefferson Airplane, and performers who opposed the war in Vietnam, like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.

The show was "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." David has written a new book about Tom and Dick Smothers, and their show, called "Dangerously Funny." David was a big fan of the show when he was in his early teens. As a critic, he makes a powerful case for the show's importance in TV and pop-culture history.

David, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the book.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI (Author, "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"): Oh, thanks a lot.

GROSS: Now, you've brought some really good clips with you from episodes of the Smothers Brothers' TV series, and I'd like to start with one because I think it gives a good sense of the Smothers Brothers' comedy and also how they managed to bring politics into their show. So would you introduce it for us?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes, sure. I like this because it's a fairly early clip, when the Smothers Brothers are still sort of considered to be, you know, just genial, nice folk satirists, and yet they're starting to hit on public issues and even attack the president in a very obvious way.

GROSS: And this was President Johnson.

Mr. BIANCULLI: This was President Johnson at the time, yes.

GROSS: Okay, so let's hear it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS (Comedian): Hey Tom, you know, I just read in the newspaper this week where President has asked Congress to ask a series of taxes, you know, to discourage people from traveling abroad. What do you think about that?

Mr. TOM SMOTHERS (Comedian): I read that, too, but I don't think he has to go that far. I don't think that's necessary to go that far with it.

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS: Well, look, it's a very, very, very, very difficult situation. You know, people keep spending money abroad, and it's hurting our economy. People keep wanting to travel to other countries instead of staying here in the United States.

Mr. TOM SMOTHERS: Yeah, well, I think President Johnson should come up with something positive as an inducement to keep the people, something very positive as an inducement.

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS: Yeah, that's right. That's good thinking.

Mr. TOM SMOTHERS: But lookit, what can the president do to make people want to stay in this country?

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS: Well, he could quit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: David, was that considered pretty radical at the time?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, for an entertainment variety show, almost unprecedented -where you had these figures that were actually talking about public policy.

TV in the '60s, the Smothers Brothers began in February of '67. At that point, almost all of prime time was trying, intentionally, to be as innocuous as possible, and so these guys were going against the grain.

GROSS: And that's one of the things that makes the story so interesting. You know, it's the second half of the '60s. The youth culture has become the counter-culture. Youth culture has also become, a lot of it, the anti-war movement. The country is, like, divided, people are going wild, and television is reflecting somewhere between very little and none of that.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's almost - there are so many parallels to today that it amazes me, in that now you think of red state, blue state, and we have this giant divide, and the parties are divided, and the whole country seems, you know, ideologically divided.

Back then, it was a generation gap. It was - you were either a hawk or a dove. You either supported the president, or you didn't. Later, with Nixon, you had a silent majority.

And the Smothers Brothers came on, and at a time when there was one television in the house, and everybody watched it; for the first couple of seasons, they pulled this amazing magic act and straddled the chasm of the generation gap.

They had Kate Smith and Simon and Garfunkel on the same show. They had Mickey Rooney and The Who on the same show and appealed to both, you know, generations.

GROSS: Now, you know so much about so many different TV shows. You're just like a walking encyclopedia of television. Of all the shows you could have written a history of, why did you choose the Smothers Brothers?

Mr. BIANCULLI: This one - I wondered about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIANCULLI: I did - once I was into it, and I was into, like, my fifth year of writing and my 10th year of writing. And I realized, I think this show first of all was at a pivotal point in TV history, that Tom Smothers fought for freedom of expression and fought for a whole generation and lost.

And so TV changed and changed really significantly. And I argue that we've never gotten it back. I mean, the things that we think of as TV freedom, it's on cable, or it's on late night - but in primetime, we've rarely had it since.

And then the personal thing is that this show premiered when I was 13, and all of the stuff that was on there meant so much to me just because I was at that impressionable age, and I was watching with my dad, and it was just a really nice weekly experience.

GROSS: You mentioned you wanted to write this book in part because Tom Smothers fought and lost. And what he lost was the censorship battle. There was a considerable amount of censorship of the show, and he really took a stand, and he lost, and the show was taken off the air by the network, CBS. Let's talk a little bit about what censorship was like on TV then, and we're talking about the second half of the 1960s. What are some of the things that you couldn't say then that you can say now?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, famously, when Lucille Ball was pregnant in real life and wrote it into her character in the '60s, she couldn't even use the word pregnant in the episode in which she was having a baby. They had to say it in Spanish, enceinte, you know. I mean, it was so ridiculous. The censorship was so pervasive that even recounting it, it seems so silly.

They cut an entire sketch with Elaine May because it was censors getting excited about the movies that they were censoring; and rather than cut a word or two, they cut the entire sketch.

GROSS: And there was the phrase in it - what is it? - I feel my heart beating in my breast, and they wouldn't let them say breast. So they ended up saying I feel my heart beating in my wrist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yea, beating wildly in my wrist, and they didn't even let that go.

GROSS: They didn't let that go on the air, either?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: All right. So - and drug references. You couldn't use those, either.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, the drug references, if they caught them, they would take them out. But the '60s, things were so new that they didn't recognize a lot of them when they saw them. So the Smothers were able to slip some stuff by, and Tom actually enjoyed this battle a little bit, and so did Mason Williams, who was one of the writers. And so they would put in things that really meant nothing and instruct the crew and the writers and everybody around to laugh, like, dirty, sniggering little laughs. And so the censors would say well, you can't say rowing to Galveston. And they'd say, well, why not? Well, you just can't say it. So they would drive them crazy just for the fun of it, too.

GROSS: As an illustration of some of the things that were - of the type of thing that were censored, I want to play an excerpt of the show that you brought with you, of Joan Baez dedicating a song to her then-husband, David. What was the context of this, both in terms of Joan Baez' life and the Smothers Brothers' show?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Joan Baez, her husband at the time, David Harris, was going to prison for protesting against selective service and draft registration. And he was facing this prison sentence, so Joan Baez, in support, did an album of country songs and just recorded it. And so she went on the Smothers Brothers to sing one of these songs and dedicate it to her husband.

She gave the dedication, which included the whole explanation of why her husband was going to prison, and CBS cut the explanation. So it was like here's a song for my husband, who's going to prison, and now "Green, Green Grass of Home." It was just such an awful cut.

GROSS: It's awful in part, too - it's not only, you know, a form of censorship, but also people might think that, you know, he'd like stolen or raped or, you know, done something at gunpoint.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Exactly, exactly, right.

GROSS: What we're going to hear is the whole introduction, the unedited introduction.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Right.

GROSS: All right. This is Joan Baez.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

Ms. JOAN BAEZ (Singer): The next song is a song that'll be on my next album, which will be coming out shortly. The album is called "David's Album." David is my husband. David's sort of a California hillbilly, and so the songs on the record are all country and western, and it's a kind of a gift to David because he's going to be going to prison, probably in June, and he'll be there for three years.

The reason he's going is that he refused to have anything to do with the draft or selective service or whatever you want to call it; militarism in general. And the point is, if you do that, and you do it up front or over ground, then you're going to get busted, and so - especially if you organize, which he does. So this song is called "The Green, Green Grass of Home."

Ms. BAEZ: (Singing) The old home town looks the same�

GROSS: That's Joan Baez on the Smothers Brothers' show in March of 1969, and my guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli, who's written a new book about the Smothers Brothers, called "Dangerously Funny."

So the show went on the air, in a truncated form. How did Joan Baez react to the way her introduction was edited?

Mr. BIANCULLI: She actually took it very well. What she did was she thanked Tom for the fight because she wasn't a network TV person at that time, and Tom said well, come on, say whatever you want to say. So she got the opportunity to say it. They recorded it. It was the network who overruled Tom, and what she appreciated is that he did what he did so much of the time in the '60s - he ran right to the New York Times and to other papers and said this was edited, you know, and this is wrong. And there wasn't a lot of that done back in the '60s. You know, there wasn't the whole tabloid culture. And so, to have a guy from television come out and talk about his bosses - that was news then.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's TV critic, David Bianculli. His new book about the Smothers Brothers is called "Dangerously Funny." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with FRESH AIR's TV critic, David Bianculli. His new book is called "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

Perhaps the most famous case of censorship on the Smothers Brothers' show was Pete Seeger singing "The Big Muddy."

Mr. BIANCULLI: Definitely.

GROSS: So there's a prequel to that story, and that is that it's amazing he even got on TV because he'd been blacklisted, because why?

Mr. BIANCULLI: He'd been blacklisted. He was part of The Weavers, and it was all the way back in Red Channels.

GROSS: The folk group, The Weavers.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes, the folk group The Weavers. And in 1950, his name was in Red Channels, which was this pamphlet that was putting out - that was put out, supposedly identifying people with communist leanings. So automatically, Pete Seeger is gone, and because he's so aggressive in his beliefs, he's off primetime for 17 years.

GROSS: Well, he had also refused to speak to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating communists and communist sympathizers, and he declined to even take the Fifth.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Right.

GROSS: So he was considered very hostile to the community in that�

Mr. BIANCULLI: Everything that he did, I think, in retrospect, is so incredibly noble, but you know, it was against the mainstream then. And so Pete Seeger is off TV, and the Smothers do this sketch that makes fun of LBJ, and President Johnson calls William Paley, the president of CBS, at three in the morning to complain. Paley calls in the producers of the Smothers Brothers to say knock it off, take it easy on LBJ for a while. And the producers say, I don't know how Tom is going to take that. And Paley says, well, is there anything I can do, if you do that for a while, as sort of to sweeten the pot.

They said, well, we've been trying to get Pete Seeger on. So let us have Pete Seeger. And Bill Paley says, he's on. And so that's how he got on.

GROSS: I love that because in an act of trying to suppress speech, they let Pete Seeger in the door.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah, it's very weird. And then the amazing thing is it doesn't stop there, because Pete Seeger wants to do this new song, which was against President Johnson - I love the way it eats its own tail - and he wants to do "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," which has just come out on a Columbia Records album.

So CBS Records says this is fine, but he tapes it for the Smothers Brothers, to open the second season, and CBS says no. They let Pete Seeger come on, and he does three or four songs, but when he gets to his big finish, "Big Muddy," they cut it. It's just not shown.

GROSS: Now we're going to be hearing I think it's just the final verse of this song.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes.

GROSS: Set up what happens before the final verse.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, what happens is, before the final verse - well, before that, this whole season goes by, where Tom again goes to the Times, goes to other papers, and there's a change in our policy toward Vietnam, or at least our national feeling about Vietnam.

So by the end of the season, CBS says you can have him back on, and he can sing it. So this is actually from when he got to perform it, and it was televised. So I think it's such a triumphant performance, but the song itself is about a sergeant who is just taking�

GROSS: A sergeant like in World War II, probably.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes, in World War II - taking a troop on maneuvers and taking them to ford a river that he had before, but it had rained since. So what was safe, now wasn't. And he was insisted that they go ahead. And waist deep in the Big Muddy, and then neck deep, and he was taking them higher and higher, and he drowns, you know, and the next guy in command says turn back, this is a bad idea.

Now, that's a pretty easy analogy to the Vietnam War. We could use it right now to Iraq or Afghanistan - but that was the message of the song.

GROSS: And in this last verse - well, we'll play the last verse, and then we'll talk about it. Here's Pete Seeger on the Smothers Brothers' show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

(Soundbite of song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy")

Mr. PETE SEEGER (Singer): (Singing) Well, I'm not going to plant any moral. I'll leave that for yourself. Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking, you'd like to keep your health. But every time I read the paper, them old feelings come on. We're waist deep in the Big Muddy. The big fool says to push on.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on. Waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on. Waist deep, neck deep, soon, even a tall man will be over his head. We're waist deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to push on.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: That's Pete Seeger in 1968 on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," and he never says the word Vietnam, but it was so clear he's talking about Vietnam there.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: So you had described how this song was edited out of Pete Seeger's first appearance on the Smothers Brothers, but he came back and actually did the song, and it was used, which is what we heard.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Yes.

GROSS: So how did he come back and get to sing it?

Mr. BIANCULLI: They invited him back near the end of the second season. They were just - they kept pushing for it and pushing for it, and a lot of television critics at the time, and commentators, sort of said hey. And so finally, CBS relented and said you can have him back.

Around this time, Walter Cronkite had come on CBS and said basically, the Vietnam War is unwinnable. So there was this whole change after the Tet Offensive that changed enough public perception to make CBS think well, maybe it's okay.

GROSS: The Seeger performance we just heard was in 1968. At the end of that year, George Harrison came on the show to support the Smothers Brothers in their fight for free speech on the show. And tell us a little bit about that appearance, and then we'll hear a brief excerpt of it.

Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, I love the whole Beatles-Smothers Brothers connection, because in 1964, the Beatles show up on Ed Sullivan, CBS, Sunday night. It makes the Beatles. It makes the whole British invasion. It changes society.

Four years later, the Beatles have stopped touring. They're still the biggest thing in the world, and they've made this new thing called videos - of "Hey Jude" and "Revolution," - and so for the United States premiere, instead of giving them to Ed Sullivan, Sunday night at eight, they give them to the Smothers Brothers, Sunday night at nine, you know. And that's basically saying, attitudinally, we want to side with our generation; we want to be where the Smothers Brothers are.

So at the beginning of this one show, George Harrison just shows up unbilled, a Beatle, just to show up on the Smothers Brothers.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

Mr. SMOTHERS: Do you have something important?

Mr. GEORGE HARRISON (Musician): Something very important to say on American television.

Mr. SMOTHERS: You know, we don't, we - a lot of times, we don't opportunity of saying anything important because it's American television, and every time you say something�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMOTHERS: And try to say something important, they�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRISON: Well, whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.

Mr. SMOTHERS: That's what's important.

Mr. HARRISON: You get that?

GROSS: Keep trying to say it. That's what's important. Very interesting - from George Harrison to the Smothers Brothers. It's amazing thinking of having a Beatle in 1968, unbilled and unannounced.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, people would be promoting that for days, weeks, months, if they knew he was going to be on.

Mr. BIANCULLI: I know. And you know how much I love the Beatles. So I love that clip.

GROSS: Right, right. Did that clip have any repercussions?

Mr. BIANCULLI: No, no. They were - but it's odd to me. After the show was - you know, after they were fired, and the show was pulled off, Bob Ayenstein(ph), one of the writers, says: How do you cancel a show or fire - you know, how do you get rid of a show that gives you a Beatle? You know, it is unthinkable. I mean, the talent roster that they had� One of the things I wonder about is that if the show had been allowed to continue a few more years, with Tommy's eye for talent, I think he would have been �Saturday Night Live� except in primetime. He would have just had the best comics, the best musicians and really pushed for social commentary.

GROSS: In talking about how the network limited what the Smothers Brothers were allowed to say, you describe some of the other barriers, besides the people at CBS headquarters, some of the barriers that were put in the way. Do you want to talk about, like, the affiliates and the power that they were given?

Mr. BIANCULLI: The Smothers Brothers was the first show to be pre-screened for affiliates. In other words, to be sent a couple of days in advance so each affiliate could decide, in its local market, whether what the Smothers Brothers were doing on their show was acceptable.

GROSS: And what did that mean for the Smothers Brothers' production?

Mr. BIANCULLI: Well, it meant - the most obvious thing is they had to have it finished sooner, and then it was giving them a new layer of censorship with which to contend. It wasn't just - you know, Tom had this contract that said he had creative control, and yet the censors, you know, the standards and practices at CBS said, but that doesn't mean you can say or do anything you want. You still have to go through us.

And so but even if he goes through them, then a local affiliate in Boise may say yeah, but I don't like you making fun of, you know, the president. That's just not right. And so what does he do? You know, is he going to not do a sketch because of an affiliate?

Well, what he ends up doing is losing 15 or 20 affiliates that are no longer, you know, showing the program, which weakens the ratings.

GROSS: David Bianculli will be back in the second half of the show. His new book about the Smothers Brothers is called "Dangerously Funny." The clips we're hearing are from the Time/Life video "The Best of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" Volumes 2 and 3. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with our TV critic David Bianculli. We're talking about his new book "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

The show premiered on CBS in 1967 and was cancelled suddenly in 1969. Because the show reflected the counter culture and the anti-war movement, there were frequent battles with network censors.

David is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He writes the online magazine TVworthwatching.com, and he teaches at Rowan University.

You spoke to so many people for research for the book. Did you speak to any of the people who worked in Standards and Practices at CBS at the time and were responsible for making the decisions about what the Smothers Brothers were allowed to say and what their guests were allowed to say?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I talked to, you know, among the people that I talked to, there was Mike Dan, who was an executive then. I talked with Bill Tankersley, who was the head censor for all of CBS for the entire period. He was a key interview, and it took me about 14 years to get him. And also Fred Silverman, who was just a young executive in CBS daytime then, but was allowed to sit in on all the programming meetings. But Bill Tankersley was the guy who sort of ruined some really good conspiracy theories.

GROSS: How?

BIANCULLI: Well, you know, most of the people that are involved think that it's Richard Nixon that got the show pulled off, or at the very least, it was Bill Paley and it was Robert Wood, the new - and what it really ended up being was Bill Tankersley and his group just setting down rules that they thought that Tom Smothers had to listen to. And when he didn't, they just didn't want to have an upstart that could - you know, because they were looking bad for the affiliates.

They had promised the affiliates they would get a show by certain day to preview for them, and if they couldn't do it, then they looked bad. The network looked like the Smothers Brothers were running things, and then what would happen? And so they drew that line in the sand. It was not a legal line in the sand and the Smothers Brothers later sued and won, but that's what got the show yanked.

GROSS: Yeah. So what got the show yanked was the network saying, oh, you failed to deliver a show on time. You didn't meet your deadline.

BIANCULLI: Right. And yet it was never a contractual agreement. It was just something that they said, you know, from now on you have to do this because of the affiliate demands. But it was never a contractual demand.

GROSS: And did the Smothers Brothers actually not meet the deadline?

BIANCULLI: Sometimes they didn't. Sometimes Tom would take the master and hide it.

GROSS: Oh, just to prevent the affiliates from touching it beforehand?

BIANCULLI: Prevent the affiliate - or to prevent them from editing it before he turned it in at the last minute for the affiliate judgment. There was a lot of gamesmanship on both sides. I think of it as in the '60s, you have parents and kids, and they're just against each other and they're both butting heads more than they should have.

GROSS: So when you spoke to the person who was the head of Standards and Practices, who was�

BIANCULLI: Yeah. Bill Tankersley.

GROSS: Tankersley was responsible for deciding what could be said on the Smothers Brothers show. What did he tell you about the standards that were set and why they were set for what could and couldn't be said?

BIANCULLI: Well, oddly, he was more lenient than most of the people underneath him, like he had nothing to do with the Elaine May sketch being pulled. And he said, well, I saw nothing wrong with that. If they would've asked me, I would've thought it was fine. He had no problem with Pete Seeger. You know, his things were much more finite, but he was dealing with rules.

But this was the guy who had been at CBS for so long, he had fought with you know, George Burns, with Rod Serling, with Alfred Hitchcock all the way back in the '50s. And so a young, just-turning-30 Tom Smothers, this young little whipper was not going to get best of Bill Tankersley, as Bill Tankersley saw it. And Tom would call him up at home, you know, on nights and weekends and sort of plead his case. He drove him - he drove Tankersley nuts.

GROSS: Well, if Tankersley would've approved some of the things that you mentioned�

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: �how come they weren't approved?

BIANCULLI: Well, he did approve some things, and they did - when they were asked - once Tom was able to go to the head of CBS on the East Coast - he didn't want to deal with the West Coast middlemen anymore. So it was just - and then Bill Tankersley was saying no, you can't. You've got to go through channels. There's rules. Bill Tankersley was all about rules, and Tom Smothers was all about no rules.

GROSS: So Tom Smothers wanted to bypass Tankersley, and Tankersley said you can't.

BIANCULLI: No. He wanted - Tom Smothers wanted to deal only with Tankersley, figuring you're the head guy. Let me just talk to you on the phone. Let me send this stuff directly to you.

GROSS: I see.

BIANCULLI: Tankersley did it once and then said, no. You know what? This is not going to work. We have the West Coast for a reason, and Tom just avoided them.

GROSS: So is there one show you can point to that you think really did in the Smothers Brothers?

BIANCULLI: Oh, certainly. It's the first time that David Steinberg came on as a comic and did a religious sermonette, a comic sermonette, it got more negative mail than anything in the history of broadcasting up to that point. And so the CBS censors sent Tom Smothers a memo saying, OK, you can have David Steinberg back, but no more religious sermonettes ever.

So he invites David Steinberg back, and even though it's not in the script, says hey, how'd you like to do another one of those sermonettes? And so they added in to the week's run through, and he does it. He tapes it. That entire hour is never shown, and the Smothers Brothers are fired very shortly thereafter.

GROSS: So you actually brought with you a recording of the sermonette that was never aired.

BIANCULLI: Yes. Yeah. These are available now on - you know, Time Life has the last two seasons out of the Smothers Brothers, the best of them. And one of the outtakes is this, because it was never shown, this whole hour. Back then, no one ever joked about religion other than Bill Cosby doing the Noah routine, and that was, you know, that wasn't about content. This was about content.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. This is David Steinberg.

(Soundbite of TV shows, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

Mr. DAVID STEINBERG: �that way. He got into a ship that was commandeered by 23 gentiles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: A bad move on Jonah's part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: And the gentiles, as they would from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: Now here there are two concepts that we must deal with. There is the New Testament concept and the Old Testament concept. The Old Testament scholars say that Jonah was, in fact, swallowed by a whale. The gentiles, the New Testament scholars they say, hold it, Jews. No. Jonah wasn't - Jonah, they literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's David Steinberg and - recorded in March of 1969, never broadcast on the Smothers Brothers show.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. There's a great story about that. When the Smothers Brothers sued CBS and went to trial, David Steinberg was called as one of the witnesses. And the CBS lawyers, you know, made him redo his - that very thing, and they crossed examined him. They said now, when you were saying New Testament, did you - weren't you actually referring to testicles? Weren't you�

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And David Steinberg said well, yeah. Why were you doing that? Because otherwise, it wouldn't be funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And, you know, it's no wonder the Smothers won that case.

GROSS: Well, the case was, again, that the network accused them of not delivering programs on time.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And clearly, what they were really worried about was the kind of content and language that was, you know, getting them into trouble.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. The big difference is that the Smothers Brothers were not cancelled. They had already been renewed for a fourth season.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: They were fired. And so Tom was reacting, saying he was fired unfairly because anything that he had signed in terms of a contractual obligation he had lived up to, that it was all these other little, you know, ephemeral things that they'd thrown on him, you know, through the years that he hadn't adhered to.

GROSS: And is that grounds on which Tom Smothers sued CBS after CBS fired the Smothers Brothers?

BIANCULLI: Well, it's the one that went all the way through to the end. He wanted to go on First Amendment rights and really make this a huge case.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: But he was advised by his ACLU lawyers, who were the only people who would represent him, that that would put it in a different court. It would make it a different thing, and so just go for this more narrow focus.

GROSS: So he won.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Tommy Smothers won, but how long did this take him to win?

BIANCULLI: Well, it took - the trial took a few months, but it was two-three years before the trial was on and they won less than a million dollars. But it stopped their careers. I mean, I liken the Smothers Brothers to, you know, when Muhammad Ali, you know, gets pulled but he gets - he gets to fight again and gets his championship back after sticking up for his ideals, or Elvis goes away to the Army but comes back and gets more number one hits. The Smothers Brothers were essentially done. They never had the power or the pulpit again the way they used to, and I just think that's a shame.

GROSS: What do you think of as the, like, lasting effect of the Smothers Brothers show?

BIANCULLI: I think that it's most visible right now in places like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and "Saturday Night Live" and Bill Maher. All of them are outside of prime time, but they're all sort of doing elements of what the Smothers Brothers did.

Stephen Colbert tried very briefly to throw himself into the presidential race, just as Pat Paulsen had. A lot of Jon Stewart's humor is very much what the Smothers was, and he admits that they were a very strong influence. Bill Maher says the Smothers were a very strong influence. And "Saturday Night Live" I sort of see as what the Smothers Brothers almost had the chance to become.

GROSS: Did the Smothers Brothers ask you to write the book? You allude to that in the acknowledgements.

BIANCULLI: One time after I interviewed Tom, he said well, are you going to write the book? And I said what book? And he said, well, the book on us. Because I'd written in a previous book an entry on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," and I guess it was - he agreed with it. And so he said I'll give you total access, but total freedom. And as a journalist, that's just something you don't get. And so I said, well, I'll have to think about it. And then I waited three seconds, and I said okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And he laughed, and then I remember him going down this very long escalator in Atlantic City and he yells up at me just before he goes out of sight, he goes: I just want to read it before I'm dead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And that was 15 years ago. So I thank Tom for taking such good care of himself.

GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you for talking about your new book "Dangerously Funny" about the Smothers Brothers.

BIANCULLI: It was my honor, really. It's fun. It's fun.

GROSS: All mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But before we let you leave, we have an interview that you recorded with Hal Holbrook that we're about to hear. And I know the actor Hal Holbrook is most famous for his one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight."

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I know that you're a great fan of his and of Mark Twain's, which is why we asked you to do the interview with him. But before we hear the interview, tell us why you like Hal Holbrook so much. And also, I should mention, there's a connection between Hal Holbrook and the Smothers Brothers. Holbrook actually makes an appearance in your book, so let's start with that connection.

BIANCULLI: Okay. That connection is actually - goes right to the heart of the censorship and the censors at CBS because just as the Smothers Brothers were about to start their show in 1967, Hal Holbrook had a 90-minute version of his stage show "Mark Twain Tonight," which was going to be shown in the middle of network television on CBS. And it was blocking for two days and then shooting for two days, and then it was going to be on TV the fifth day.

So this was all in one whirlwind week. And Mark Twain, he chose selections in the mid '60s - Hal Holbrook did selections of Twain's that would talk about racism in "Huckleberry Finn" - because of what was going on with civil rights -and anti-war stuff because of what was going on with Vietnam.

And CBS comes to him and says we can't have you use the N word. So that just can't be done, and we don't want you to talk about war. But other than that, Hal, we love the show, so just make those changes and we're okay. And Hal Holbrook says, well, no. I won't make any changes. But if you don't want to do the show, I totally understand. It's your network. And CBS said, well, we can't not do the show. It's already in TV Guide. It's scheduled. It's just in three days. He said, well that's your decision.

And so Hal Holbrook fought that fight and won, and it's this brilliant thing which is out there on DVD. And Hal Holbrook is a Mark Twain scholar and keeps rewriting the show that he does to make it current for the times. I just admire - it's, you know, it's decades of incredible scholarship and then incredible performance.

GROSS: Well, thank you, David. And we'll hear that interview after a break. And I'll just say again that David's new book is called "Dangerously Funny," and it's about the Smothers Brothers TV comedy show that aired on CBS in the second half of the '60s.

David, it's great to talk with you. Thank you so much, and congratulations on the book.

BIANCULLI: Oh, that's so much, Terry.

GROSS: And, of course, David Bianculli is TV critic for FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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