Comedian Tom Smothers, one-half of the Smothers Brothers, dies at 86
Tom Smothers, half of the Smothers Brothers and the co-host of one of the most socially conscious and groundbreaking television shows in the history of the medium, has died at 86.
The National Comedy Center, on behalf of his family, said in a statement Wednesday that Smothers died Tuesday at home in Santa Rosa, California, following a cancer battle.
“I’m just devastated,” his brother and the duo’s other half, Dick Smothers, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “Every breath I’ve taken, my brother’s been around.”
When “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” debuted on CBS in the fall of 1967 it was an immediate hit, to the surprise of many who had assumed the network’s expectations were so low it positioned their show opposite the top-rated “Bonanza.”
But the Smothers Brothers would prove a turning point in television history, with its sharp eye for pop culture trends and young rock stars such as the Who and Buffalo Springfield, and its daring sketches — ridiculing the Establishment, railing against the Vietnam War and portraying members of the era’s hippie counterculture as gentle, fun-loving spirits — found an immediate audience with young baby boomers.
“We were moderate. We were never out there,” Dick Smothers said. “But we were the first people through that door. It just sort of crept in as the ’60s crept in. We were part of that generation.”
The show reached No. 16 in the ratings in its first season. It also drew the ire of network censors. After years of battling with the brothers over the show’s creative content, the network abruptly canceled the program in 1970, accusing the siblings of failing to submit an episode in time for the censors to review.
Nearly 40 years later, when Smothers was awarded an honorary Emmy for his work on the show, he jokingly thanked the writers he said had gotten him fired. He also showed that the years had not dulled his outspokenness.
“It’s hard for me to stay silent when I keep hearing that peace is only attainable through war,” Smothers said at the 2008 Emmy Awards as his brother sat in the audience, beaming. He dedicated his award to those “who feel compelled to speak out and are not afraid to speak to power and won’t shut up.”
During the three years the show was on television, the brothers constantly battled with CBS censors and occasionally outraged viewers as well, particularly when Smothers joked that Easter “is when Jesus comes out of his tomb and if he sees his shadow, he goes back in and we get six more weeks of winter.” At Christmas, when other hosts were sending best wishes to soldiers fighting overseas, Smothers offered his to draft dodgers who had moved to Canada.
In still another episode, the brothers returned blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger to television for the first time in years. He performed his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” widely viewed as ridiculing President Lyndon Johnson. When CBS refused to air the segment, the brothers brought Seeger back for another episode and he sang it again. This time, it made the air.
After the show was canceled, the brothers sued CBS for $31 million and were awarded $775,000. Their battles with the network were chronicled in the 2002 documentary “Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born Feb. 2, 1937, on Governors Island, New York, where his father, an Army major, was stationed. His brother was born two years later. In 1940 their father was transferred to the Philippines, and his wife, two sons and their sister, Sherry, accompanied him.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the family was sent home and Maj. Smothers remained. He was captured by the Japanese during the war and died in captivity. The family eventually moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Redondo Beach, where Smothers helped his mother take care of his brother and sister while she worked.
“Tommy was the greatest older brother. He took care of me,” Dick Smothers said. “His maturity was amazing. Sometimes you lose part of your childhood.”
The brothers had seemed unlikely to make television history. They had spent several years on the nightclub and college circuits and doing TV guest appearances, honing an offbeat comedy routine that mixed folk music with a healthy dose of sibling rivalry.
They would come on stage, Tom with a guitar in hand and Dick toting an upright bass. They would quickly break into a traditional folk song – perhaps “John Henry” or “Pretoria.” After playing several bars, Tom, positioned as the dumb one despite being older, would mess up, then quickly claim he had meant to do that. As Dick, the serious, short-tempered one, berated him for failing to acknowledge his error, he would scream in exasperation, “Mom always liked you best!”
“It was the childlike enthusiasm through ignorance, and me, the teacher, correcting him – sometimes I’d correct him even if I was wrong,” Dick Smothers said. “I was the perfect straight man for my brother. I was the only straight man for my brother.”
They continued that shtick on their show but also surrounded themselves with a talented cast of newcomers, both writers and performers.
Future actor-filmmaker Rob Reiner was among those on the crack writing crew the brothers assembled.
“Tommy was funny, smart, and a fighter,” Reiner said on social media Wednesday. “He created a ground breaking show that celebrated all that was good about American Democracy.”
Other writers included musician Mason Williams and comedian Steve Martin, who presented Smothers with the lifetime Emmy. Regular musical guests included John Hartford, Glen Campbell and Jennifer Warnes.
The brothers had begun their own act when Tom, then a student at San Jose State University, formed a music group called the Casual Quintet and encouraged his younger brother to learn the bass and join. The brothers continued on as a duo after the other musicians dropped out, but began interspersing comedy with their limited folk music repertoire.
“We never wrote anything, we just made it up, and tried to remember what we made up,” Dick Smothers said. “I just responded to Tom, if he said something that wasn’t in the bit, I wouldn’t stick to the script, I would listen.”
The brothers’ big break came in 1959 when they appeared at San Francisco’s Purple Onion, then a hot spot for new talent. Booked for two weeks, they stayed a record 36. They had a similar run at New York’s Blue Angel. But to their disappointment, they couldn’t get on “The Tonight Show,” then hosted by Jack Paar.
“Paar kept telling our agent he didn’t like folk singers — except for Burl Ives,” Smothers told the AP in 1964. “But one night he had a cancellation, and we went on. Everything worked right that night.”
Dick Smothers said Wednesday that “we weren’t that good when we were on ‘The Tonight Show.’ We were just charmingly different.”
The brothers went on to appear on the TV shows of Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny and Judy Garland, among others. Their comedy albums were big sellers and they toured the country, especially colleges.
Before their more vaunted show, the duo got a sitcom in 1965. “The Smothers Brothers Show” was about a businessman (Dick) haunted by his late brother (Tom), a fledgling guardian angel. It lasted just one season.
Shortly after CBS canceled the “Comedy Hour,” ABC picked it up as a summer replacement, but the network didn’t bring it back in the fall. NBC gave them a show in 1975 but it failed to find an audience and lasted only a season. The brothers went their separate ways for a time. Among other endeavors, Smothers got into the wine business, launching Remick Ridge Vineyards in Northern California’s wine country.
“Originally the winery was called Smothers Brothers, but I changed the name to Remick Ridge because when people heard Smothers Brothers wine, they thought something like Milton Berle Fine Wine or Larry, Curly and Mo Vineyards,” Smothers once said.
They eventually reunited to star in the musical comedy “I Love My Wife,” a hit that ran on Broadway for two years. After that they went back on the road, playing casinos, performing arts centers and corporate gatherings around the country, remaining popular for decades.
“We just keep resurfacing,” Smothers commented in 1997. “We’re just not in everyone’s face long enough to really get old.”
After a successful 20th anniversary “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1988, CBS buried the hatchet and brought them back.
The show was quickly canceled, though it stayed on the air long enough for Smothers to introduce the “Yo-Yo Man,” a bit allowing him to demonstrate his considerable skills with a yo-yo while he and his brother kept up a steady patter of comedy. The bit remained in their act for years.
“It was like a great marriage, you go through some rough spots, but you still don’t lose that focus,” Dick Smothers said.
They retired in 2010, but returned for a series of shows in 2021 that would be their last before Tom Smothers’ illness left him unable to continue.
“The audience exploded,” Dick Smothers said of those shows. “It was like a clap of thunder. They were young again.”
Smothers married three times and had three children. He is survived by his wife Marie, children Bo and Riley Rose, and brother Dick, in addition to other relatives. He was predeceased by his son Tom and sister Sherry.
Dalton reported from Los Angeles. Moore, a longtime Associated Press television writer, retired in 2017. Former Associated Press journalists John Rogers and the late Bob Thomas contributed to this report.