Comedian Tom Smothers of TV’s groundbreaking Smothers Brothers dies at 86

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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, Calif., following a cancer battle.

“Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” his brother and the duo’s other half, Dick Smothers, said in the statement. “I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off stage, for over 60 years.

“Our relationship was like a good marriage — the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed.”

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.

WATCH | The Smothers Brothers on Paul Anka Show in 1982:

Remembering Tom Smothers: Watch the Smothers Brothers appear on Paul Anka Show in 1982

Comedy duo The Smothers Brothers have a humorous chat with singer Paul Anka as guests on CBC’s The Paul Anka Show in 1982.

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.”

The brothers appeared on the TV shows of Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, Andy Williams, Jack Benny and Judy Garland. Their comedy albums were big sellers and they toured the country, especially colleges.

Television first came calling in 1965, casting them in The Smothers Brothers Show, a sitcom about a businessman (Dick) who is haunted by his late brother (Tom), a fledgling guardian angel. It lasted just one season.

But 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

Tom Smothers, left, with his arm around the shoulder of Dick Smothers, both in their 60s in formal attire
Tom Smothers, left, and Dick Smothers, seen in 2002, had their TV show cancelled after constant battles with censors. (Lawrence Jackson/The Associated Press)

Daring sketches

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. 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, and after years of battling with the brothers over the show’s creative content, the network abruptly cancelled 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 Tom 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 and refuse to be silenced.”

Battled censors

During the three years the show was on television, the brothers constantly battled with CBS’s 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 show 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 then-U.S. president Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War. 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 cancelled, 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.

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