Tom Smothers, of Folk-Comedy Duo the Smothers Brothers, Dies

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Tommy Smothers interviewing Roger Daltrey on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Sept. 17, 1967

Tom Smothers, who with his younger brother Dick, performed for decades as a folk-comedy duo and as stars of their own cutting-edge TV variety series, died yesterday (December 26, 2023) at 86. Tom, frequently known as Tommy, passed at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., “following a recent battle with cancer,” according to the National Comedy Center.

CBS TV thought they were getting an old-school variety show when they added The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour as a mid-season replacement in early 1967 to air up against NBC’s longtime powerhouse Western drama Bonanza on Sunday nights. Instead they wound up with one of the most progressive TV series to date.

The program was one of the first shows on TV to feature political comedy and satire, with its critical views of the Vietnam War and the first months of the Nixon administration. The hour-long series, which ran from 1967-1969, starred Tom and Dick Smothers, and a (literal) Who’s Who of talented guests and classic rock acts.

Because of its then-controversial content, portions of the show were constantly cut and bleeped by the network censors. Though it had already been renewed for a fourth season, CBS reversed course and made the decision to cancel it, even though the show was regularly in the Top 10 and a huge hit with its socially conscious younger audience. Decades later, it’s considered not only ahead of its time, but one of television’s greatest and most influential variety series.

The program’s writers–including Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, and Bob “Super Dave” Einstein–won an Emmy and were nominated for another.

Watch Martin’s first major television appearance

Dick (L) and Tom Smothers

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour served as a showcase to some of the greatest names in rock music, including The Who, The Doors, the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Steppenwolf and Jefferson Airplane.

It was a sublime moment for those who witnessed it on TV when it aired on September 17, 1967, that helped The Who make their mark with American audiences and then some.

Watch two parts of the legendary segment

The Smothers Brothers and series regulars Pat Paulsen and David Steinberg consistently locked horns with the CBS censors regarding content, which led to the show’s cancellation. The final episode ran on April 20, 1969.

Older brother Tom Smothers was born Feb. 2, 1937, at an Army hospital on Governor’s Island in New York City. He was joined by Richard (who would be known as Dick), on Nov. 20, 1939. Their father, Thomas, was a U.S. Army officer who died as a prisoner of war in 1945.

The boys moved with their mother, Ruth, to California, where they were both accomplished track-and-field athletes. Their first professional appearance as the Smothers Brothers comedy-musical duo was in San Francisco in 1959. Two years later, they made their national TV debut on The Jack Paar Show.

Watch Steppenwolf perform “Rock Me” on the Smothers Brothers’ program in 1969

The pair recorded numerous albums and continued to appear on television variety shows, most notably The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Dick would play the straight man in their routines.

Watch their take on “The Impossible Dream” on The Tonight Show

Their appeal ultimately led to CBS developing The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. During that late ’60s run, their guests also included such stars as Ray Charles, George Carlin, the Bee Gees, and Ike and Tina Turner.

Although Tom often employed a manner of speaking on the program that made him seem less intelligent than Dick, Tom was reportedly the more active in the planning and direction of the show, and the more activist—he wore his liberal politics on his sleeve and constantly injected left-leaning opinions into the show’s bits, getting the hosts in trouble with the network. Their apolitical routines often focused on a wholly invented sibling rivalry, with Tom declaring, “Mom always liked you best” to his more straitlaced brother.

Watch a clip from the episode that originally aired on Nov. 17, 1968, with guest George Harrison

In 1969, Tom Smothers was among those performing on “Give Peace a Chance,” with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal.

In 1970, the siblings returned to television with The Smothers Brothers Summer Show on ABC, but the program was not a success. Neither was Tom Smothers’ Organic Prime Time Space Ride, a later program starring Tom without his brother. The duo tried new TV series on a couple of occasions, and Tom Smothers later acted in films and on Broadway, but he is largely remembered for his 1960s partnership with his brother.

Upon his brother’s passing, Dick Smothers issued this statement: “Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner.”

A 2022 interview with the brothers ran on CBS Sunday Morning on Dec. 11. “Did you think of yourselves as stand-up comedians at first?” they’re asked. “No, we thought of ourselves as folk singers,” was Tom’s immediate reply.

And regarding CBS’ censorship of their program, he says, “I was offended. What do you mean I can’t say that?”

When someone asks Dick what was the happiest time of his life, he says, “Standing on that stage with my brother a few inches away on my right and having that feeling with the audience. That defines my whole life. There’s nothing better.”

Related: Musicians we’ve lost in 2023

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