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Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"

1 rating: 3.0
A book by David Bianculli

Tom and Dick Smothers had confrontations with CBS censors when they did their satirical television series from 1967 to 1969. To write this authoritative and entertaining examination of a comedic cornerstone, TV critic Bianculli (Teleliteracy) interviewed … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: David Bianculli
Genre: Entertainment
Publisher: Touchstone
1 review about Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story...

Startlingly serious comedy

  • Dec 30, 2009
The Smothers Brothers show was on CBS from 1967 to 1969, so I would have been about 10 years old when saw what I remember just as silly-funny sketches and musical guests, the kind that a 10-year-old kid could listen to and laugh at without reserve or puzzlement. More interesting to me now, after reading Bianculli's book, is that my parents turned the show on and apparently watched it. Note to self: ask them about this.

Because it turns out the Smothers Brothers show, despite the innocent, even cherubic, faces of Tom and Dick, was about a lot more than silly-funny. It was chuck full of sexual, political, drug, and counterculture references that turned off some viewers but mostly turned off the CBS standards and practices department, who conversely (and perversely?) fought to unplug the most insidious of the references.

I say "most insidious" and not "the worst", because as Bianculli describes it and my innocent 10-year-old mind remembers it, most of the dangerously funny songs and skits from the show now read as innocent and commonplace as "heck", "darn", and "hip". As Tom (the brother most persistent in pushing the envelope) explains, the battles were never about the ability to say or show "dirty" things on the show, but about the ability to express ideas, which are indeed far more insidious and hard to control than just fleeting naughty words or images.

Another element of the show that made it seem dramatically different was the format. Bianculli contrasts CBS's willingness to push the standards envelope with "All in the Family" just 24 months after the Smothers Brothers were canceled ("fired", corrects Tom) with its in-the-trenches battle against the Brothers:

"'All in the Family' made sure to balance various points of view (for every bigoted Archie Bunker remark, there was a liberal counterargument from his 'Meathead' son-in-law), and to use Archie's venom-spewing yet cuddly character as a double-barreled weapon. Liberal viewers could get and enjoy the show's overall message, and laugh at Carroll O'Conner's Archie; conservatives could miss the message entirely and laugh with Archie. Yet when Tom made an antiwar joke on 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour', he wasn't hiding behind a character." (p, 346)

This is a telling point, and while the content may seem tame today, that level of frank seriousness about serious issues in a comedy show sounds startlingly fresh and even otherworldly in today's smarmy innuendo- and "reality"-driven TV content today; even "serious" programs today don't take their content as seriously as did the Smothers.

Now I have added the DVDs of Seasons 2 and 3 to my Netflix queue to re-watch the show with opened eyes, and I am curious what I will see more of: silly-funny, or serious? My natural suspicion is that by focusing on the censorship battles Bianculli has exaggerated the impact of the controversial material. After all, a history of a silly-funny TV show is not likely to sell many books. But Bianculli has extensively interviewed participants of the events from all angles: CBS executives, TV critics, comedy and musical guests on the show, behind-the-scenes producers, writers (Rob Reiner and Steve Martin got their start here), and directors, and of course the Brothers themselves. So he has the opportunity to show all sides of the controversy fairly, and appears to do so; for example Bianculli's descriptions of Tom's aggressive and annoying attitudes in some of the pitched battles make him a distinctly unlikeable and at times unheroic character.

In the end, though, and perhaps most telling, Bianculli reveals that throughout the three-year run of edits and cuts, CBS affiliates in Canada showed every original unaltered episode. The Smothers Brothers were doing startinly serious and important comedy that was too dangerously funny only for American network executives.

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August 31, 2010
Thanks for the great review. I picked this book up, but I still need to read it! By the way, you may be disappointed with the Season 2 and 3 DVDs as I was. Few contain full episodes and many episodes are missing. I hope some day that they release the full unedited episodes from each season.
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