Censors, Beware! 20 Years After They Were Banned by CBS, the Smothers Brothers Are Back in a Breakthrough Special
"It didn't feel like the old show," admits Tommy, 50, the older brother by two years. "But it did feel like there were some souls around who remembered the old shows. To turn around and see Einstein, Pat Paulsen, Steve and Glen definitely gave it a sense of déjà vu."
There is little that TV does better than looking back. Gilligan's Island, Perry Mason and Leave It to Beaver, to name a few, have all staged tube reunions. So it was only a matter of time before the Smothers returned to argue yet again about whom Mom liked best. The irony is that their get-together, which airs this Wednesday (Feb. 3), is being held on CBS. This, of course, was the same nervous network that cut the brothers loose after ruling that their show's material was too blue—though not red, white and blue enough. After a three-season battle with CBS censors—including skirmishes over a Pete Seeger antiwar song, an Elaine May skit about movie censorship and a semiheretical sermonette by David Steinberg—the brothers were suddenly and summarily pink-slipped in 1969.
Now the Smothers seem to be having the last laugh. Their reunion show opens with the two trying to make a helicopter landing at CBS while an exec shoots at them with an antiaircraft gun. He stops firing only when a panicked colleague reminds him of a memo allowing the brothers back.
"I knew they'd change their minds," says Tom, who, with his brother, sued the network for breach of contract and won a judgment of $776,000.
"It's been 20 years though," Dick observes.
"But we're back, aren't we?"
Actually it's been 21 years since the show started and 19 since it ended, but—math aside—it is back. So too are the show's regulars: Pat Paulsen, 60, the perennial presidential candidate who now presides over his own winery; Glen Campbell, 52, who's a mainstay on the country charts; Mason Williams, 49, the "Classical Gas" composer who's performing his own version of "symphonic bluegrass" around the country; Leigh French, the stoned-to-the-bone Goldie O'Kief, who still does guest spots and commercials on TV; John Hartford, 50, the "Gentle on My Mind" composer, who pilots a steamboat when he isn't performing; Jennifer Warnes, 40, the show's resident vocalist, whose chart-topping hits include "Up Where We Belong" and "(I've Had) the Time of My Life"; Bob Einstein, 47, who's starring in his own Showtime series, Super Dave; and two writers from the original show, Steve Martin and Rob Reiner.
Gone, however, are the old CBS censors. God only knows what they would have said about the brothers' opening monologue. "You're acting like a stupid fool," Dick snaps when Tom—as usual—flubs a song.
"I'm running for President," replies Tom.
"Well, you're overqualified."
Later, after numerous interruptions from Tom, Dick says, "You've done nothing responsible."
"Not so," retorts Tom. "I'm wearing a condom right now."
Joking aside, there was a dark cloud over the reunion—the death of Tom and Dick's mother the day before rehearsals began. Ruth Smothers, whose sons for a time made her a national catchword, died after a long illness a week before turning 72. The brothers had been close to her(their father had died during WW II), and the loss left them shaken. "We're having trouble relating to her death," says Tom. "Our mother was so public—we always talked about her. But with her passing, all of a sudden we don't even want to talk about her. We're still having to deal with that, and it's a hard thing for the show."
The unseen but always invoked Mrs. Smothers was an integral part of her sons' act—an act that had started in California comedy clubs in 1959 and that began splintering when CBS canceled the show. Dick was bitter. Tom felt "a sense of being watched very closely no matter what show we were on." After a yearlong breakup in 1976—done, they say, out of boredom—the Smothers began a long resurgence. They've found a professional home on the road, where one-night and one-week stands add up to 10 months of annual gainful employment.
"We're far better as performers now," says Dick, "and our relationship is stronger than ever." The only conflict they experience is that Tom would like to work all the time, while Dick says he needs "a balance of work, play and family to make life wonderful."
Married for the third time, Dick lives with Lorraine, 29, his wife of two years, in a restored five-bedroom farmhouse in Middleburg, Va. The father of four, who range in age from 7 months to 27 years, Dick is thinking of adding another to his brood, "if the creek don't rise and the career holds up."
The twice-divorced father of a 23-year-old son, Tom lives alone in Sonoma, Calif., on the vineyard he and Dick have operated for the last 11 years. "We built it from the bottom up," Tom says of the 150-acre spread, which produces 45,000 cases per year of mostly Mom's Favorite Red and Mom's Favorite White.
As for career cultivation, the Smothers are waiting to see how people react to the reunion special. "We've had offers to do some other television," says Tom. "This is an opportunity to test it out."
"The important thing," adds Dick, "is to see if people still like us." But Leigh French, sticking her head in the brothers' dressing room, has already made up her mind. "Sign me up," she says, "for the 40th-reunion show."