Pros:entertaining, informative, with lots of candid comments
Cons:lack of worthwhile DVD extras
The Bottom Line: Smothered is solid, entertaining, easy to understand documentary about Censorship and the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Recommended!
Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Smothered the 2002 documentary by Maureen Muldaur very quickly gets anyone who doesn’t know very much about the Smothers Brothers or what happened to their original variety show on CBS (1967-1969) up to speed. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which was rushed into production in 1967 quickly became a surprise hit and then became one of the most controversial programs on the air until CBS FIRED the Smothers Brothers (wrongly) just a few weeks after announcing they had been renewed for a 4thSeason. So what happened?
Mixing some entertaining clips from the Show, the story is told through lots of short interview sound bites with former CBS TV executives (Perry Lafferty and Mike Dann), Comedy Hour writers and performers (Mason Williams, Carl Gottlieb, Rob Reiner, Leigh French, Steve Martin), censored Show guests (Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, David Steinberg), producers (George Sunga, Allan Blye), former Smothers’ manager (Ken Kragen), Former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, First Amendment Center executive director Ken Paulson, journalist David Halberstam and Television critic/historian/NPR contributor David Bianculli (see link to book review at bottom of this review) and of course Tom and Dick Smothers themselves.
The documentary begins with a brief clip from the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen Colorado circa 2000, when The Smothers Brothers were given a prestigious award in a ceremony hosted by Bill Maher that included a panel discussion with Tom and Dick Smothers, Steve Martin, Mason Williams and Rob Reiner. It’s a brief clip and unfortunately we don’t return to it at the end of the documentary and there isn’t more footage from it included in the DVD extras.
Muldaur’s documentary is a fast moving, very informative documentary. Her pre-2002 experience as an E channel producer means she knows how to pick succinct sound bites, mixes in a variety of shots and vintage clips and tells the story in a very entertaining, crisply edited fashion.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is legendary because it managed to appeal to older audiences and attracted young audiences by challenging the conventional Variety program format including popular and controversial rock and roll bands, folk singers, political commentary and slightly risqué material.
You’ll quickly be taken back in time to 1967, when popular TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Ed Sullivan and Bonanza ruled the airwaves.
In fact N.B.C.’s Sunday Night Bonanza series completely dominated its 9 p.m. time-slot and CBS had tried to compete with 9 series to try and make a dent in the ratings. Every single one of these 9 contenders failed. CBS desperately needed a new show for 9 p.m. Sunday nights and so the popular, family friendly folk-singing comedy stars Tom and Dick Smothers were recruited to create a Variety show for the time slot. Tom and Dick figured they would probably last only 13 weeks, but no one would blame them for the failure and the television exposure would help their careers. If by some miracle they did better than the previous 9 shows that had been scheduled, this would be a very good feather in their cap. One thing the Smothers insisted upon was creative control of their program. Remarkably they got it. CBS had no reason to believe the conservatively looking Smothers Brothers would cause them any trouble.
The Smothers and several writers led by Mason Williams, freshened up the somewhat stale variety show format. They mixed older guest stars like Jack Benny, George Burns and Bette Davis with new ones like Pat Paulsen, George Carlin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and many more. The first sketch to create problems for CBS standards and practices was a comedy sketch with Elaine May about movie censorship. It hit a sensitive soft spot and was cut from the show. Tommy Smothers was very upset about it and took his battle to the media who eagerly reported on what has happened. Soon, Tommy was battling with the censors on a regular basis and the battles became stories in major newspaper like the New York Times.
CBS back in 1967 and 1968 didn’t want anything controversial on their airwaves. Unfortunately for them The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a huge hit that even beat Bonanza a few times. However, CBS affiliates were getting complaints from a small number of viewers who objected to even the hint of political satire or pro-drug use content. There were also problems with some of the sketches featuring black and white performers making light of racial stereotypes and anti-Vietnam War messages. At the time none of this was ever seen on prime-time entertainment programs. It created a huge controversy and when Tom Smothers got more combative and stubborn, the battles grew louder and created lots of problems for CBS.
You’ll see and hear about Leigh French’s recurring hippie character in the segment called Share a Little Tea with Goldie; there’s the outrage Tom Smothers’ had when Joan Baez’ dedication of a song to her husband, David was partially censored; there’s the censored performance of Pete Seeger’s Waist Deep in the Big Muddy (which he eventually got to perform on the show), there’s Harry Belafonte’s Carnival song number that was censored; there’s the big controversy over David Steinberg’s parody of a Sermon. Big battles were raged over these and several other segments and performances on the show. Remarkably most of the Pat Paulsen editorial parodies sneaked in under the censor’s radar. Some of you may remember there was even a whole hour show devoted to Pat Paulsen for President which pre-dated any television political humor programs (Politically Incorrect, Saturday Night Live, HBO’s Tanner, Daily Show and Stephen Colbert) by several years. It should also be noted that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was shown on pre-cable Network television in prime-time!!! Although we’ve come a long way since the time of this shows…there has been little prime-time network political satire EVER.
The documentary shows brief clips from several once controversial segments and even a few brief moments of sketches that were never seen on prime-time in the U.S. (a few of these were shown in Canada un-censored).
Unfortunately we don’t get a DVD extra that shows these sketches in their entirety.
The documentary is both entertaining and for some will be eye-opening. If you are very familiar with the Smothers Brothers and their story you’ll wish there was more included but since this was made several DVDS containing many of the original shows in their entirety and David Bianculli ‘s book are available. All are highly recommended for Smothers Brothers fans.
The more recent interviews that were shot on video are crisp and clear. The clips from the show, even segments that never aired look remarkably clean. A few archive news clips (like Walter Cronkite’s on-air announcement of the show’s cancellation and a brief clip from a 60 Minutes segment) are in rougher shape. The mono soundtrack offers clear, well balanced sound with consistent levels.
EXTRAS: The Docurama distributed DVD doesn’t offer many extras. There are brief text biographies of Maureen Muldaur and the Smothers Brothers and an excerpt from the then upcoming book by David Bianculli which includes some photos of the eight significant censored or highly controversial sketches. There’s also info about other Docurama titles. There are several trailers for other Docurama DVDS too.
Smothered is a fast-moving informative documentary that details what happened to the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour television program that aired during some of the U.S. most tumultuous times of the past 50 years. It has a strong sense of perspective and we get to hear story of what happened from several different sides.
Click here for Review of Dangerously Funny; The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli
©2012 Christopher J. Jarmick All Rights Reserved
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV