June 14, 2004

Mom Always Liked You Best

Sometimes, you come across something in your youth - a favorite record, a book, a film - that makes you reflect as an adult. You learn some new aspect of that piece, and then you realize there was a much greater richness and resonance resulting from greater sacrifice than you previously thought.

Case in point: The Smothers Brothers.

My mother had most of their mid-1960's albums - Think Ethnic, Greatest Hits Vol. 2, Mom Always Liked You Best - and, like her Beatles, Bill Cosby, and other 1960s records, I listened to them voraciously. I always liked the Smothers - two brothers who had an unusual give-and-take on folk music. (Kind of like George and Gracie, only a little more hip). As a child, I always dug some of their best, most off-kilter lines, like
"There were pumas in that crevasse!"
"I don't like cream of asparakeet!"
"My brother, super-sibling Dickie, put termites in my Lincoln Logs"
"My old man's a refrigerator repairman, whaddaya think about that?"
Tommy served as "buffoon" to his brother, Dick (who, for my money, is a fine example of the Bob Newhart/Jack Benny school of comedians - keep a straight face and let everyone else get the laugh). For those of you who wish to sample, purchase a copy of Rhino's compilation, Sibling Revelry: The Best of the Smothers Brothers. It's too bad Rhino is now Warner's de facto reissue label; we won't get a volume 2 with "My Old Man", "The Fox" and "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair", but the CD is well worth the cost.

Recently, I caught Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which focused on their censorship battles with their 1967 - 1969 CBS show. After watching it (and strongly considered illegally taping off of a DVD....and which is now available via YouTube), I have to say that now, their comedy resonates even more strongly...because now I realize that they didn't just use humor to entertain, but they made an honest effort to use it to change the world.

The documentary is just the right length (90 minutes) and hits all the familiar marks. (The whole brouhaha starts with a clever sketch about censorship, features a Democratic president who didn't like the show, and devolves into a one man vs. the network fight. However, what shines through isn't that the Smothers were groundbreakers in delivering social satire on television...but that, even now, they are still quite clever and smart. (Unlike reruns of Laugh-In, which show it to be dated and too fixed in their time). For example, in one clever juxtaposition, two classic Smothers routines combine into a statement on race relations, bigotry, and acceptance. The tone of the documentary is casual, but what is revealed isn't about the nature of censorship...but of the power of humor.

It's a question of growing up - it's not about leaving the recklessness of youth behind, but being able to temper that anti-establishment spirit with a good dose of maturity and intelligence. Or, in other words, knowing who needs to hear "**** you" and how to say it well.

And for that, we need to thank Tom and Dick. They may only do yo-yo tricks now, but considering what they started...it's well worth it.

[February 4, 2017 Edit - in reviewing this on the 50th Anniversary of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, this documentary still holds up. Watch before it's pulled]

No comments: