Monday, January 18, 2010

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli

Comic folksingers Tom and Dick Smothers really are brothers, though Tom is actually the older of the two. They did once have a chicken as a sort of pet, but it wasn't really Tom's. Their mother was quite challenged to raise her family (Tom, Dick, and Sherry) after her husband died in the closing weeks of World War II without ever even seeing his daughter. She loved them all, but in financial straights, she sent them off to live with relatives when she ran out of money. It was natural that the mischievous boys (Tom being the protective older brother) would try music and comedy together. In Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, television critic David Bianculli recounts how Tom and Dick matured professionally and politically while testing the limits of censorship.

Dangerously Funny works well as both a coming of age biography and as history of the 1960s. It tells how the brothers became the people they would remain after their three groundbreaking seasons on network television, 1967-1969. It also goes into great detail about the production of the shows and the struggles with CBS censors and the executives in charge of the censors. Just getting some of their guests onto television was an achievement, especially breaking the network ban of showing political folksinger Pete Seeger.

I enjoyed remembering Pat Paulsen's run for U.S. President, Mason William's guitar masterpiece "Classical Gas," the silly but politically-charged skits, and my favorite rock groups, such as Simon and Garfunkel, the Association and the Doors. What I realize now is that many of the rock groups became my favorites after I saw them on the Comedy Hour, which tried to feature little-known groups with new songs just being released. Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, and the Turtles got their first major national television exposure on the brothers' show. The Beatles sent their films of "Hey Jude" and "Revolution" to be premiered in the U.S. on their show. Folksingers Judy Collins, Donovan, and Joan Baez were also featured.

The last part of the book muses on the impact the Smothers Brothers had long after their firing by CBS. Their methods have been replicated on many shows, including Saturday Night Live. Also, the talent they fostered has flourished, including Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, John Hartford, and David Steinberg.

Readers interested television, music, or the political climate of the 1960s will enjoy this tribute to a landmark television show.

Bianculli, David. Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. 2009. Simon & Schuster. 392p. ISBN 9781439101162.

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