The Smothering of the Smothers Brothers

This will sound like crazy talk to anyone under 30, but the Smothers Brothers were the Jon Stewart of their day: edgy, daring, and willing to speak quips to power. Their late-'60s variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, was replete with sex and drug references, but it was the political rabble-rousing that got the boys into trouble with CBS. Two examples: inviting a blacklisted Pete Seeger to perform a song critical of LBJ and the Vietnam War, and having Harry Belafonte sing "Don't Stop the Carnival" in front of footage from the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention. The Smothers' relationship with CBS devolved from mild acrimony to naked hostility, with the network trimming, and sometimes cutting, segments it disagreed with. The war escalated until the show, an American Idol–size ratings colossus, was canceled in 1969.

The Smothers' losing battle is chronicled in the new book Dangerously Funnyby David Bianculli, a meticulously researched account of how ideological divisions and skirmishes over creative control led to the show's demise. Bianculli's implicit argument is that CBS's censorship limited the show's potential. You could argue that's the opposite of what happened. Americans are conditioned to value free speech, and when we see things such as a media blackout in Iran, we're reminded how good we have it. But censorship is more of a creative asset to television than it is a curse. The complete freedom to create and distribute that is possible in music, film, and the visual arts doesn't exist in television, which is why hipsters go crazy for the latest indie band or indie movie, but no one ever talks about the hot indie TV show—because there's no such thing.

Art, generally speaking, works best when it's constrained in some way, when it has something to work against. Even if you weren't offended by him, it's hard to argue that Adam Lambert's performance at the American Music Awards benefited from his making out with his keyboardist. Some of TV's funniest moments grew out of the need to meet network standards. When Saturday Night Live debuted "D--k in a Box" in 2006, NBC made a then-unheard-of choice to make the uncensored version available on the Web. "The most interesting thing," SNL's Seth Meyers said later, "is that it's actually not funnier uncensored." Cable may get away with more than the networks do, but the bowdlerized versions of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and even Dexterprove that the sex and violence aren't integral to the storytelling. The same might have been true of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Without CBS's meddling, the show might have been more in your face but not necessarily more daring or thought-provoking. Bianculli asks what the show would have looked like if the Smothers Brothers had been given free rein. The more interesting question is what the show would have looked like if they hadn't struggled mightily to color inside the lines.

The Smothering of the Smothers Brothers | News