Tommy & Dick Smothers, last of the great comedy teams, as most of you are aware were enemies of both the Democratic Lyndon B. Johnson and the Republican Richard M. Nixon administrations. CBS executives, keen allies of the warmongers in Washington, did not look fondly upon their network's highest rated show being mainstream America's number one source of anti-war commentary (the same thing happened to Phil Donahue, cancelled by MSNBC during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, despite being number one in the ratings). The notorious cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was justified by network execs as being a response to "offensive" sketches skewering religion as performed by young guest star David Steinberg. In reality, CBS had been looking for a reason, any reason, to get the comedy duo off the air, so as to stop their anti-Vietnam war views (as well as the views of their folksy guest stars like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez) from beaming into the homes of Middle America. If you're too young to recall The Smothers Brothers or their television crucifixion then may I refer you to the sensational 2002 documentary, Smothered, which will supply you with the story. Think of them as the sixties equivalent of The Dixie Chicks; mainstream martyrs in a reactionary political climate, just a lot funnier and a little bit easier to listen to.
Almost forty years later, and unlike many of his contemporaries (Jane Fonda, John Kerry, David Horowitz etc.), Tommy Smothers is still standing his ground against ludicrous imperialism and war. In an excellent interview conducted by Vancouver journalist Guy Macpherson back in July, Tommy Smothers had this to say about the parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, "[We have] the same type of people running it, the same arrogance ... the same mistakes, going into someone else's country and trying to do something except saying there's a light at the end of the tunnel ... this country is just ... ugh."
In the 1970s Tommy Smothers got into a slight feud with one Bill Cosby. Tommy has never had much patience for those in the comedy community who he feels either have taken the side of power, instead of speaking truth to it, or those who have decided to remain silent about the crimes of government, the latter being the category he feels Cosby fits into. In the same interview Smothers was asked about the right wing's smarmiest spokesperson, Dennis Miller. "Oh, man ... did he turn south. Well, he's not funny anymore. Well, you know, I went up and saw his act. He was here about three years ago in Santa Rosa and I went over and saw it. And I kinda started heckling because I couldn't believe it. And my wife said, 'Just shut up and get outta here.' So I left. I walked out. I was so upset. It was just, 'bomb everybody, those ragheads, people in mud huts,' 9/11 turned a lot of people around. They lost their perspective and became nationalists and fascist by nature."
As recounted in Gerald Nachman's sensational and well researched treatise Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (2003, Pantheon Books) Tommy's public chiding of Bill Cosby for not being more outspoken on civil rights issues eventually led to fisticuffs between the two iconic comedy figures - with Hugh Hefner trapped in the middle(!). "At the time I was very volatile, and thought everyone should take a stand. I guess I said something that really pissed him [off]. For a couple years after that, I'd say, 'Hiya Bill, how ya doing?' and he wouldn't shake hands with me - you know, like, 'Fuck off."
In October of 1976, Cosby and Smothers were attending the same party at The Playboy Mansion. Hoping to ease some of the tension, Tom congratulated Bill on his latest television series. What Smothers did not realize was that the show in question had been cancelled the day before. "I liked your show," said Tom, "it was a really good effort." Cosby didn't respond. "He just looked at me [as if to say] 'Fuck you,' and I said, ' Well, Fuck you.' ... and walked away. I'd been getting this kind of thing from him for a long time. It started when he was hosting The Tonight Show. He had this kind of dismissive way of introducing people ... and I nailed him - you know, comedic oneupmanship---and I remember he said, 'Maybe sometime I'll knock you upside the head one of these days,' and I said, 'Yeah, go ahead and try.' A couple months later ... boom ... there it was. I should never have turned my back on him. He didn't have the balls to do it when I was looking. He slipped behind Hefner and sucker-punched me. He hit me right in the head with his fist - knocked me down ... and I was down there a minute or two and he was standing over me screaming at me, 'C'mon, I'll kick your ass,' stuff like that. I've never seen him since then. I always thought, maybe if he turns around sometime I might give him a shot."
If Smothers took issue with Cosby's lack of political stance in the 1970s, one might wonder what Tommy thinks of the political stance Cosby has adapted since. Bill Cosby's series of 'pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps' style speeches have gotten plenty of press in recent history, and certainly don't come any closer to Smothers' notion of speaking out on civil rights issues. To the contrary, it seems Cosby's message that African-American poverty is primarily the fault of African-Americans has not resonated with the majority of its intended audience, and instead has vindicated many racist "see I told you so" whites, who need only to point to Cosby to justify their own prejudices. If they ever start feeling guilty about race or class issues in terms of poverty or any other perceived flaws in the system of American capitalism, just remember what the Cos says. Smothers was asked about Cosby's recent positions in the interview conducted by aforementioned journalist Guy Macpherson:
TS: He's beating up on his own people.
GM: He's taking hits.
TS: Well, he should. I think he's an asshole.
GM: (laughs) Still.
TS: Yeah, But that's okay. He's a great comedian. He's a great comedian. But he kept his mouth shut during the Vietnam War and I didn't see him much in any of the civil rights movement.