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Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

1967-69 were watershed years for American politics, culture, and ways in which Americans actively looked at the society they were creating. If the battles over our supposedly inviolable freedoms of expression or the government's foreign wars seemed to constitute a new civil war, this time the Antietams were fought in the music, the press, the literature, and — of particular interest to us here — the TV programming of the era. No issue divided the country more than Vietnam, and the voices speaking against it had become numerous enough to no longer be ignored. Still, when simply questioning our country's role in a questionable war might in some quarters be considered somehow "un-American," it's easy and comforting for people to oversimplify matters by imagining that the threatening "agitators" are just a bunch of "dirty hippies" in Berkeley or mouthy no-account malcontents such as Lenny Bruce. So when those two nice clean-cut boys on CBS's The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour started mixing controversial commentary and point-blank political satire with their hit prime-time "family entertainment" format, a lot of something was bound to hit a lot of fans.

Having been granted creative control by a network desperate for a successful rival against NBC's ratings juggernaut, Bonanza, folksy singer-comics Tom and Dick Smothers crafted a variety show that for three years was a smash success among mainstream viewers as well as the new youth demographic. From that platform, they used comedy to take passionate and angry stands on such topical untouchables as the draft, firearms, race relations, political dissent, presidential campaigns, America's war policies, and religion. They weren't just vocal and defiant anti-war activists who had their own prime-time TV show — they were popular, genuinely talented, funny, bold, and looked like, you know, "normal" people. Fights with CBS censors were frequent, heated, and often manifested themselves on the air in front of millions of viewers. Eventually "the establishment" won, at least ostensibly — voters put Nixon into office, and the already-timid TV industry was fearful of the incoming media-hostile conservative administration. In '69 the show was canceled even though it had been picked up for a fourth season and would win an Emmy for its writing. The brothers were fired for breach of contract, then four years later were vindicated in court when a jury's landmark decision sided with the duo against CBS.

Now in Smothered, the history of those content battles and their fall-out are assembled into an entertaining, clear-eyed 92-minute documentary that originally aired on Bravo. Its writer and director, Maureen Muldaur, brings together clips from the show, a wealth of behind-the-scenes documentation about the fights against network censors, and new interviews with seemingly everyone who was there — including writers Rob Reiner and Mason Williams, David Steinberg, blacklisted singer Pete Seeger (whose "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was an in-your-face on-air rebuke of LBJ and the Vietnam war), Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, CBS executives who now look back through more contrite eyes, and of course Tom and Dick themselves. Modern perspectives are aided by TV critic David Bianculli, topical comic Bill Maher (who knows first-hand about similar political pressures) and journalist David Halberstam. "The Smothers Brothers," Maher says, "sacrificed their show because they wouldn't sacrifice their principles." He adds, speaking of the present rather than the past, "We owe them a huge debt of gratitude."

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This DVD release, distributed by Docurama, is an entertaining and enlightening look at two bravely pioneering TV performers and at principles that are no less important and vulnerable thirty-odd years later. It offers a very good full-screen image and audio in monaural DD 2.0. Extras include click-through bios of the Smothers and filmmaker Muldaur, excerpts from a forthcoming book on the show by Bianculli, and previews of other Docurama releases. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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