Tom Smothers, celebrated as the wittier half of the Smothers Brothers, whose blend of music and incisive political satire captivated late Sixties television, has passed away at 86, The New York Times has confirmed. Smothers succumbed to cancer at his Santa Rosa, California, residence, a spokesman for the National Comedy Center announced on behalf of the family.
Dick Smothers, his younger brother and comic ally, reminisced, "Tom was not just an affectionate older brother but also a unique creative soul." The duo gained fame with their distinctive mix of folk music and comedy. Tom, the guitar-playing humorist, and Dick, the deadpan bassist, brought balance and flair to their act.
Their groundbreaking show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, debuted in 1967, quickly becoming a counterculture icon with its sharp humor and subtle nods to sensitive topics like drug use and the Vietnam War. Smothers, in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview, reflected on their show's conception: "We wanted our sketches to resonate more deeply.
The era's tumult naturally reflected in our work."
Legacy Amid Controversy
Despite critical acclaim, an Emmy win, and a dedicated fan base, their bold comedy led to clashes with CBS censors, resulting in the show's cancellation in 1969 after just three seasons.
Nonetheless, its legacy is profound. The Smothers Brothers nurtured future comedy legends like Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, and Elaine May and spotlighted major musical acts, including a memorable performance by the Who. Rob Reiner, on Twitter, paid homage to Smothers, noting his crucial role in Reiner's career and lauding the show's celebration of American Democracy.
Born in New York City in 1937, Tom and his brother Dick had a challenging upbringing, marked by their father's death in WWII and their mother's struggles. Tom initially gravitated towards athletics and studied advertising in college.
However, as the 1950s ended, the brothers ventured into folk music, soon integrating comedy into their performances. Their stage act evolved into a blend of folk satire and sibling rivalry, encapsulated in Tom's catchphrase, "Mom always liked you best." They released several comedy albums in the early Sixties, with one track even charting on the Billboard Hot 100.
Their first television break was a 1965 sitcom, The Smothers Brothers Show, but it was their 1967 variety show that truly showcased their talents. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour tapped into the era's counterculture, even outperforming established shows like Bonanza in ratings.
The show, while successful, frequently butted heads with CBS censors, particularly over controversial sketches and musical guests. Their persistent challenges to censorship norms, however, led to the show's cancellation. Post-cancellation, the brothers continued to perform, though with less edge.
Smothers, briefly branching out on his own, later reflected on his intense advocacy for free speech during this period. The Smothers Brothers, influential in American comedy and culture, eventually retired in 2010. Tom Smothers, in reflecting on their legacy, modestly attributed their success to being at the right place at the right time, hoping his stance during those tumultuous years would inspire pride in his son.