The evolution of The Comedy Hour was unique to a medium that was fearful of change. The show debuted in the winter of 1967 as a slightly “hip” version of the typical comedy-variety show of its era. But within weeks it rapidly evolved into a program that extended the boundaries of what was considered permissible in television satire.
While the brothers themselves were at the forefront of these efforts, credit also goes to the roster of writers and regular performers they brought to their many shows, including Hal Goldman and Al Gordon who wrote for The Jack Benny Program from 1950 to 1965,Jim Stafford (who served as head writer and producer of their 1975 NBC variety hour), Steve Martin, Don Novello (“Father Guido Sarducci”), Rob Reiner (“Mike ‘Meathead’ Stivic”), Lorenzo Music (Carlton The Door Man on Rhoda, Garfield on Garfield and Friends, Peter Venkman on The Real Ghostbusters), perennial Presidential candidate Pat Paulsen, Bob Einstein (“Super Dave Osborne”, “Marty Funkhouser”, and “Officer Judy”), Einstein’s brother, Albert (who works professionally as Albert Brooks), and resident hippie Leigh French (“Share a Little Tea with Goldie”).
The show also introduced audiences to pop singer Jennifer Warnes (originally billed as Jennifer Warren or simply Jennifer), who was a regular on the series. The television premiere of Mason Williams’ hit record, Classical Gas, took place on the show, and Williams himself received an Emmy for his work as a staff writer.
The series showcased new musical artists that other comedy-variety shows rarely gave airtime to, due to the nature of their music or their political affiliations. George Harrison, Joan Baez, Buffalo Springfield, Cass Elliot, Harry Belafonte, Cream, The Who, Donovan,
The Doors, Janis Ian, Yank Barry, Jefferson Airplane, Peter, Paul and Mary, Spanky and Our Gang, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, Ray Charles, Hello People and Pete Seegerwere showcased during the latter years of the show despite the advertiser-sensitive nature of their music.
Seeger’s appearance on the season two premiere which aired on September 10, 1967 was his first on network commercial television in 17 years since being blacklisted in 1950. His performance of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was dropped from the broadcast after his refusal to comply with CBS’s request to remove the sixth verse.
The song, its story related to the present by the controversial stanza, was a metaphor for President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Vietnam War policy. Seeger was eventually allowed to reappear on the show to perform the song again on Episode 24 later that season.
In 1968, the show broadcast several promotional films (later known as “music videos”) for The Beatles’ songs “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” and Bee Gees. Before a rowdy crowd at the Los Angeles Forum, Jimi Hendrix dedicated “I Don’t Live Today” to the Smothers Brothers, as heard on The Jimi Hendrix Box Set.
Controversies and cancellation
The show became both popular and controversial for those same references to youth culture and the issues that both interested and affected this particular target audience. Whereas most older and more conservative audiences were tuning into shows such as the western Bonanza, the younger, more liberal generation—ages 15–25—were watching the Smothers’ more socially relevant humor.
The brothers soon found themselves in regular conflicts with CBS’ network censors.At the start of the 1968–69 season, the network ordered that the Smothers deliver their shows finished and ready for air ten days before airdate so that the censors could edit the shows as necessary. In the season premiere, CBS deleted an entire segment featuring Belafonte singing Lord, Don’t Stop the Carnival against a backdrop of the havoc during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, along with two lines from a satire of their main competitor, Bonanza.
As the year progressed, battles over content continued, including a David Steinbergsermon about Moses and the Burning Bush.
With some local stations making their own deletions of controversial sketches or comments, the continuing problems over the show reached a boiling point after CBS showed a rerun on March 9, 1969. The network explained the decision by stating that because that week’s episode did not arrive in time to be previewed, it would not be shown.
In that program, Joan Baez paid tribute to her then-husband David Harris, who was entering jail after refusing military service, while comedian Jackie Mason made a joke about children “playing doctor”. When the show finally did air, three weeks later, the network allowed Baez to state that her husband was in prison, but edited out the reason.
Despite the conflict, the show was picked up for the 1969–70 season on March 14, seemingly ending the debate over the show’s status. An episode slated for an April 13 broadcast was refused by CBS because the brothers had brought back Steinberg to perform another sermon routine; the original sermon on October 27, 1968 had been met with hundreds of angry viewer letters However, the episode was aired in Canada on CTV on a pre-release which was a common occurrence at that time.
Network CEO and president William S. Paley abruptly canceled the show on April 4, 1969, citing the Smothers’ failure to meet the contractual pre-air delivery dates required for local affiliate screening.
Another of the network’s presidents, Robert Wood, stated that it became evident that the brothers “were unwilling to accept the criteria of taste established by CBS.” This cancellation led the brothers to file a breach of contract suit against the network.
On April 6, 1973, after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in favor of the Smotherses and ordered CBS to pay them US$776,300(equivalent to $4,279,500 in 2017), and in 1975, the duo returned to television, hosting the tamer (and unsuccessful) The Smothers Brothers Show.
Despite this cancellation, the show won the Emmy Award that year for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy, Variety or Music.
The saga of the cancellation of the show is the subject of a 2002 documentary film, Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.