Photograph by Michael Amsler
Comedian Tom Smothers on censorship and the squandering of free speech
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
TOM SMOTHERS is annoyed. And he appears to be enjoying it. We've just seen an afternoon matinee of Outside Providence, a charming, funny little coming-of-age story in which the teenage protagonists swear like angry sailors and smoke more pot than a whole convention of California asthma sufferers. Set in the early '70s, Outside--written by Peter and Bobby Farrelly (of There's Something about Mary fame)--is a profanity-fueled homage to recreational authority bashing; it's The Catcher in the Rye for stoners.
"It's basically one pot-smoking scene after another," pronounces an elegantly goateed Smothers, eager to offer his energetic critique. "And I'm not square on that subject, but it got to be so redundant."
As we amble from the theater and set our trajectory toward the nearest cup of coffee, Smothers--the 62-year-old, yo-yo-twirling, elder half of the infamous Smothers Brothers comedy duo--concedes that he is not the film's target audience.
"I was never a stoner in high school--so I can't identify with all that pubescent drug stuff," he says. "I didn't get high until I was 21."
That would have been around 1958, just before Tom and his comic bass-playing brother, Dick Smothers, hit it big with a string of irreverent comedy albums. Their success as recording stars eventually led to television. After a goofy 1965 sitcom--with Tom playing an inept guardian angel--the brothers hit their stride in 1967 with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. An immediate, top-rated, prime-time sensation on CBS, the variety show quickly became a major censorship battleground, as the Smothers' increasingly progressive political views--they were outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, for one thing--threw the network's censors into overtime.
THE BROTHERS RESISTED all attempts at censorship, balking loudly when CBS pulled co-star Pat Paulsen's mock presidential campaign speeches--"If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve"--and when the censor clipped the remarks of singer Joan Baez. (While she was dedicating a song to her then-husband and convicted draft resister David Harris--she straightforwardly explained that he was about to serve a two-year prison term for resisting the Vietnam draft. CBS cut Baez's speech right after the word prison, denying the public her explanation of why her husband was jail-bound.)
The controversial show finally was canceled, still performing in the Top 10, during the summer of 1969. Other TV shows soon followed (on other networks) for the Smothers, and the duo has enjoyed a tremendously fruitful touring career. Tom, also a successful Sonoma winemaker, can frequently be seen on Bill Maher's late-night Politically Incorrect program--but history will best remember the Smothers Brothers as those brilliant TV troublemakers from the '60s.
WE HAVE OUR COFFEE. Squeezed into the corner of a quiet local cafe--Smothers lives on a vine-covered mountain in nearby Kneed--the comic is still grousing playfully at the sheer number of "objectionable phrases" that were crammed into Outside Providence, the tale of a blue-collar kid (Shawn Hates) with a redneck dad (Alec Baldwin) who always calls him Dildo. After being transferred to a highbrow "prep school," the kid locks horns with the school's sociopathic administration.
He does this mainly by lighting up joints and swearing a lot.
"It was a nice little movie, but man, every other word was 'fuck,'" Smothers marvels. " 'Fuck' this, and 'fuck' that. It's the Farrelly brothers," he surmises, targeting the film's writers, a very different pair of envelope-pushing siblings. "That kind of language is indulgent and unnecessary."
Wait. Is this Tom Smothers--the former free-speech poster boy--talking? "Let me tell you something," he laughs. "There's a great illusion that we now have more freedom merely because people say 'fuck' more often. So here we are, the language in movies and on TV has gotten raunchier, the subject matter has gotten sexier and more explicit--but there's no content to it.
"People come up to me and say, 'Man, don't you wish you were on TV today? Look what people get away with saying?' And I answer, 'Really? What are they saying?' It's all jack-off jokes and narcissistic reference to bodily functions. There's practically no real political satire or social commentary. And as we get further along with these media conglomerations owned by major corporations, you won't see a single word of political satire on prime-time TV.
"But, wow, we've got 'freedom of speech,' so we'll still have Hill Street Blues, with its dirty words and naked behinds," Smothers adds evenly, managing to reveal his obvious passion while remaining entirely calm.
"When we were censored," he continues, "it wasn't four-letter words we were fighting for. It was ideas. We were censored for talking about the war, about voter registration, about Martin Luther King. If we were on the air right now we'd be talking about how our government is up for sale to the highest bidder. We'd tell how all these politicians, busy playing the money game, have turned America into the most corrupt country on the planet. We'd talk about how American arrogance has damaged country after country, all around the world.
Shaking his head, he adds, "We sure wouldn't waste what 'freedom of speech' we have, trying to pass off a few four-letter words."
WHICH BRINGS US BACK to the movie. "I was thinking," Smothers says, "The kid in the movie handles every confrontation by telling the authority figures to just shut up. It gets him in more trouble.
"He reminded me of me," he says with a smile. "I got into so many screaming matches with network presidents. 'How can you tell me to calm down when people are dying in Vietnam!' But I know now that I handled it all wrong. I was 'bucking authority.' I was behaving inappropriately. I know that, and I know I'd do it differently now.
"But," he adds, grinning widely, "It doesn't mean I wasn't right."
Tom Smothers will perform yo-yo tricks at a kids' variety show that also features BMX riders, teen mariachi sensation Mayra Carol, mimes, hog callers, and lots more. Wednesday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $7-$10. 546-3600.
From the September 23-29, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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