Smothers Brothers Fired For Being Too Damn Funny


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
April 17, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 27

by Stephanie Harrington

CBS’s cancellation of the Smothers Brothers show raises an interesting question of responsibility.

In the first place, one is led to assume that it was a case of firing without cause — unless you consider sufficient cause the consternation aroused in the CBS executive suite over the Smothers’ insistence on being relevant, sardonic, and resistant to censorship.

As for the particular show that allegedly broke the ostrich’s back, even New York Times television columnist Jack Gould, whose writing has not revealed any wild-eyed antiestablishmentarian inclinations, after seeing the original tape, found that: “The program chanced to be one of the best that the Smothers Brothers have offered all season, imaginatively topical and genuinely amusing, and the ‘sermonette’ challenged by the network was not worth all the managerial jitters.” (And, as a matter of fact, I’m almost positive satirist David Steinberg had performed that same “sermonette” — about Jonah being thrown overboard by the gentiles and swallowed by a giant guppy — before on some other television show without having shaken the moral fiber of America.)

So, if CBS did indeed fire the Smothers Brothers, not as it publicly proclaimed, because a particular show was in bad taste, but because Dick and Tom Smothers were too unruly for the corporate disciplinarians, the inescapable conclusion is that it is the network and not the Smothers Brothers who behaved irresponsibly. Limiting one man’s freedom of expression on the basis of another man’s taste — a nebulous criterion anyway — threatens the civil liberties of every man. And to invoke censorship frivolously as CBS seems to have done, as a smokescreen behind which the ulcers in the executive suite can be soothed by exorcising a gadfly, is an inversion of priorities that borders on immorality.

To invoke something as dangerous to the common weal as censorship to cure something as trivial as corporate indigestion is hardly responsible. To fight to maintain one’s integrity and to provide entertainment that is relevant, and honestly reflective of the values and thinking of a significant segment of the population, as the Smothers Brothers did, is to act more responsibly than most people involved in television.

Moreover, CBS’s particular applications of censorship have been as irresponsible as its insistence on using it at all. A recent Smothers tape, for instance, was censored so that Joan Baez, in dedicating a song to her husband, as heard to say that he was about to start serving a prison term, but was not head to say, because it was censored out, that the reason he was going to prison was that, as an act of conscience, he refused to serve in the Army. Was it responsible to create the impression that the idol of thousands of young people was married, not to a man of principle, but to a criminal? And was it responsible for a television network to employ censorship on such political grounds, refusing to allow a performer on one of its programs to indicate that there is such a thing in this country as opposition to war? And if the networks are thus willing to employ political censorship for their own mystifying purposes, can they avoid charges of hypocrisy when they, under attack, for instance, by a Mayor Daley, insist that they must be free from political censorship?

It’s ironic that CBS alone resisted Senator Pastore’s impassioned insistence that the networks submit their programs for prior censorship to any agency of the National Association of Broadcasters. Evidently Dr. Stanton felt he was capable of doing the job on his own. Or maybe, beneath his platitudes about censorship, he was really afraid that the NAB wouldn’t exercise as iron a whim as his.

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