Honoring Tommy Smothers
In 1967, the year the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour first appeared on American television, the world was in turmoil.
There were more than 485,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam and the nation was wracked by anti-war riots.
Race riots erupted from coast-to-coast and 42 people died as 1,400 buildings burned during a riot in Detroit.
Israel fought and won the Six-Day War and occupied the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank while annexing East Jerusalem.
China detonated a hydrogen bomb, a Marxist/Maoist guerilla rebellion persisted in India, and Greece was taken over by a military dictatorship.
Muhammad Ali refused military service and Martin Luther King denounced the war in Vietnam during a highly-publicized church service in New York.
The Summer of Love unfolded in San Francisco, Americans of every demographic stripe were experimenting with drugs and sex while avowed racist Lester Maddox was sworn in as governor of Georgia.
These events were widely reported in the news but were virtually invisible on network television entertainment shows where political commentary was taboo. Popular variety shows, personified by Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny and Carol Burnett, were safe and sanitized.
But there was one notable exception.
If the '60s had an alternative television voice, it was Tom Smothers, the ostensibly doltish, but actually brilliant older brother who took television to a level it had never before experienced, a level CBS found so uncomfortable it ultimately pulled the plug on the most innovative, outspoken and culturally/politically-honest program on the air.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was not only topical and courageously controversial, it was cross-generational, pairing The Who, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane and David Steinberg with George Burns, Kate Smith and Mel Torme. And that made it all the more dangerous in the eyes of CBS because the show was reaching across the demographic divide to entertain a true cross-section of Americans.
In its brief, three-year run, the Comedy Hour became one of the most important events in television history, even though it took decades for its real value and impact to be recognized.
Thankfully, Tom Smothers received a very belated Emmy Award in 2008 for his unheralded role as a writer on the show. And on Friday night, the Sonoma County Chapter of the ACLU honored Tom with its Jack Green Civil Liberties Award during its annual dinner in Santa Rosa.
Tom, who prefers to live quietly among us in Kenwood, was modest about his own importance, but offered a few gems of advice to an enraptured audience, including this:
"It's important to go out on a limb once in a while, because that's where the fruit is."
Ironically, in honoring Tom Smothers' contributions to civil liberties, directors of the local ACLU chapter refused to let a professional TV crew record the event for a documentary on censored news. Someone missed the point of the exercise.
That said, it was a warm and richly-deserved recognition and we're proud to count Tom Smothers as one of our own.