Tommy Smothers honored by ACLU
Tom Smothers, who has called Kenwood home for decades while edging into an increasingly quiet retirement, stepped back into the limelight Friday evening to accept the Jack Green Civil Liberties Award from the Sonoma County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The annual Santa Rosa celebration dinner also honored Marjorie
"Maggie" Coshnear, a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College who received the Mario Savio Student Activist Award. Keynote speaker was Rainey Reitman, activism director for the Electronic Frontiers Foundation.
Smothers, who launched the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with his brother, Dick, in 1967, took a largely apolitical folk-singing comedy act and transformed it into a friendly but forceful tool for a level of social and political commentary that was completely absent on network television.
Launched during the era of radical social and political change, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution and the advent of psychedelic drugs, the Comedy Hour was virtually alone in the world of popular entertainment providing satiric social commentary.
The show was a huge success and an enormous thorn in the side of the sponsoring network, CBS. As tensions between the Smothers and the network grew, CBS censors leaned more and more heavily on the show's content, cutting out segments dealing with religion (especially a bit developed by comedian David Steinberg), race and politics (especially a biting Harry Belafonte segment on violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago) and many others.
Ultimately, CBS insisted on a padded deadline to review and remove offensive material before any show could air, and that was the Smothers' undoing. The network fired the brothers for failing to meet a deadline, but everyone who followed the feud knew the network was looking for any excuse.
The Smothers sued for breach of contract and won, their careers continued, ultimately making them the longest running comedy partnership in American history, but the magic moment that illuminated national television faded into memory.
Today, the censored Smothers material seems improbably tame, but many media critics credit the brothers with the fact that television has as much free expression as it does.
None of this is taken too seriously by Smothers who, despite his public persona as the bumbling brother, was always the older, wiser and more driven member of the team.
On Friday night, Smothers rattled off a number of self-deprecating jokes ("I like to live my life in the past, because most of it is.") and saluted young Maggie Coshnear for her dedication and vision.
"I never was there, where she is," he said, "there was no particular aim on my part, I was just sort of an accidental person, I never had any particular thing in mind, I just happened to be there."
Smothers quoted Mark Twain's saying, "It's better to deserve honors and not get them, than have them and not deserve them," but he reminded his enraptured audience to be themselves. "You might as well be your own self, because everyone else is taken."
Smothers said he is much more impressed by people who take care of people, than by people in politics. "Never believe anything in politics," he warned, "unless it's officially denied."
He then reminded the audience of the origin of the word. "Politics comes from the Greek word, you know, poly - meaning many, and tics, meaning blood-sucking parasites."
He then wrapped up his delivery with the succinct observation that, "If you don't know what you're talking about, it's really hard to know when you are finished. I'm finished. Thank you."
Before he could escape the podium, however, Smothers was loaded down with proclamations and resolutions, most of them heavily framed, from Assemblyman Jared Huffman, State Sen. Noreen Evans, Rep. Lynn Woolsey and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.