Tommy Smothers, one half of the boundary-pushing comedy folk duo the Smothers Brothers, has died at age 86. His younger brother Dick Smothers, with whom he delivered eyebrow-raising political satire on network TV in the ‘60s, shared a statement on his brother’s Tuesday (Dec. 26) passing with The Hollywood Reporter and the National Comedy Center.
According to the statement, Tommy Smothers died “peacefully… at home with his family” following a “recent battle with cancer.”
“Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” Dick Smothers said in the statement. “I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off stage, for over 60 years. Our relationship was like a good marriage – the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed.”
With Tommy on acoustic guitar and Dick on double bass, the duo performed satiric and farcical folk music with a socio-political bent beginning in the late ‘50s. By the early ‘60s, they were making regular appearances on various variety programs, from The Judy Garland Show to The Jack Paar Show.
The duo’s first album, The Smothers Brothers at the Purple Onion, was released in 1961 and followed by several popular comedy LPs: 1962’s The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers, which hit No. 40 on the Billboard 200 the following year; 1963’s Curb Your Tongue, Knave!, their highest-charting album at No. 13 in 1964; and their final album, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which reached No. 164 in 1968. The top 40 1966 album Mom Always Liked You Best! was titled after Tommy’s signature phrase, which was often delivered in the midst of staged feuds with his brother, who would play the smarter straight man to Tommy’s sillier, innocent persona. Mom Always Liked You Best! and 1963’s (Think Ethnic!) were both nominated for the best comedy performance Grammy.
Only one song from the group, “Jenny Brown,” hit the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 84 on Oct. 12, 1963.
Following a one-season sitcom from 1965-1966, The Smothers Brothers Show, the duo landed a network variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which aired on CBS from 1967-1969. CBS hoped the show would bring in a younger, savvier audience during a decade marked by massive generational change but ended up getting more than it bargained for. Despite playing an unworldly, stammering goof on television, Tommy was the more liberal and politically driven of the two behind the scenes, pushing their comedy in a direction that gently skewered American culture, religion and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Following complaints from viewers and sponsors, CBS censors and network execs clashed with the Smothers Brothers, but Tommy was steadfast in refusing to self-censor or kowtow. The show was canceled in April 1969 despite the Smothers Brothers having a contract through 1970; the duo filed a breach-of-contract suit against CBS, which they won in 1973 to the tune of $776,300.
In June, the same month the show’s final episode aired, it won an Emmy for outstanding writing achievement in comedy, variety or music for its platoon of writers, which included a young Steve Martin and the versatile writer/musician Mason Williams, who had had a No. 2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968 with “Classical Gas.” In 1968, Pat Paulsen won an Emmy for special classification of individual achievements for his appearances on the show. He ran for president that year under the slogan “If nominated I will not run, and if elected I will not serve.”
In announcing his candidacy on the Smothers Brothers’ show, Paulsen said, “Now I ask you: Will I solve our economic problems? Will I ease the causes of racial tension? Will I bring a peaceful end to Vietnam? Sure, why not?” Paulsen’s campaign slogans included “We’ve upped our standards, now up yours.”
Prior to its cancelation, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour boasted performances from edgier acts than what you’d find on most network variety shows. Aside from Cream, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Donovan, Ray Charles, Pete Seeger, Simon & Garfunkel, the show hosted a performance from The Who that ended with the band smashing their guitars (as per usual) and an explosives accident that sent a piece of metal into drummer Keith Moon’s arm and briefly set Pete Townshend’s hair on fire. Baez’s stint on the show was also notable: She saluted her then-imprisoned husband at the time, David Harris, who was jailed for refusing military service; CBS censors edited out Baez explaining the reason for his jail time.
The duo made a few other TV shows in the ’70s, which were less successful than their highly influential Comedy Hour, which is now celebrated as an essential piece of television and cultural history that paved the way for the arrival of the button-pushing, irreverent variety show Saturday Night Live in 1975. They appeared sparingly over the ensuing decades, popping up for a televised 1988 anniversary special and a 2009 episode of The Simpsons. The Smothers Brothers officially retired from touring in 2010, over a half century after their live debut.
Tom Smothers is survived by his children Bo and Riley Rose Smothers, grandson Phoenix, Marcy Carriker Smothers, sister-in-law Marie Smothers, and several nephews and a niece. His son Tom and sister Sherry Smothers preceded him in death.
Additional reporting by Paul Grein.