Gary James' Interview With Tom Smothers of
The Smothers Brothers
There is simply no other act in the world like The Smothers Brothers. And it's unlikely that anyone else will ever follow in their footsteps. For over forty years, they've been entertaining audiences on stage, television and records.
Mr. Tom Smothers, one half of The Smothers Brothers, spoke with us about his career.
Q - Was it your intention when you were starting off, to see this act through as a career, or did you think you'd only have a couple of years?
A - My brother Dickie thought of it as a Summer job that extended. I had no idea it would have this kind of longevity. I always wanted to be a musician first. When I was a youngster I really wanted to be a band leader. The comedy thing started coming in and I said well, that's pretty cool too. I had no idea it would last as long as it did. Our first ten years were non-stop. 1959 to 1969 it was like a roller coaster straight up. The '70s were the Dark Ages where we did dinner theatre and different things and started a winery. In the '80s we started working again and we worked our way right up to a television series again. I guess people have never really achieved until they've fallen and risen again.
Q - I don't believe anyone has ever tried to copy your act, have they?
A - Oh, it's kind of hard to do. (laughs) It was unique even though comedy teams are not unique. The form we used was pretty different. I always claim our success was based on the uniqueness. It was like the Wright brothers' plane. It was pretty unique. It was the first one, but it wasn't really a good plane. (laughs) But, people paid attention.
Q - I'm not sure I would make that analogy. I always thought The Smothers Brothers were pretty good.
A - I listened to some early stuff and I thought, oh man, the first album was a little shaky. We mad an album two years after we performed and it was comedy. So, it was pretty interesting. We kind of went our own way and used Folk music 'cause they were strong songs. There was interesting stuff you could make up about it. Other songs were all love songs. This made sense.
Q - Who did The Smothers Brothers model themselves after?
A - No one.
Q - So, how long did it take to work up the act?
A - It took quite a while 'cause I did all the talking. I just kind of ramble and make up lies about the songs we're gonna sing and Dickie would occasionally say "That's wrong!" I said "You ought to do some introductions yourself." He said "I don't know what to say." I said "Write something down and say it." Pretty soon he'd say "That's wrong and you're stupid." Then he'd start talking more and more. Finally in the '70s we were doing a Broadway show called I Love My Wife in New York and we did it about a year. During the daytime we were watching television. We'd see Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. I kept looking at 'em and said "My God, the straight man does most of the talking. Hmmm." So, when we started working again I put the pressure onto Dick. His voice is going on two thirds of the time and I'm going on about one third. And that's probably what gave us a chance at longevity...watching the fact that But Abbott did ninety percent of the talking. Oliver Hardy was the same way. So, the straight man in the early days of Vaudeville was paid more. He was the skilled position. Like a drummer or a bass player in a band. The guy that keeps the beat. If the audience believes the straight man, they'll believe the comic. But, if the straight man isn't good, then everything becomes false. Most people don't recognize how important the straight man is. He's the driving force.
Q - Do you ever get people asking why you never played a song straight through without a wise crack?
A - We got that all the time. After a show, somebody will say "why don't you finish a song?" You know we come pretty close. We used to put in two songs that we finish all the way. Endings are hard. (laughs) If we can put in enough music to keep the attention...but Victor Borge got that same criticism...c'mon, shut up and play.
Q - You were on that record "Give Peace A Chance" weren't you?
A - I was playing guitar on that.
Q - You were in a hotel room when he recorded that song?
A - Yeah.
Q - Would you say you knew John Lennon pretty well then?
A - I knew him pretty well, yeah.
Q - You were playing The Troubadour in 1975 when your act was interrupted.
A - Oh yeah, he (John Lennon) and Harry Nilsson. Harry Nilsson was a dear friend. I really knew Harry pretty well. I told Harry I was going to go out to New York...I mean Georgetown, Washington DC and work a place called The Cellar Door. Dick and I hadn't been working. I said "I'm going to work on some material by myself." He said "Oh wow!" 'cause Harry Nilsson wasn't a 'live' performer. It freaked him out. So, I went out there for a week by myself and hadn't performed for several years. I had a music stand with a bunch of notes. I brought my guitar. The club manager said "Hey, Harry Nilsson is here!" I said "C'mon. Someone says he's Harry Nilsson." Harry had gotten on a plane and flew out to see me go to my execution I guess. Do an ad-lib show without my brother. So, I get up there and I bombed. I followed some Folk-Rock group. I did an hour and a half worth of material in twenty minutes. My timing was off. I said "If there's any questions..." and pretty soon it got a little loud. Harry started hollering question from the balcony. Some guy from below started heckling. The second, third night I got my act together. Not very long after, Dick and I opened up at The Troubadour. He told John, "Tom really likes heckling 'cause he doesn't have an act and it helps him. (laughs) So they came all ripped and stoned and cognaced out and started yelling stuff and it turned into a riot. But, he actually thought he was helping, but they were really too ripped to recognize the moderation in it.
Q - When all this commotion was going on, were you amazed or angry?
A - Oh, I was angry. Sure I was. This wasn't like The Cellar Door where I was by myself. I didn't have an act anyway. We had a stretch of material. It got a little out of hand. Paul Newman was there, a whole bunch of Hollywood people. Every time there was a silence, they would holler something crude. Of course it got pretty heated. I got flowers from Harry. They apologized the next day. It's kind of cause-celeb. It was kind of interesting.
Q - Did you realize it was John being tossed out of the club that night?
A - Yeah.
Q - Because Harry told you he was bringing John along?
A - No, he didn't. I saw people coming in. I knew they were there. I didn't know they were gonna disrupt the whole thing though. But, these are little moments. I've heckled people with a little booze in me sometimes too.
Q - I wouldn't have expected to hear that from you.
A - Anybody that's a comedian crosses the line somewhere. (laughs)
Q - Are you surprised what TV shows get away with these days in terms of political humor? It makes what The Smothers Brothers did on TV tame by comparison.
A - You have to take it in context here. In prime time today you hear no political satire. You don't hear anybody questioning even with a sense of humor over our policy in Afghanistan or the Middle East. Back in the 1960s, we were in prime time saying get out of Central America, get out of Vietnam. It's pretty well controlled now. All political satire is being done in the fringes...11:30 PM, Bill Maher or Saturday Night Live. That's when there's hardly anybody watching compared to when you get twenty million people. So, things have not opened up. There's no illusion of freedom of speech, because people can talk dirty, can talk sex, talk violence and four letter words. People say "Don't you wish you were on television now Tom?" You could say, well, I'm not hearing very much. I'm hearing a lot of vulgarity, but I'm not hearing a lot of content. Where's the content? Where's all these comedians with something to say? Why aren't they saying it? George Carlin is still out there and he says it, but it's not in prime time.
Q - Do you ever tire of doing all the promotional events you have to do, including interviews to help sell your personal appearances?
A - No. I enjoy the interviews. The hardest thing is still the travel. That's the thing that wears you out. It's disruptive. It's depressing. I don't mind doing interviews. I don't think I have much to say.
Q - Do you remember your performance at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York?
A - Yeah.
Q - What did you think of that place?
A - It was beautiful.
Q - When do you think you'll be back?
A - I don't know. It depends. When I look at some old route sheets The Smothers Brothers had in the '60s and in the early '80s, we were really out there, like 220 to 250 dates. We're nearing the end of our career and just taking the date that makes sense to us now. We're lucky that people still come out to see us. We're fortunate. We just go from year to year. We have a cancellation clause. If people stop showing up or we lose our edge and it's not funny anymore, we just wrap it up and say "Hey, that was a good run."