Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Oh, brothers

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Best of Season 3
 Available on DVD through most retailers

When discussing the Smothers Brothers, one doesn't review a television show as much as an specific time in history. Not the era of the Smothers Brothers themselves, for they really flashed across the sky for but a brief moment; and not an epochal moment in history, for much of what the Brothers accomplished was, shall we say, less than timeless.

No, to understand the Smothers Brothers, and what their comedy was all about, one has to understand the 60s, or at least be conversant with them. Taking them out of context, watching or listening to them without that background information, can leave one wondering what all the excitement was about. (Frankly, even with an understanding of the 60s one might have that same reaction, but that is a discussion for another day.)

If you've ever wondered what all the shouting was about, why so many people supported and admired them while so many others were outraged and disgusted by them, why they were the idols of college campuses and the bane of politicians and network censors, then you could do worse than to have The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Season 3 as part of your DVD collection.

I remember watching them back in that year of 1968, and I suppose I understood the humor about as well as any eight-year-old could (even a politically savvy eight-year-old), but one thing I did understand was that the Brothers were very good at raising the hackles of a good many people.

So what was all the shouting about? You might ask yourself that very question after watching a few episodes from this, the third season. For one thing, taken in the context of other variety shows of the day (Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, even shows to come such as Sonny & Cher), the Smothers Brothers Show was amazingly conventional. There was an opening bit (not quite a monologue, since there were two of them), appearances by special guests (standup comedians and rock stars), scripted bits, production numbers, and other things one might expect from a variety show. If you wanted cutting-edge television, this wasn't it; Monty Python was certainly far more advanced in breaking the mold, and even Laugh-In was far more creative in establishing a new way of thinking about the variety show. It's true that the Brothers had The Doors as special guests, but then so did Sullivan. And while their clothes were often vintage 60s (try a red blazer and turtleneck, for instance), it's also true that if you let the coat out a bit and lower the cut, you come up with a fairly fashionable double-breasted coat, and that turtleneck cut down just a little looks like a very sharp mock-turtle. If you'll look closely, you'll notice that Dick (he was the one mom liked best) even wears cufflinks.

So the show wasn't nearly as cutting-edge as we might remember. Nor could one say that the writing was exceptionally clever. Nothing, certainly, like the talent on shows such as Your Show of Shows. (Try Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Howard Morris for starters.) I doubt that the writing bench was as deep as those of Carson or Paar, for example. One thing that strikes me on watching these shows is that so many of these bits go on for far, far too long. The writers really don't know when (or perhaps even how) to end some of these sketches, which gives it more in common with Saturday Night Live than anything else.

(By the way, did you know that the original title of that show was NBC's Saturday Night? Why, you ask? Because the name "Saturday Night Live" was already in use - by Howard Cosell, in his short-lived Saturday night variety show.)

Anyway, I suppose the comparison to SNL is perhaps the best one on a number of levels, for what made the Smothers Brothers unique - the reason why I'm watching this DVD and writing these words - is that they took on the law and won (for at least a little while). Their comedy writers were those who wrote the lead stories in the nation's newspapers, and their targets were the politicians who ran the government, the church leaders who guided the nation's morals, and the suits who ran CBS.

I said earlier in this review that viewed out of context, without knowing what the 60s were like, much of the humor in these episodes (which, I should say, have been beautifully mastered, with the vivid color saturation that is so typical of 60s television) might fall flat, or at least seem tedious and didactic. Fortunately, some of the features included in this set help to set the table: a brief documentary featurette on the 60s helps to give the show some perspective, and optional opening and closing comments by the Brothers provide some real insight and background on the episode in question. There's the complete "Pat Paulson for President" special, with Henry Fonda (another old radical) as narrator. There's a rich collection of outtakes, uncensored (and never seen) episodes, and a rich collection of correspondence between the Brothers and CBS documenting the many disputes between them. I've already mentioned the beautiful look to these episodes, and the set itself is nothing if not comprehensive. No, if you're looking for quality and comprehensiveness, you won't have to look far.

The talent is certainly there, as well. One episode featured a very funny George Carlin and a brilliant performance by The Doors (brilliant, that is, if you're a fan of theirs), and other guest stars in this collection include Bob Newhart and Steve Martin, Judy Collins and Joey Bishop, Ike and Tina Turner and George Harrison. There's comedy, rock, folk - all kinds of stuff.

We are left, then, with the title stars themselves. This is a DVD review, not a cultural essay; anyone looking for information about the Smothers Brothers won't have far to look. But it is a fact that many watching these shows for the first time ever, or the first time in a long time, will be apt to find parallels between the political landscape of today and that of the 60s. Some will rejoice in that, others will roll their eyes.

The Brothers could be, by turns, funny, tiresome, smug, naive, entertaining, boring, infurating, and subversive. They showed then, as now, a pronounced lack of respect for current mores, for authority, for rules and regulations and propriety. There's no question that some of the tiresome molds of the era needed to be broken, but (as the Catholic Church as since found out) sometimes when you open up the windows to let the stale air out, you let a whole lot more come in. And once it's in, it's damn hard to get out. The Smothers Brothers helped change television, just as they helped define a generation. They didn't do it all themselves (for very little that is either very great or very evil can be boiled down to just one or two individuals), and while they might not have meant for everything to happen that has since come to pass, we all know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Then again, maybe they did mean for it all to happen. Who knows?

Really, there's not much we can do except try to understand it. Sometimes that understanding can only come with perspective, with time and distance. And then we may find out that what we thought we knew we didn't really understand at all.

So is The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Season 3 worth your investment? If you're looking for a cultural artifact, a window into time, a sense of what it was like back in the day - then the answer is yes. As for the entertainment value, well, that is probably left in the eye of the beholder.
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