In the nearly extinct form of the comedy duo, the Smothers Brothers remain, serving as a golden-age snapshot of a stage style that could have advanced but was destroyed by dilettantes.
It's a familiar story. Like all mediums of entertainment, comedy throws away its gimmicks and styles once they stop working, and they usually stop working at the hands of subpar performers. This is why prop comedy died with Carrot Top. Examining the history of the comedy duo reveals a similar situation, and it also reveals how the Smothers Brothers, who'll be appearing Saturday at GPAC, have held on. It's a simple case of survival of the fittest.
The greats were great: The routines of the smoothly soused Dean Martin and the prat-falling man-child Jerry Lewis were family-oriented nuggets that sometimes veiled real-life hatred. The strange, satirical meanderings of Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott carried on into the 1980s for a four-decade lesson in the art of subtlety. Jim Coyle and Mal Sharpe's early-'60s confrontational audio street pranks made for poor record sales, but the prescient stunts got their rightful day via reissues in the '90s.
And while film has birthed no shortage of notable duos -- Aykroyd and Belushi, Wilder and Pryor, and Reynolds and DeLuise -- it also blueprinted the style that now gives us trainwrecks like Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon, pairings similar to that of drive-time radio rubes who have little to do with original comedy duo moxie.
And then there are the Smothers Brothers.
Tom and Dick Smothers performed in a college folk quintet before setting off as a duo in 1959. They regularly appeared on The Steve Allen Show and began releasing albums, but the brothers kept things musical and relegated the cutting-up for between-song banter. When they soon developed the bickering-siblings shtick, they fell into the ever-sturdy duo agenda of straight guy (Dick) versus half-witted, antagonistic rube (Tom). These roles were interestingly reversed in reality. Dick raced cars and shunned the entertainment industry, while Tom became vehemently involved in the business end of the brothers' career. They crafted an intelligent, clean rapport (occasionally geared directly at children) that relied on unique and precise timing -- a skill in which the brothers are usually regarded as geniuses.
The Smothers Brothers were of serious cultural importance when it came to their most popular product: the ground-breaking and troubled variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Airing on CBS from spring of 1967 until summer of 1969, the Sunday-night show tenaciously pushed boundaries throughout its entire run and was a perpetual thorn in the network's side. It stayed on by earning a strong youth audience in contrast to NBC's Bonanza. Tom was constantly battling censors and network executives for culturally and politically baiting messages, skits, and performances. Tom lost the majority of these fights. Segments that fell under the censor's knife included Harry Belafonte performing in front of footage of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, a skit featuring Elaine May that poked fun at censorship, and an ongoing tug of war to include previously blacklisted folkie Pete Seeger. One of Tom's initial goals was to make The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour hospitable to unknown performers, and it was one of the first variety shows to open its doors wide to African-American performers.
In late 1968, CBS began requiring the brothers to deliver a tape of each show for prescreening by sponsors, a then-unprecedented move in the world of variety shows. Immediately following a begrudged renewal in 1969, CBS recanted and pulled the show for good after Tom tried to rally anticensorship support at the National Broadcasters Association convention. The slot was soon filled by Hee Haw. Into the '70s, the brothers tried several times to replicate the success of the original show, but the magic was lost. Tom and Dick returned to the performing circuit, resurfacing momentarily in the late '80s with a failed reunion series.
Tom and Dick played a safe act up the success ladder, then once in power, turned the tables. They had their ups and downs, and they adapted. The Smothers Brothers now stand as the longest-running comedy duo of all time. n
The Smothers Brothers at Germantown Performing Arts Centre, February 26th