Until now, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour has never been released on home video, even though the program has taken on mythic proportions in the minds of those who remember it. Famously canceled by CBS for being too subversive and controversial (even after the brothers agreed to submit their show to network censors 10 days before air-date) the program was the first to really comment on the politics of the day in a serious way, and in the late 60's there was a lot to comment on. (civil rights, the Viet Nam War, the riots at the '68 Democratic Convention, etc. etc.) It clearly paved the way for programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Now, at long last, the best of this ground-breaking show has come to DVD. Unfortunately, these shows are edited (more on that later) and the set doesn't contain all the episodes from season 3, only what Tom Smothers (presumably) thought were the highlights of the season. So close and yet so far.
Even though this set highlights the best episodes of season 3 (1968-69), it is the first set of Smothers Brothers shows to be released. Although it's a little confusing and will have people frantically searching for seasons one and two (which are to be released later,) this was presumably done since the third season was the most controversial and was of the most interest to modern viewers.
Yes, the show did mention and discuss the issues of the day. One censored segment that never made it on TV back in 1968 (and is restored to its rightful place in this set) was a song by Harry Belafonte, Don't Stop the Carnival. The segment put images from the riots and the floor of the 1968 Democratic convention in the background while Harry was singing, superimposed, his song which included the lyrics:
A little child can't be more than nine
Standing on the corner speaking out his mind
He said we must unite
Oh yes stand up for your right
Not to brazen by today's standards, but back in '68 it must have given the CBS execs fits. They had to quickly add a segment to the show in order to make up for the time when this musical number was cut, so instead they raised the lights and took questions from the audience. This segment is included as an extra this set, and it must have caused just as much of an uproar when Tommy suggests that viewers switch over to Bonanza to see what's happening and then come back in five minutes.
This set also features several appearances by one of the all time great political satirists, the late Pat Paulsen. Paulsen was a perpetual political candidate and would give stump speeches to the audience. Uproariously funny speeches that poked fun at both the politicians of the day and some of the problems that America was facing at the time. Delivered in a dull, quite monotone, Paulsen would deftly insult himself and the administration in the same sentence. "The other candidates charge that when I speak I often embarrass myself. Well at least I don't embarrass the whole country."
Though there was cutting edge political humor in the show the program wasn't about 'sticking it to the man' or inciting controversy, it was first and foremost a comedy variety show. While the subversive jokes are rarer than you may remember, the show is just as laugh-out-loud funny today as it was forty years ago when it first aired. The highlights are always the brothers themselves, whose opening numbers, folks songs mixed with humor, are hilarious. The sketches are also uproarious and stand the test of time (for the most part) because, well.... funny is funny.
It's not surprising that the show is so amusing either, as the writing credits are a who's who of comedy. On this season the writers included Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Bob Einstein ("Super Dave Osborne" and "Officer Judy"), Carl Gottlieb (a writer on "The Bob Newhart Show", "All in the Family", and "The Odd Couple" as well as the co-writer of "Jaws"), Jerry Music ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Bob Newhart Show"), and many others. The writers crafted some truly hilarious skits in this season and earned that year's Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy, Variety or Music.
Being a variety show, each episode featured different guests. This season has an incredible line-up of comedians who all do a wonderful job. Bob Newhart (before his many sitcoms), George Carlin, Jackie Mason, Jonathan Winters, and the wonderfully funny David Steinberg all appeared. The musical guests are just as impressive with Mama Cass Elliot, The Doors (not lip-synched either!), the cast from Hair, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, and Anthony Newley gracing the show.
While these are very entertaining and enjoyable shows, they are edited (as Tom admits in one of the extras.) These shows were never syndicated, except on the E! cable network in 1993. For this cable broadcast Dick and Tom Smothers recorded new intros and parting comments about each show. In order to make room for these segments and to increase the amount of time available for commercials, a few minutes had to be cut from each show. This is a shame, because viewers really want the whole show as it was originally broadcast. Even if the bits that are cut out are the ones that don't work or jokes that fell flat even back in the day, they still deserve to be shown. Those jokes are probably someone's favorite bits.
This set contains 11 episodes from the 1968-69 TV season on three discs, with a fourth disc devoted to the 1968 Pat Paulsen Special: Pat Paulsen for President. These discs come in a fold out pressboard case with two overlapping discs on each page. The DVDs are then housed in a slipcase.
The two channel mono audio sounds pretty much like you'd expect a 40 year old show to sound. There isn't much in the way of bass, and the highs aren't what you'd get today, but the dialog is clear and the jokes come through nicely. There is some distortion, especially when the audience claps loudly, but that is how it was transmitted to homes back in 1968, so there's not much to be done about it now.
Taped 40 years ago, these full frame shows are showing their age. The first thing that viewers with new displays will notice is that many shows have a line on the left side and that the corners are frequently cut off. That is because most TVs had significant overscan in 1968 and these imperfections wouldn't be seen. Not so today. Aside from that the image is soft but the colors are nice, though there is a little bleeding in parts. There is some aliasing, a little blocking, and there are video tape defects in a few sections where horizontal lines will mar the picture. Even with these defects the show looks fine and is easy to watch. It's not perfect, but it is watchable.
Wow. This set is packed with hours of extra material. There's so much it's hard to know where to start. I guess I'll start where Tom recommends in a voice over on the menu to the first discs with "A New Fable for Our Times". This is a brilliant look at the 60's, illustrated with images from that turbulent era and narration by Tom Smothers who poetically and succinctly describes what was happening as if it was a fair tale.
There's also a very interesting audio bonus where Tom gives his thoughts on this set. He freely admits that it's hard for him to watch these shows and that they aren't nearly as good as they could be. He says he'd like to edit them once again, and that he thinks most people won't like them because the pace is slower and the jokes have aged. As much as I respect and admire Tommy Smothers, his concerns are way off-base. I laughed and laughed along with these shows, and so did my wife and kids. When my (hard to please) 12-year-old son came up and asked if we could watch some more episodes after dinner, I knew that the show was just as funny as I thought it was. Phrases from the show have snuck into my family's vocabulary such as "six monks ago", "I'm tired of being healthy" and "my father wears a cotton-pickin', finger-lickin', chicken-pluckers bra." (Hmmm, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that last one.) In short, these are great programs that are still very funny.
In addition to these there are nearly a dozen interviews with various guests and writers from the show, everyone from Rob Reiner to Bob Newhart to John Densmore (from The Doors) give their thoughts on the show. These are great fun, even if some of the questions are a bit stupid. (For example the interviewer asks John Densmore if he was a parent in '68 if he would have allowed his child to listen to The Doors.)
There's rehearsal footage shot by 60 Minutes backing 1969, a clip from the Emmys where the show won for best writing, a photo gallery, and dozens and dozens of memos, letters, and telegrams sent between the Smothers and the network about the censoring of the show.
That would be enough for most sets, but we've only scratched the surface here. A featurette on the Brothers, "Mom Always Liked you Best" is well worth watching, and there is an interview with Dr. Benjamin Spock that was censored as well as the Q&A segment that was broadcast in place of the Harry Belafonte number that CBS axed.
Excerpts from the press conference that Tom and Dick gave after their show was canceled is on disc three, along with episode promos, dress rehearsals, more photos and documents, letters from LBJ and Donald Rumsfeld, and Tom's final reflections.
The fourth disc is devoted to the 1968 TV special, Pat Paulsen for President. This hour long show is a highlight of the set and quite amusing. The rest of the disc is taken up with outtakes from the special, including scenes with Pat Paulsen and Robert F. Kennedy that were edited out after the presidential hopeful was assassinated. There's also a video of Paulsen's stand up routine from 1992 that runs over 45 minutes, video clips of him at the Democratic Convention, and some very funny notes he wrote for a show he was working on when he died of cancer: Pat Paulsen's Malignant Humor.
If that wasn't enough, there's also a 16-page booklet with notes on each show and a list of guests.
I distinctly remember watching the show when it was on (I was only 4 when this season started) and even telling my parents to vote for Pat Paulsen. I knew there was a lot I was missing, since my mom and dad would laugh at parts that I didn't realize were jokes, but it was my favorite show at the time anyway (well, after cartoons.) I recall when my mother told me the show was canceled. I said that we should write the president and complain to him, and she said that Nixon wouldn't do anything about it. That's when I knew he was a rat. All these years later I'm very pleasantly surprised to discover that the show is actually funnier than I remember and still very enjoyable.
My one main gripe with this collection is that the shows are edited. Part of me wants to jump and shout and hold my breath until my face turns blue or they release the full shows, whichever comes first. The more pragmatic part of me realizes that world is a better place with some Smothers Brothers on DVD, rather than none. Because of that, coming up with a rating is really hard. Finally I decided that this set should be Highly Recommended, warts and all. Judged on a purely entertainment basis, this set is a winner. Funny, thought provoking, and entertaining, these shows are a must-have.