Docurama // Unrated // $24.95 // January 28, 2003
Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 28, 2003
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For one hour every Sunday night, Bonanza ruthlessly dominated the airwaves. CBS had lobbed nine series its way, and none managed to make so much as a dent. The doomed time slot had to be filled with something, and the Smothers Brothers were recruited to star in Certain Failure #10 in early 1967. Tom and Dick were up to the challenge. If their variety show failed to attract an audience, as their angel-based sitcom for the same network had a couple years earlier, then the Smothers could chalk it up to another casualty of one of television's most successful Westerns. On the other hand, if they succeeded... Creative control was insisted upon, and CBS, not really expecting the show to go anywhere, agreed. The Smothers and their roster of talented writers, led by Mason Williams, managed to breathe new life into the old variety show format. Viewers quickly followed, and things seemed to be going smoothly until CBS' standards and practices folks began whipping out their censoring scissors. Amusingly enough, the first sketch to be gutted happen to poke fun at movie censors. Rather than merely roll with the punch, the Smothers took to the media, making seemingly everyone aware of the sketch's removal. This is just the first of many such battles detailed in Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which takes a look back at a series that became as well-known for controversy as for its comedy.

I had a passing familiarity with the Smothers Brothers before sitting down with Smothered, but I have to admit to not being aware how countercultural this series starring two seemingly innocuous men could be. One of several laugh-out-loud moments featured in the documentary was Leigh French's recurring hippie character in "Share a Little Tea with Goldie", who starts off her drug reference-laden sketch with "Good morning, ladies. I would like to welcome you as I always do. Hi." Criticizing the administration and its policies on television was deemed unacceptable. Joan Baez' dedication of a song to husband David Harris, explaining that his opposition to the draft landed him in prison, was removed. A performance by perpetually blacklisted singer/songwriter Pete Seeger of his thinly-veiled anti-Vietnam song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was excised entirely, and a second performance made it to the air only after Tom Smothers took to the media to rally public support. Harry Belafonte belted out "Don't Stop the Carnival" (which has lyrics like "A picket sign and the people start to sing / A big a riot police and thing") over footage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and it too was chopped out by the censors. Comedian David Steinberg's sermonette on Moses and the burning bush being a sadistic practical joke had CBS inundated with mail from incensed viewers. After being told from the suits that Steinberg was to steer clear of any religious comments, a return visit quipped about the failure of the New Testament and was never aired. Deadpan Pat Paulsen even ran for President under the Straight Talking American Government (STAG) ticket. Though Paulsen obviously didn't take up residency in the White House that year, supporters of Hubert Humphrey claim he siphoned votes away from their candidate and contributed to Richard Nixon's eventual win. Paulsen's antics perhaps played some role in the series' Emmy win for Outstanding Writing, while Nixon, conversely, resigned amid one of the most infamous political scandals of the past half-century. I guess he won after all. After the series' ratings started to slip, CBS became even less tolerant, and they began looking for any excuse to cancel the show that had given them a migraine for the past three years. CBS was slapped with a breach of contract suit before the ink was dry on the cancellation memo. The Smothers triumphed, but their victory was bittersweet: their platform had been lost, and though other networks would take a shot at the series, the success couldn't be recaptured.

Although I wasn't terribly familiar with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the first few minutes of Maureen Muldaur's Smothered quickly got me up to speed. It's an excellent documentary, equal parts informative and entertaining. A number of clips from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour are featured in the documentary, and quite a few of them had never been broadcast during the series' original run on CBS. There are a wide variety of interviewees, most notably, of course, the Smothers themselves. Most every possible angle has been covered, including former CBS execs (Perry Lafferty and Mike Dann), writers (Mason Williams, Carl Gottlieb, Rob Reiner), producers (George Sunga, Allan Blye), the Smothers' manager Ken Kragen, performers (David Steinberg, Leigh French), and censored musicians (Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez). Television critic/historian David Bianculli, journalist David Halberstam, former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, and Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, contribute their thoughts as well. The documentary also includes footage from the Smothers Brothers reunion at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2000.

Even as far as the envelope has been pushed since The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour went off the air, there's still a dearth of genuine biting political satire on television. Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour offers a glimpse of a series that dared to challenge conventional norms and proved to be wildly influential beyond its several years on CBS.

Video: The full-frame presentation of Smothered on this single-sided, single-layered disc is about as good as can reasonably be expected. The more recent interviews, all of which were shot on video, are crisp and clear. The decades-old footage culled from the original series looks very nice as well, even the material that never made it to air. Walter Cronkite's announcement of the series' cancellation on the CBS News looks as if it was lifted from a multi-generation source, but moments like this are exceedingly rare. Given the high quality of the remainder of the material, it's probably safe to assume that this was the best that could be unearthed.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack is typical documentary fare. The participants are all easily understood, and the vintage material from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour isn't marred by any particularly noticeable background noise. For whatever reason, the interview with Harry Belafonte seems to have an almost distorted electronic echo whenever he speaks. For all I know, that's the way his voice sounds, but it's certainly unusual.

There are no alternate language tracks, nor are subtitles or closed captions available for this release.

Supplements: Docurama has provided biographies of filmmaker Maureen Muldaur and the Smothers Brothers, as well as an excerpt of an upcoming book on the series penned by David Bianculli, who is interviewed in the documentary. The several page excerpt is accompanied by synopses and images of eight significant sketches, several of which were never broadcast. All of these sketches and performances appear in Smothered to varying degrees, though I believe the Billy the Kid sketch is limited to a brief shot of the "Simon and Garfunkel" banner.

The disc also includes cover art and summaries of other Docurama releases, including Genghis Blues, Regret to Inform, The Brandon Teena Story, From Mao to Mozart, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: Speaking in Strings, Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Moon Over Broadway, Pie in the Sky, Roots of Rhythm, Original Cast Album: Company, Fastpitch, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, Always a Bridesmaid, W.I.S.O.R., The Sweetest Sound, Sound and Fury, The Awful Truth: The Premiere Season, The Awful Truth: The Second Season, The 11th of September, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, The Atomic Cafe, Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, On the Road with Duke Ellington, WTC: The First 24 Hours, Naked States, Go Tigers!, Keep the River on Your Right, and Baadasssss Cinema. Trailers are also provided for Regret to Inform, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: Speaking in Strings, Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Sound and Fury, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, and Keep the River on Your Right. The majority of the trailers all full-frame, except for Go Tigers!, which is letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the heavily windowboxed Fastpitch. Also, the Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back trailer seems to include audio commentary over it.

Rounding out the extras are a set of credits and information about Docurama.

The disc's static 4x3 menus are interspersed with images of the Smothers Brothers. Smothered has been divided into twelve chapters.

Conclusion: Smothered is a solid documentary, detailing perhaps the most politically volatile time in this country in the past half-century and the first American television series to tackle the issues of the day. Given the nature of the material, a rental would probably be the best option for those with more of a casual interest, but Smothered is definitely Recommended.

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