Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 56° Clear
News >  Features

End of the road?

Now in their 70s, Smothers Brothers might hang it up

Jim Kershner I Jimk@Spokesman.Com, (509) 459-5493

The spotlight hasn’t shined this brightly on the Smothers Brothers for 40 years. The battling brothers are the subject of a new best-selling book, “Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (Touchstone, $24.99) by National Public Radio television critic David Bianculli.

The duo also was inducted last week into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. Tom Smothers won a commemorative Emmy in 2008.

“Funny, at the end of your career, they start throwing stuff at you,” he said by phone from California.

The end of their career? This tour, which begins in Spokane on Saturday, may be their last.

“This is probably it,” said Smothers. “I’ll be 73 this Feb. 2 and Dickie will be 72. It’s just getting harder to do the traveling and stuff. I’m just getting tired.”

He immediately qualified that pronouncement, saying that instead they might just cut back on their touring schedule.

“The best time of day or the month for me is when I’m onstage,” he said. “I love that.”

Yet at other times Smothers seemed serious about ending the live act. For one thing, his health “hasn’t been real great.”

“No serious problems,” he said. “I’ve just been having a little trouble with a heart murmur. It’s minor, but I can’t hold out some of my phrases when I’m singing like I used to.

“I’m fine; I’m just running out of energy. What’s that old song? ‘My Get Up and Go, Got Up and Went.’ ”

Besides, Smothers said, it may be time to retire the act for other reasons.

“At 73 and 72, is that appropriate to talk about who our mother liked best?” he joked, referring to one of the duo’s best-known routines.

Meanwhile, he’s amused and gratified by the fact that the Smothers Brothers are suddenly getting so much attention.

Bianculli’s book says that “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” which aired on CBS from 1967-’69, was “as topical, influential and important as a TV show could get.”

It chronicles the increasingly bitter battles between the brothers (mostly Tommy) and the CBS brass.

Even Smothers learned some new things in that book about those stormy three seasons.

On the other hand, he said, “I’m so tired of going over it again.”

That show is legendary, not just for its censorship battles with CBS, but also for the talent it spawned: Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Bob Einstein, Mason Williams and Pat Paulsen, to name just a few.

But in Smothers’ eyes, the show’s 1988 reincarnation on CBS was far superior.

“The best work we did, as the Smothers Brothers, was with that 20-year reunion show,” he said. “The ones in the 1960s, I wasn’t very funny. I was too serious.

“Mason Williams, in 1968, came to me at one point and said, ‘Tom, you better start spending more time with you and your brother’s routines. You’re not paying attention. You’re going to be sorry.’

“But I was involved in the overall show and the politics of it. Now that I look back on it, he was absolutely right.”

Smothers called those dramatic years “a great moment in our time – we were young and very assertive, very audacious and very cocky.”

But he said the only Tom-and-Dick segments he can bring himself to watch these days are the ones from the reunion series.

“I thought it was a pretty great show, at a time when nobody seemed to care,” Smothers said.

The reunion series was canceled after just a few months, despite getting rave reviews.

The original series was never actually canceled. As Smothers points out, the Smothers Brothers were fired by CBS, not canceled.

The brothers later won a lawsuit over the firing, but by that time, their cultural moment had passed. They couldn’t possibly regain the astounding influence they had at the beginning, when their show was the only one on TV that reflected the tastes and concerns of an entire generation (The Beatles, civil rights, the Vietnam War and the draft).

The Smothers Brothers used up most of their satirical energy with that show. Tom, who has always been a particularly introspective performer, is perfectly aware of that.

“If I have a critique of ourselves … and my brother has said this to me also, he said, ‘You know, you’re not taking enough risks anymore,’ ” Smothers said.

“Performers, when they get a little older, they want to give a 100 percent show, so they don’t want to take risks. He said, ‘Tom, come on, I’ll go wherever you want to go. Take some risks out there. The people will love it.’ ”

The Spokane show – their first after a two-month hiatus – will include a 12-minute video presentation of their history. Tom (aka the Yo-Yo Man) will also do some yo-yo tricks,

And they might even take a few risks. Smothers said they’ll throw in an improv segment, where they totally wing it.

“And even if it fails, we can say, ‘Well, that was a bad idea, badly expressed,’ ” he said, laughing.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.