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When comedy offends: Revisiting the Smothers Brothers

Inside the First Amendment

By Kenneth A. Paulson
Senior vice president, the Freedom Forum
Executive director, First Amendment Center

11.04.01

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A popular comedian says something controversial while the United States is at war. He’s widely branded as disloyal. Sound familiar?

Of course, that’s a brief description of the events surrounding “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher in the wake of his suggestion that long-range U.S. military attacks are “cowardly.” But we’ve been here before.

In the spring of 1969 the United States was fighting a war in Vietnam, and the Smothers Brothers were at the top of their game.

The popular “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” had lampooned Lyndon Johnson’s administration and the Vietnam War, and recently had satirized Richard Nixon, the new president.

The brothers’ popular, but controversial, show had prompted viewer complaints for years. This, in turn, caused a rift between the Smothers Brothers and the network, CBS. Tired of fielding complaints from affiliates, CBS imposed a requirement that the show be reviewed several days before broadcast.

Days before the April 6 show was to air, CBS canceled the show. CBS blamed the Smothers Brothers, saying Tom and Dick had failed to deliver the programs on time. Others speculated that CBS was caving in to political pressure and seeking to curry favor with the Nixon administration. The final, unaired show included a skit deriding congressional hearings on television content.

Given some of the passionate arguments surrounding free speech and Maher in recent weeks, you may have thought that in 1969 an influential magazine like TV Guide would have come to the defense of the brothers and their First Amendment rights. That wasn’t the case.

In fact, TV Guide quickly endorsed the network’s decision. Their unsigned “special editorial” essentially argued that good taste should trump free speech:

“Where does satire end — and sacrilege begin? Where does criticism end — and affront begin? Where does disagreement end — and national division begin?” the editorial said.

TV Guide suggested that the nation’s most powerful medium shouldn’t “insult the general mores of the country.” The magazine opted for a majority-rules philosophy:

“The issue is: Shall entertainers using a mass medium for all the people be allowed to amuse a few by satirizing religion while offending the substantial majority? …

“Shall a network be required to provide time for a Joan Baez to pay tribute to her draft-evading husband while hundreds of thousands of viewers in the households of men fighting and dying in Vietnam look on in shocked resentment?”

Of course, TV Guide exercised its own free-speech right to lambaste the Smothers Brothers. But the magazine also revealed a common failure among the news media. Too often, the media — then and now — view the First Amendment as a protector of a free press, but overlook the amendment’s critical role in protecting unpopular speech and expression.

I spoke with Tom Smothers earlier this year at a taping of our “Speaking Freely” television show. He believes that CBS canceled the show under instructions from Nixon.

“When Nixon said, ‘I want those guys off,’ they were off,” Smothers said. “If (Hubert) Humphrey [had] been elected, we would have been on.”

But that was then. This is now.

While many have criticized Maher, he is still on the air. And few would argue that anyone is trying to sanitize television these days. The explosion of cable channels, political pundit shows and Jerry Springer-like programs has made television an equal-opportunity offender.

But before we can congratulate ourselves on having a more tolerant philosophy than TV Guide espoused in 1969, Smothers has a different perspective.

“People have said: “Don’t you wish you had your television show now, Tommy Smothers? You can say anything you want.”

More off-color language and sexual content on television shows create an illusion of freedom, he said. But there’s no real satirical substance in prime time, according to Smothers. “It’s all on late,” he said. “You have Dennis Miller and you have Bill Maher and you have ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but they’re all on the fringes,” he said.

Smothers made his comments before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but his point about Americans’ limited appetite for real political satire and commentary is even more timely now. In his words:

“This country always allows dissent if it’s not too dissentful.”

Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center with offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn. His mailing address is:
Ken Paulson
First Amendment Center
1207 18th Ave. S
Nashville, TN 37212

Related

Political satire dying out, Tom Smothers says
Comedian calls raising questions about government ‘one of the best reasons for the First Amendment.’  05.30.01

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U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, First Amendment Center acknowledge challenges faced by outspoken artists.  02.27.02

Comedians venture into subject some contend is no laughing matter
Festival honors artists who use comedy to explore social issues; survey finds nearly 40% of Americans favor government curbs on offensive humor.  03.04.02

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