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Docurama presents
Smothered (2002)

"Tommy loved to upset the suits. He felt comfortable in a fight."
- David Steinberg, on Tom Smothers

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 29, 2003

Stars: Tom Smothers, Dick Smothers
Other Stars: Steve Martin, Mason Williams, Pat Paulsen, David Steinberg, Rob Reiner, George Burns, Jack Benny, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte
Director: Maureen Muldaur

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:31m:54s
Release Date: January 28, 2003
UPC: 767685952337
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-BB- C

DVD Review

If you think that network television is bad now, the broadcasting landscape of thirty-five years ago is almost unimaginable. Enormous political upheaval was happening in the country—the Vietnam War, political assassinations, a cultural revolution—and the three broadcast networks responded, basically, with stuff like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. This smart documentary, originally produced for air on Bravo, documents how Dick and Tom Smothers used their gee-whiz demeanors to get a variety show on CBS, insisted on pushing the envelope in terms of political content, and ultimately lost a showdown with the network and its censors. If there's a shouting match, whoever owns the only microphone has got more than a slight advantage.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour went on the air in 1967, in a timeslot doomed for failure: the show was broadcast opposite Nielsen powerhouse Bonanza, and if the Smothers got canceled, they would hardly be the first. They were a curious amalgam—on one hand, they were very much of the comedic mainstream, introduced on their first show by Ed Sullivan, and with guests that included George Burns, Jack Benny and Bette Davis. On the other, Tom especially was attuned to the politics of the times, and was ardently committed to liberal causes—his doofy on-air persona belied the depth of his political commitment.

Smothered ably recounts the trials of the show, as the writers on it routinely knocked heads with CBS's censors. The first sketch ordered cut from the show, ironically enough, was about censors—it was written by Elaine May, and she and Tom Smothers went on to leak the script of the skit to the print press. This would become the classic pattern: CBS would refuse to air something, and the folks at the show would see that this refusal got prominent play in places like the New York Times. And since nobody, especially a comedian, likes to be told no, the challenges from the show ratcheted up—most famously with Pete Seeger, previously blacklisted by network television, on the air to sing a Vietnam parable, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.

There's a good amount of new interview footage with Tom and Dick Smothers, their writers (who included Steve Martin and Rob Reiner), others who worked on the show, and their allies in the network brass. David Halberstam is on hand to situate the show in its political context—he's especially good talking about the birth of the credibility gap, and how the Smothers were the first to take note of this on air. It's a thorough history, and while it may be too much to hope for, what would have given the show even more juice would be to get the much (and rightly) maligned censors to defend their position. Just who were these people, and why were they so deeply afraid of a comedy show?

Of course, as is ever the case in show business, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour probably could have weathered the political storm if the ratings didn't start to erode. They attracted a dedicated audience of younger viewers, who must have had quite enough of life at the Ponderosa, thank you very much, and were grooving on a show that pushed the boundaries—but their interest wavered, and the Smothers' fortunes took a tumble. Looking back all these years later, it seems like pretty tame stuff, but no doubt it was the travails of the Smothers Brothers that made possible everything from the smart satire of Jon Stewart to whatever the yahoos in your community are doing with their fifteen minutes on public access. The show was abruptly canceled in 1969, and even though the Smothers won a breach-of-contract lawsuit against CBS down the road, they were never able again to recapture the zeitgeist in quite the same way. Politics aside, that's one of the hard lessons here: it's not show art. It's show business.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The new interview footage looks fine, and the archival clips from the Smothers Brothers show are surprisingly well preserved—a nice companion piece might have been one or more of the shows in their entirety.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Things sometimes sound a little thin and tinny, but everything is readily audible. Kudos to the filmmakers for putting together this documentary without a narrative track to do the heavy lifting.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
10 Other Trailer(s) featuring Regret to Inform. Speaking In Strings, Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Fastpitch, Sound and Fury, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, Keep The River On Your Right
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. excerpt from a forthcoming book on the Smothers Brothers, by David Bianculli
  2. DVD credits
  3. Docurama catalog
Extras Review: Very brief bios are provided for filmmaker Maureen Muldaur, as well as for the Smothers Brothers. Television historian David Bianculli gets a good amount of face time in the feature, and the short excerpt here from his forthcoming book doesn't shed any more light on the story than does the documentary, though appended to the excerpt are single panels on eight of the Smothers sketches that proved to be most problematic. A healthy number of trailers from Docurama completes the extras package.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

CBS's run-ins with the Smothers Brothers was not television's finest hour, and this documentary does a fine job of relating the battles between the brothers on a Hollywood sound stage and the big boys at Black Rock.


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