When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour came on the air in February 1967, I was a junior in college. My roommates and I put aside whatever we were doing and watched the show every Sunday night. For us, it was what would later be called “appointment television.”
I thought it was obvious: Tom and Dick Smothers were an American treasure. Tom played the fool to Dick’s straight man, but we knew Tommy was no fool. Their relationship was ingenious, their timing was impeccable, and their appearance was non-threatening. Plus, their guests included such major music acts as the Buffalo Springfield Pete Seger, Cream, and the Who.
The Smothers Brothers were “hip.”
What I loved most about Tommy was that he was up to something. The Brothers weren’t afraid to include the issues of the time in their satirical comedy – the War in Vietnam, counterculture, civil rights, drugs, the President, Congress, and even the thing that ultimately took them off the air: censorship.
What I immediately noticed about The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was the writing. The writing staff included Hal Goldman and Al Gordon, two of Jack Benny’s writers. The younger members of the staff included Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Lorenzo Music, Mason Wiliams, Bob Einstein, Leigh French, and John Hartford. They were young, smart, energetic, eager to mix political satire with silliness, and, as it turns out, all destined to have long, illustrious careers in show business.
It was Tommy who gave the producers and writers the inspiration, encouragement, and permission to go where no variety show had never gone before.
As much as I loved the Smothers Brothers and couldn’t wait to see Tommy’s antics every Sunday, it never occurred to me that I’d ever meet him, much less work for them.
After graduating from college, I was planning to work in government. I was a
political science major. I had worked on Capitol Hill for three summers as an assistant to a Congressman from San Diego. I was all-in.
But the Vietnam war was raging, and like millions of Americans and everyone I knew who watched the Smothers Brothers on Sunday nights, I opposed it. JFK was assassinated the year before I went to college; Malcom X and Martin Luther King were assassinated while I was in college; and Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while I was on the way to my graduation.
As I’ve written in my memoir, Not Your Father’s America, Bobby’s death put my fire out. I didn’t want anything to do with our government or Washington, D.C. Instead, I went to Los Angeles and, on the advice of a friend, applied for a job as a production assistant on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It was August 1968.
When I entered the office at CBS TV City for my job interview, I was stunned to see Tom & Dick Smothers, Glen Campbell, and Pat Paulsen, all of whom I had been watching on TV. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it – they were real!
There was Tommy – clean-cut, close-cropped hair, friendly smile – looking every bit like the last guy you’d ever suspect of creating a controversy.
I got the job and spent several months in service to the producers and writers as a “gopher” – go for this, go for that. After a while, I was assigned to Tommy as his personal PA (production assistant). This entailed bringing fresh snacks and juices to Tom and Dick on tape days, and answering the phone in the audience area of the studio if a call came in for Tommy. I remember several times answering calls from network executives and asking them to hold while I found Tommy on stage. I would watch in utter amazement as he’d step off the stage, pick up the phone, and proceed to have a fully animated and oftentimes heated exchange with whomever was on the other end. Then, he would return to the stage and be as hilarious as ever.
Tommy played the fool, but he wasn’t one. Behind the silly façade and impish grin, he was a rule-breaker and a committed radical.
“When we tried something and were told ‘no,” Tommy recalls in Marc Freeman’s oral history of the show, “I wanted to know why. Why is content controversial, putting in something real, something with meaning? I couldn’t understand why that would be an issue. And when it became one, I became extra stubborn.”
While Tommy and his managers, Ken Kragen and Ken Fritz, were fighting with CBS over censorship and delivery issues, they were also running a multi-faceted entertainment company, Kragen, Smothers & Fritz, that included The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (also on CBS), a record company, a live event company, and the Los Angeles production of the rock musical, Hair – the first Broadway show ever presented in LA.
In April of 1969, CBS cancelled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which, at its peak, was attracting 30 million viewers. Sponsors were upset, and so were we. The comedy we all loved, lived, and worked for – Tom and Dick’s wildly funny sketches skewing everything imaginable, David Steinberg’s religious sermons, David Frye’s impersonations of President Nixon, Pat Paulsen’s hilarious spoof of a presidential campaign, Leigh French’s thinly veiled chats about smoking pot, Bob Einstein’s wonderful portrayal of Officer Judy – was to be no more.
I had been working with Tommy for, maybe, eight months.
But my experience with Tommy’s affection for controversy didn’t end with The Smothers Show. I was moved from TV City to the theatre where preparations were under way for the LA production of Hair. By this time, Tommy had become aware of my political education and enrolled me in using my wiles to help expedite the renovation of the old Earl Caroll Theatre in Hollywood. (It was easy: I called my brother, Mark, who was working for Congressman Tom Rees at the time, and Mark coached me on how to get City Councilman Paul Lamport enrolled in supporting the project in his district.)
Tommy Smothers was a consequential man.
Behind the winning comedy, he was smart, intuitive, and inspiring. He gave the producers and writers on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour permission to stir the pot and break boundaires. On Hair, he gave me and the entire team permission to do what was needed to bring a groundbreaking musical to Los Angeles audiences.
Despite the fact that I knew nothing about theatre renovation, legitimate theatre production, or theatrical marketing, Tommy empowered me find 1,100 chairs for the renovated theater; tour Councilman Lamport through the project to expedite the approval of plans; sell the Fire Marshall on our use of the theater’s unique water curtain, instead of a costly, new asbestos curtain; and learn how to “paper the house” by giving away thousands of tickets to create illusion that the show was selling out. (It did.)
Fun fact: As the time for previews approached in November 1969 (Hair opened in December 1969), Tommy asked Frank Wells, the attorney for the company, to inform me that I was being made Vice President of the Theatre of Aquarius Corporation, the entity presenting the musical. When I asked Mr. Wells if the title came with a raise, he said, “No. We’re making you VP because you’re the only person in the company who has a clean police record. If the show gets busted by the Vice Squad for its notorious nude scene, you’ll be the one taken to jail. (I made sure the show never got busted.)
One night, at a party at Tommy’s rented house in the Hollywood Hills, as we sat admiring the sea of city lights below us, Tommy turned to me and said, “I wonder who will be living here next.” It was a question that revealed his capacity for self-awareness, his humility, and his undertanding of fame.
I will always be grateful to Tommy Smothers for opening my eyes to so many things and allowing me, a rank amateur and newcomer to Hollywood, television, and live theatre, to be a part of it all.
Cort Casady has won two Emmy Awards and three NAACP Image Awards for his work as a television and documentary writer-producer. He is the author of Not Your Father’s America: An Adventure Raising Triplets in a Country Being Changed by Greed (Chandler Press, 2023), available in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores nationwide, and as an audiobook from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.