WC has never been a fan of television, let alone network television. But WC was a huge fan of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” a wonderfully subversive television show that ran on the CBS television from 1967 to 1969. Eclectic, wildly funny, brilliantly written it was a spot of vivid color in the hopelessly grey-toned television of the era. Besides, WC’s parents strongly disapproved of the show.
CBS fired Tommy and Dickie Smothers, largely through the influence of CBS’s Chief Censor, William H. Tankersley. That simply confirmed everything WC believed about network television, about the hypocrisy of America’s leadership and about who held power in the country. During undergraduate and law school, WC wore a black armband on April 4 of each year, the anniversary of the day that CBS axed its best program. Tankersley died February 8, 2016.
The Smothers Brothers writing team included folks like Steve Martin and Rob Reiner. They brought an incredibly eclectic series of artists to the show: They had Kate Smith and Simon and Garfunkel on the same show. They had Mickey Rooney and The Who on the same show. They fought furious battles to get the blacklisted Pete Seeger on the show. They hosted The Doors, Jefferson Starship and had the first video performance of the Beatles’ “Hey, Jude.” They showcased the banjo playing of John Stewart and gave us Pat Paulsen (a deadpan satire of Richard Nixon at his most wooden).
But what endeared the Smothers Brothers to WC was that for the first time, they took a prime time network television show into the realm of politics; they made it relevant. Consider this skit from the first season:
Dick: Hey Tom, you know, I just read in the newspaper this week where President has asked Congress to ask a series of taxes, you know, to discourage people from traveling abroad. What do you think about that?
Tom: I read that, too, but I don’t think he has to go that far. I don’t think that’s necessary to go that far with it.
Dick: Well, look, it’s a very, very, very, very difficult situation. You know, people keep spending money abroad, and it’s hurting our economy. People keep wanting to travel to other countries instead of staying here in the United States.
Tom: Yeah, well, I think President Johnson should come up with something positive as an inducement to keep the people, something very positive as an inducement.
Dick: Yeah, that’s right. That’s good thinking.
Tom: But lookit, what can the president do to make people want to stay in this country?
Dick: Well, he could quit.
It’s pretty mild today by cable television standards, but in 1967, during the Vietnam War, with President Johnson running for reelection, it was pretty powerful. Criticizing the President in a television sketch. It had never, ever happened before. And according to David Bianculli, author of Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, as a result of that skit, President Lyndon Johnson called William Paley, the president of CBS, at three in the morning to complain. Paley called in the producers of the Smothers Brothers to say knock it off, to take it easy on LBJ for a while. Think about that for a moment: the President of the United States censoring one of the most popular shows on television.
And it was Tankersley who was given the task of carrying out the President’s orders.
While they achieved fame for tricking CBS into letting Pete Seeger perform “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the show, that wasn’t their most powerful anti-war piece. No, that would be a photo montage of Vietnam War photos, standard newspaper shots, flashed on screen to the drum solo from “In a Gadda da Vita,” Iron Butterfly’s Top 40 hit. The final series of photos were the summary execution by South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan raised his sidearm and shot suspected Vietcong operative Nguyen Van Lem. Extremely powerful stuff.
Beatle George Harrison walked on to the set of a 1968 show, uninvited and unannounced, and there was this dialog:
Tommy: Do you have something important?
Harrison: Something very important to say on American television.
Tommy: You know, we don’t, we – a lot of times, we don’t opportunity of saying anything important because it’s American television, and every time you say something
(Soundbite of laughter)
Tommy: And try to say something important, they [mock censored].
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRISON: Well, whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.
It was William H. Tankersley who ended that wonderful stuff. It was Tankersley who, on the orders of CBS boss William Paley and, very possibly President Richard Nixon, fired Tommy and Dickie. It cost CBS $766,000 in damages; Tommy sued CBS and won. But it cost America a lot more.
So, twice in one week, WC cannot wish an R.I.P. WC hopes William H. Tankersley does not rest in peace. D.N.R.I.P. William H. Tankersley, 1918-2016.