Speaking With
The Smothers Brothers

Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1995 -- All rights reserved
This first appeared in Laughing Matters Volume 9, Number 3

The HUMOR Project is tickled to have the Smothers Brothers join us to kick-off our annual international conference on April 15-17, 1994. Tom and Dick will delight us with their wonderful blend of comedic and musical talents. We'll even have a chance to meet and cheer on Yo-Yo Man as part of their performance. After their performance, The HUMOR Project will be honoring the Smothers Brothers by giving them the National Humor Treasure Award.

Time has been an essential ingredient in the Smothers Brothers' success. They have been considered ahead of their time, masters of timing, and practitioners of timeless comedy and creativity. Now as they mark their 35th anniversary in show business, the Smothers Brothers are being saluted as living legends whose lengthy career has surpassed all other comedy teams in history (and hysterical laughter).

The irrepressible brothers have registered a sweeping impact on diverse generations of fans. Such lasting power is a testimony to their intuitive humor, natural warmth, superlative showmanship, and the pure unadulterated joy they bring to audiences of all ages-- in their own prime time comedy series in both the 1960's and 1980's, guest appearances on numerous television programs and talk shows, and continuous coast-to-coast concert tours.

In January 1993 the Smothers Brothers joined forces with E! Entertainment Television and embarked on a new project in which they merged their own television history with contemporary comedy. Taking 71 episodes of the original Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Tom and Dick added conversational wrap-arounds and celebrity interviews, effectively illuminating the shows with a social and historical perspective.

The contributions Tom and Dick have made throughout their career are so highly respected that the Museum of Broadcasting bestowed a great honor by producing a retrospective on their work. The Smothers Brothers have been described as original comic treasures and geniuses. As The Washington Post noted, "Their comedy is so intimately honest, so family, so real... the two create a verbal chaos that leaves the audience weak from laughter." In short, if laughter is the best medicine, then Tom and Dick Smothers are the best practicing physicians around! Oh, brother(s)!

I recently had the pleasure of rendezvousing with Tom and Dick after one of their funtastic Las Vegas shows. Backstage, the Smothers Brothers' wonderful publicist, Michele Preddy, greeted me by announcing that they were running a nursery there. I soon saw what she meant-- her own recently-adopted two-year-old Russian daughter, Dick Smothers' camera-wielding son, and numerous other young people populated the dressing room. The Smothers Brothers themselves were both very gracious, warm, and thought-full... I felt very much "at home" with them. Tommy and I had a chance to squirrel ourselves away for awhile. Here's a chance for you to ex- post-facto eavesdrop on our conversation:

Joel Goodman: As you know, your predecessor in receiving the National Humor Treasure Award is Steve Allen (see Volume 2,

Tom Smothers: Steve is so intellectual, so bright. He's the brightest of the comedians. He understands comedy-- he's a student of it.

Joel: In the past, we also gave the National Humor Treasure Award to Victor Borge (see Volume 7,

Tom: There are many comedians who have combined the two. Jackie Gleason was very musical. A lot of people start as musicians, and then find that they have more to say than their music. Music and comedy both involve a sense of rhythm, a sense of timing. Victor Borge-- what a great pianist... and yet his gift turned out to be great comedy. I always have had a great respect for Victor Borge-- I was a great fan-- as a little kid watching him do it. We use music and comedy as a trampoline-- get into some music, not finish a song, and then plunge into comedy. It gives us great pacing. The music to pace the comedy makes it more precious and charming.

Joel: I wonder whether you or Victor Borge have not finished more songs.

Tom: We run into some frustrated people who say, "Why don't you guys ever finish a song?" The music is good enough that we could finish songs. When we first started we did finish all of our songs. As the comedy got stronger, the songs started becoming fractured. We keep the music going so there's a wonderful combination of music and laughter. Michael Preddy, our pianist, has a great comedy sense. Great comedians hear the space, the silence. Great musicians hear the notes as well as the spaces in between. We allow some space. We've always been known for our timing more than our material.

Joel: Were there other models for you for timing? I certainly think of Jack Benny and his classic long pause in response to the robber's demand, "Your money or your life?!"

Tom: I'm a lot like Jack Benny in the sense that his timing was totally based on a live audience. He was a person who worked with silence. He worked an audience's tension until it broke. We love taking spaces-- that's the most fun.

From the time I was in fifth grade, I wanted to be a band leader. About the eighth grade, when I saw George Gobel on the Ed Sullivan Show, I said, "Man, I'd like to do that!" His style was abstract. He was funny, because he wasn't doing jokes. For instance, he talked about losing a bowling ball. He went to report it to the police, and was asked to describe the bowling ball. I remembered laughing when he said, "Well, it's round, it's got three holes in it." The cop asked, "Where are the three holes-- in the top or bottom?" So, George Gobel was my first model where I thought consciously, "That's what I want to do."

Joel: Did you happen to get any of your early professional training as the class clown?

Tom: I was funny the first time I ever stood up in front of a class... before I knew what comedy was. I was the class clown, and I was tremendously dead-pan as the "victim". There were two doors to our classroom. If I was late to class, instead of going in the back door, I would go in the front door, and I would say deadly-serious to the teacher, "I want to apologize for being late, and I apologize to the class for disrupting it." Of course, I'd be taken by the ear to the principal's office. But as long as I stayed straight, I always came up with phrases. I was major-league dyslexic and very insecure. Instead of trying to scam my way and be cool and avoid the attention that comes when you're awkward, I embraced it. My comedy has always been the victim or the underdog. I only say this in hindsight... this form of comedy became a coping mechanism that I got very good at and felt secure doing. I wasn't an intellectual comic-- I was a clown. I would say things funny.

Joel: You faced some challenging times in your childhood. Did humor help you there?

Tom: In today's pop psychology, we learn words like "co- dependence". When I was a youngster, my family was pretty dysfunctional and I was the oldest and took care of things. My mother was married several times, and we moved a lot. I had a certain kind of spirit. During the transitions of going from school to school, I developed the opposite of being competent, and utilized being incompetent, which is absolutely contrary to my real personality. I was mature way before my time. This is the first time I've ever come out saying it this way-- I was an adult unfairly young. And yet my career has been based on being the destroyer of structure-- the antithesis, the anarchy have been my strength as a comedian.

After we were fired from CBS in 1969, I got very serious. My co- dependent character became my social consciousness. Everything I heard was depressing. After I saw Jane Fonda on the Tonight Show a couple times with Cesar Chavez, I realized that I couldn't just be one dimensional. That's what turned me around, and I started to become funny again. Now I can turn it on or turn it off. I have a little private room in my head where I can become this adult with whimsy. I always questioned whether I'd be able to take this childlike character into my 50's and still be funny. I can get in front of people and still have this edge of being a victim and have these strange little lapses of comedic timing which are my major gift.

It's a fragile gift that comes out of a disadvantaged position. I can use my dyslexia on stage and get into a mode in which malaprops come to me. That's the essence of what Tommy Smothers is all about. Having a brother allowed me longevity, because comedy teams are rare.

Joel: You may be the only comedy team in captivity now. What caused the decline in comedy duos?

Tom: It used to be one of the classic forms of American comedy. I guess no one does this anymore because it's like a marriage. Our style is so defined that we can change material and people don't even notice. We have special timing between us. Jack Benny had a long career, but he always did different jokes around playing stingy. With us, Dick is the authority and I'm the rule breaker. A woman reviewer wrote we are like the Cain and Abel of comedy.

Joel: Have you ever tried reversing that?

Tom: Yes, it didn't work. The formation of our comedy was based on instinct. I'm the older brother who would normally be the authoritarian and the younger brother normally would be the dumb one. But our personalities are different. Dickie is very pragmatic and likes things in order, and they have to make sense. He's a great straight man. He reminds me of a combination of Bud Abbott, Oliver Hardy and Dean Martin, because he keeps things going. It's a classic form of having a smart one and a dumb one. My brother is an ultimate realist-- he's pragmatic to a flaw and as a straight man is absolutely perfect. The only time he's not competent as a straight man is when I'm not taking comedic risks.

The first thing we learned when we started at the Purple Onion in San Francisco was that we needed to keep our material changing and not get stuck. This may be why there are fewer comedy teams today-- because it's harder to do that. You're dealing with two fragile personalities and each one has a different view. Primarily, the comedian is a driven person doing real therapy.

Dickie doesn't have to fake it. What he is on-stage is what he is off-stage. The genuineness of the relationship is what makes us work. Even though we have a "slick act," there's an edge of risk involved; you're never quite sure. We do inversions all the time, vary things, throw in stuff. Sometimes I'll challenge Dickie. There's nothing I can do to throw him off. He'll always ask the right question. Comedy is very unpredictable. Comedy is a release of tension.

Joel: How does your creative process work? Where does the muse operate for you?

Tom: The muse operates with dyslexia in the broadness of an idea-- "fixing things," "coming to vote," whatever it is. So, with "fixing things," I like to acknowledge people who fix things. I start with a serious thought on this. As I keep talking, a short circuit in my mind occurs, and the words come out a little bit different. In the rhythm, I've learned to embrace it; I know where it's coming from, and sometimes it just sings. I'm best when I'm trying to be serious in trying to express an abstract concept.

Joel: So, you've taken a so-called disability, and turned it into a strength.

Tom: Your affliction can be your gift. When I was a kid, I would be taking a test and working on the fourth question when other kids would be finishing and putting down their pencils. It was quite devastating. I compensated right away... because the soul needs some worth and respect. I got it in the school yard being the arbitrator and mediator between kids, being funny. My comedy involved confronting authority. We all as children need support... and comedy is where I got mine.

Joel: When did Yo-Yo Man enter your life?

Tom: Mason Williams was one of our writers (he wrote Classical Gas) and my best friend. I mentored him, and he mentored us. He was a collector of material-- he gleaned things and always passed them on. A friend of his wrote this song about a traveling Duncan demonstrator about 15 years ago. He played us the song, and I remembered the yo-yo guy. Mason said I ought to use a yo- yo on stage. So I would do three or four tricks... I was very bad. And then I ran into master yoists. Pretty soon I got better and better until it raised itself to a level where it's now how we close our shows. The Yo-Yo Man doesn't talk. He's inarticulate, which I like. I have to physicalize and use good body comedy. It's fun to use just body language to express myself to 8000 people in an audience.

Joel: You had some quite impressive writers-- Mason Williams, Steve Martin, Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super Dave Osborne).

Tom: They didn't write for the Smothers Brothers as much as they wrote the conceptual ideas for the show. The concepts of the show were much better than what the Smothers Brothers did. The show was always filled with good ideas. Mason always said, "I'd rather be known by the ideas I keep rather than the people I know." He was a very radical and classical person who kept the Smothers Brothers together. David Carroll, our 78-year-old conductor who is just now retiring after being with us for 35 years, would write down all the ad-libs from our shows.

Joel: One of the strengths the two of you have is what I would call "prepared flexibility". There's a structure within which you improvise. You can also go outside the structure, too.

Tom: The personalities are so defined-- they're not fabricated. Dickie is who he is-- pragmatic; I am more of an emotional responder. The only thing we have to worry about is getting too familiar. We're Everyman's act-- celebrating our incompetence and all people being an underdog and a bit of a victim... and blowing that into a foolish framework. There's a great warmth to the Smothers Brothers.

Joel: There is a dynamic creative synergy between the two of you.

Tom: There's always a problem with the straight man not getting enough attention. But we're brothers-- so that's another clinching love relationship that transcends the jealousies that can happen. Everybody will always relate to the comedian before they relate to the straight man. The comic has to be very sensitive to that. The comic gets the laughs, but the straight man sets you up.

Our relationship is like that novel said, "love means you never have to say you're sorry." We have unspoken agreements together. The longer we're together, the more we appreciate each other. It sounds like I'm talking corny, but it's true. His company is always fun. Even our creative arguments are mild now. Besides being a unique person, he's a lover of life and a taster of everything life has to offer. He's the person I can count on under any circumstances. He's an incredible straight man and without him I couldn't have made it. I just love him.

Joel: Did your closeness start when you were children and your father was killed?

Tom: Yes, I'm sure it did. Dad was a West Pointer, from North Carolina and was stationed in the Philippines. When Dickie and I were 3 and 5, World War II broke out and we were evacuated from there to our aunt in North Carolina. He was captured at Corregidor and went through the Batan Death March and survived. In 1945, when Japanese were transferring POW's to Japan, our planes bombed the wrong ships and he was killed.

I'm very anti-war. I think there are better ways to solve our conflicts. We were fired from our television show because we were esoterically and comically against the Vietnam War.

I'm impressed when I see someone like Audrey Hepburn who did such wonderful things to help the children in war-torn countries. Years ago, I watched a PBS special on Mother Theresa. I thought, "Gosh, what am I doing?" That program stayed with me for months. There was so much giving and the gift was of unconditional love. I knew I had to change the way I was thinking about life.

Joel: Speaking of your life... if you were to come up with the title for your autobiography, what would it be?

Tom: "Gosh, I Hope I'm Funny Tonight." My wife will look at me and say, "How can you possibly be insecure about being funny? That should be your autobiography." That's the universal comedian's fear or phobia. The state of comedian-- always in transition. No matter how bad I feel... after the first laugh, it's a love affair. It's a connection, a dance that's only done by comedians. A comedian's only half-alive unless he has an audience. The audience deserves as much credit, because that's who you're connected to. I think it's a marvelously fragile way to make a living.

And now for some insights provided by Dick:

One of the first pieces of advice anyone ever gave us was, "Be yourself. Be natural. Don't try to be something you're not." So what you see up there is an extension of our personalities.

I think the bravest person in the world is the single stand-up comic. He goes out there and has 15, 20, 30 minutes or an hour to do. And, like him or not, he's got to do it... I love being the straight man. I can participate in it and not have the pressure.

Most people don't know how to set up anything. First of all, you have to not be jealous of the comedian and not want to take his laughs. And you've got to understand the concept of why you're there and what your job is. It's like a football player. If you're playing guard and you have to pull out and block for that halfback, he can't get diddly squat unless you're there.

If I stammer, if I trip on my lines, he doesn't get a laugh. I'm very comfortable playing harmony. The content of the material is always two brothers and that's one of the reasons people like us, other than Tommy's character. People love the character and they can relate to the sibling quarreling.

People are comfortable with kids fighting. If you have any children, sure they'll fight. They go out of their way to fight. If nothing's happening they'll say, "Mommy, Dickie's looking at me. I'm going to haul off and hit Dickie."

I don't consider us to be political satirists. The current political climate is so absurd that satire is practically redundant.

It's almost like the audience is playing you. Since we are basically improvisational, things come into our minds without us thinking about them... sometimes it is so easy. For instance, that famous quote some years ago, "Mom liked you best." That was just right out of Tommy's head somewhere.

And now, the grand finale... Tom and Dick have a dynamic duo- logue... straight from their Tour Book:

Q: What makes the Smothers Brothers such a successful comedy team?

Tom: We're the ideal blend of two classic vaudeville elements. The comic is driven, involved in detail, the timing, the creation of the act. But the straight man enjoys life, plays a lot of golf, gets around and has friends. Just like Dean Martin, Bud Abbott and Oliver Hardy.

Dick: We also have a basic premise that works. We're two brothers who argue and people can relate to that. They've all had similar experiences with their siblings, parents or spouses.

Tom: And we've been this way since we were boys. We are exactly the same on the stage as off. It's just exaggerated on stage. You might say our relationship is like an old marriage: a lot of fighting and no sex. Our appeal is our ability to disagree.

Dick: No, it's not!

Tom: See! We're a team. Inseparable. Like George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Dick: Yes, without me Tom dies, without him I'm just an announcer. In fact, I'll look at Tom sometimes and think I'm talking to Gracie or Stan Laurel or Lou Costello. We are very much for each other, but argue constantly.

Tom: I don't think either of us are destined to do anything except the Smothers Brothers. It's our craft. Art? Art is just an accident on the way to doing a competent job.

Dick: We could have been average at a lot of things, but we're really good at being the Smothers Brothers.

Q: You said that you were this way since you were boys. How did your childhood shape you for your roles today?

Dick: When Tommy was young he was thrust into this need to take charge because of our family life. Sometimes things don't have to be done, but he's busy doing them.

Tom: And I was shy as a kid. I'd always overcome it by being the class clown, by creating chaos where there was none before. Just tear it up. Most comics are working out some kind of conflict; they don't know what it is. As you get older you resolve them but by then you've got a craft. You have this skill, the memories of what it is to be nervous and insecure. But basically you hold onto whatever quirks, insecurities and gifts you have at four or five.

Dick: Everybody's a captive of their own skill. Our natures are like our roles. Tommy just can't be aggressive. And when I was young, I was the one who lined up the peas on my plate and ate potatoes section by section.

Tom: Yeah, as a kid, Dickie used to charge me interest on money I borrowed too.

Dick: I gave you a discount rate!

Q: What do you think of CBS' cancellation of your show back in 1969 now that 25 years have passed?

Tom: In retrospect, we see the firing as a blessing. Because the show was never cancelled, it didn't fade away. There was an ethical, moral issue involved. And so in hindsight it wasn't such a bad thing. At the time we were shocked. And I was bitter for a couple of years.

Dick: Six years. But a lot of people forget the censorship Tommy was struggling against. It is mind-numbing to think what was considered risque then. Jack Paar left the air because they wouldn't let him say "water closet."

Tom: But in recent years, the pendulum has swung back our way. People are thinking about the Smothers Brothers again.

Q: How have you lasted over thirty-five years?

Tom: Maybe because we try to keep our humor fresh by keeping it topical, by relying on each other's instincts. I know whatever I say, he'll come up with an appropriate response.

Dick: Also, we still work on the edge. We improvise constantly. It's a little like trying to choreograph a bullfight. The bull is really just beyond your control. But anticipating the unexpected is how we get the highest highs. It's also made us far better performers and our relationship is better than ever.

Tom: I guess our longevity has something to do with the fact that we are unique. Uniqueness makes you a success. When we started out we were the only funny folk singers around. It was the same with the Wright brothers. Their planes didn't get much better after that first one, but their basic idea was a beauty.

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