Ironically enough for an act built around the tensions of sibling rivalry, the Smothers Brothers were the longest-lived comedy team in history; originally a folk duo, the brothers tempered their childlike, irreverent musical humor with enough sly satire and subtle political commentary to earn both an ardent following from the counterculture and considerable backlash from more conservative quarters.
Tom (born February 2, 1937) and Dick (born November 20, 1939) first teamed professionally while attending San Jose State University. After a tenure in a folk group dubbed the Casual Quintet, the Smothers broke off as a duo in 1959; while their act initially consisted of straightforward folk tunes, audiences responded even more favorably to their between-song banter, and gradually all of the brothers' material reflected their offbeat comic sensibility, a perennially wide-eyed world-view steeped in playful sibling rivalry primarily directed at Tom's supposed dull wit.
By the time of their 1961 live debut, At the Purple Onion (released concurrently with their season-long tenure as regulars on The Steve Allen Show), the Smothers' act still skewed toward straight songs, and the comedic content of their performance resided primarily in the introductions to the musical performances. As indicated by its title, 1962's Top 40 hit The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers reflected the dichotomy even more clearly; while one half of the record was devoted to serious, if lightweight, songs like "If It Fits Your Fancy" and "Stella's Got a New Dress," the remainder focused on comic numbers like "Cabbage" and "Chocolate," the latter penned by frequent accomplice Pat Paulsen.
With 1963's (Think Ethnic!), their transformation into pure comedy was complete; all of the songs were performed with tongues planted firmly in cheek, punctuated by breezy banter and lighthearted bickering. Curb Your Tongue, Knave! followed later in the year and was the duo's biggest hit, falling just short of the Top Ten, while 1964's It Must Have Been Something I Said! reflected their continued growth as performers capable of everything from love song send-ups ("Jenny Brown") to cracked history lessons ("Civil War Song"). With 1964's Tour de Farce American History and Other Unrelated Subjects and the following year's Aesop's Fables the Smothers Brothers Way, the duo turned toward music aimed specifically for younger audiences, while 1965's Mom Always Liked You Best! (its title the brothers' definitive tag line) crystallized their sibling squabbling antics. A short-lived sitcom, The Smothers Brothers Show, debuted that same year, while Golden Hits of the Smothers Brothers, Vol. 2 -- there was, of course, no Vol. 1 -- featured re-recorded renditions of favorite bits, and appeared in 1966.
In February 1967, the duo launched The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a variety program for the CBS network. An immediate hit, the series was topical and irreverent, poking fun at institutions ranging from the government to motherhood. As a result, it was also highly controversial, and the Smothers frequently butted heads with network censors. While very much a traditional show in terms of format and structure, the Comedy Hour won a devoted following from the burgeoning youth culture; while not overtly political, the show was far more topical than anything else on the air -- co-star Pat Paulsen launched a 1968 presidential campaign, while blacklisted folkie Pete Seeger, a frequent guest, made waves by performing his Vietnam protest song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."
After a 1969 sketch satirizing organized religion drew fire from the nation's clergy and forced an on-air apology, CBS threw in the towel and canceled the show despite high ratings and a recent Emmy Award for writing. A year later, the program resurfaced on ABC, but its momentum was destroyed, and it again disappeared a few months later. Ultimately, the controversies crippled the Smothers' career; they did not return to recording, and toured sporadically over the next several years. Another variety series, The Smothers Brothers Show, debuted on NBC in 1975, but lasted only 13 weeks. After over a decade of low-visibility touring and nightclub performances by the brothers, CBS brought back The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1988; after little more than a year on the air, it too was canceled, and the team returned to the live circuit once again. ~ Jason Ankeny