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June 23, 2024

Comedy Legend Tom Smothers of the Smothers Brothers Dies at 86

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Dec 29, 2023

Tom Smothers, the wisecracking half of the iconic comedy duo The Smothers Brothers, has died at the age of 86. Smothers passed away at his home in Sonoma County, California on December 27, 2023 after battling undisclosed health issues in recent years.

Early Life and Career

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born on February 2, 1937 in New York City. He was the son of Ruth and Major Thomas B. Smothers, Jr., an army officer. As part of a military family, Smothers moved frequently growing up. He attended Verde Valley School in Arizona and later studied at San Jose State University.

Smothers began performing folk music with his younger brother Dick as The Smothers Brothers in 1959 in clubs and venues in the San Francisco area like The Purple Onion. Their act featured Tom’s double bass and Dick’s acoustic guitar along with the duo’s sibling rivalry banter and humor. They landed a job as regulars on “The Jack Paar Show” in January 1961 which greatly raised their national profile.

Over the next few years, The Smothers Brothers released multiple successful comedy albums and became an exceedingly popular nightclub act touring constantly. According to The New York Times, their first few records “were openly modeled on the button-down goofiness of the popular folk duo the Kingston Trio.” But the brothers brought a more rebellious spirit and willingness to push boundaries both comedically and politically over time.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

The career-defining break for The Smothers Brothers came in 1967 when CBS signed them to host their own television variety show. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour featured the duo alongside weekly musical guests like The Who, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and many other seminal rock acts of the era.

While their satirical take on traditional variety series at first went over smoothly with CBS executives and audiences, the show’s insistence on covering controversial topics soon led to bitter clashes with the conservative network. As detailed by Rolling Stone in a recently unearthed lost interview with Smothers:

We started doing socially conscious humor, sketches about the issues of the day — civil rights, the women’s movement, Vietnam. The audience dug it. Then the network yanked one of our sketches about draft dodgers. We said, “Why?” They said, well, draft dodging is illegal. And I said, “I’m not so sure it is illegal — Muhammad Ali refuses induction and he hasn’t been arrested.” Anyway, that’s how the battle began.

Topics which drew the ire of the network included discussions of religion, racism, sexism, and vehement criticism of the Vietnam War while it was still raging on. Mainstream media rarely ventured into such controversial territory in the 1960s. Major musical guests like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez used the show as a platform to speak out and support counterculture causes.

With constant content battles, CBS eventually fired and sued the Smothers Brothers for breach of contract in 1969 despite the show ranking among network’s highest-rated programs. As The Chicago Tribune summed up:

Though just a young boy, I remember being disappointed when my parents told me that show had been canceled, seeming as it was both hilarious as well as a platform for the anti-war sentiments that were growing at the time in response to what was becoming an unpopular war. The brothers had helped give the anti-war movement a voice.

Year Show Highlight
1967 Win Emmy Award for writing for series premier episode
1968 The Who drummer Keith Moon pays tribute to Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson on show after his death
1968 Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy appeared on show less than 3 months before his assassination
1969 Iconic debut of musician Mason Williams’ hit “Classical Gas”

Even after cancellation, the enduring legacy and impact of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on both comedy and culture is undeniable.

Later Career and Life

Though less politically outspoken, Tom Smothers continued finding television success over the following decades. He hosted “The Tom Smothers Organic Prime Time Space Ride” variety series in 1972 and owned part of “The Smothers Brothers Show” sitcom in 1975. Smothers made countless appearances as himself on shows ranging from The Simpsons to Late Night with David Letterman to Two and a Half Men.

In partnership with brother Dick, now 84, the duo also operated the Remick Ridge Vineyards winery in Sonoma County since 2000. The brothers split time living in California and Hawaii in retirement.

Tom Smothers proudly used his celebrity platform as well throughout his life to advocate for human rights, environmental protection and democratic causes. While already a respected performer for his comedic talents, taking courageous stands for social justice during an era of conformity cemented Smothers’ reputation as an artist guided by integrity and principle.

Reaction and Remembrances

Tributes to Smothers immediately appeared across social media as word of his passing spread:

  • Comedian Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt):

    “Tom Smothers never stopped being gracefully trouble-making, thought-provoking and God damn funny. RIP”

  • Political commentator Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann):

    “All hail Tom Smothers, who with his brother Dick made satirical dissent both popular and essential on national TV with ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’”

  • Author and pastor Rabbi David Wolpe (@RabbiWolpe):

    “The Smothers Brothers were funny, engaged, influential, especially speaking against prejudice and war. Glad one is still with us to remember and teach. Condolences.”

Smothers’ fellow comedians and entertainment icons mourned the loss of a true innovator and courageously comedic voice. As Variety summarized:

Without the success of the Smothers Brothers on television in the late ’60s as a beachhead, it’s doubtful that Norman Lear-driven shows like “All in the Family” and “Maude” — which really established social consciousness and great ratings could go hand-in-hand in TV — would have been possible quite so soon afterward.

The ability of Tom Smothers and his brother to sneak in sociopolitical issues during a time of overwhelming censorship on television provided a vital blueprint for a coming golden age of boundary-pushing satirical programming.

At the time of his death, Smothers split time living between Sonoma County where he helped operate his vineyard and Hawaii where he embraced a slower pace in recent years. He is survived by his third wife, actress and singer Lorraine “Rane” Wedow, who he married in 2021 at age 84. Tom Smothers is also survived by two children, a stepdaughter and four grandchildren.

Legacy

Tom Smothers and his brother Dick remain American comedic icons thanks chiefly to their massively influential weekly television variety series. As reported by The Wall Street Journal:

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” foreshadowed TV sitcoms that would bring progressive values into the American mainstream. And half a century later, amid another time of societal upheaval, their humor retains its bite…
“They were drawn instinctively to the rebellious spirit of the emerging counterculture,” said David Bianculli, a TV critic.. “They had their finger on the pulse on what young America was thinking and feeling.”

Through laughter, music and satire delivered with impeccable comic timing, The Smothers Brothers prodded a polarized nation to self-reflect during the Summer of Love through the Vietnam War era. Countless modern television comedians credit Tom Smothers as a pioneering influence as they carry on his legacy of blending entertainment, social issues, and conscientiousness.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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