Tommy Smothers wasn’t the first performer to weaponize comedy for political purposes, but he was perfectly suited for it. During the height of his career with brother Dick in the 1960s and ’70s, he took on Presidents Lyndon Johnson over his Vietnam policies and Richard Nixon over, well, just about everything.
When news came that Tommy died of cancer on Dec. 26, many of us immediately recalled the playful jibes exchanged by the brothers as hosts of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS. “Mom always liked you best,” was Tommy’s favorite bit of bait for Dickie, who played the straight-man.
But the quips, and Tommy’s boyish smirk, were cover for what proved to be a more serious agenda. CBS had given the brothers their weekly series in 1967 believing they were a safe bet, not activists who would eventually help topple a president. Instead, they immediately did a routine in which they urged LBJ to quit, which he did a few months later by announcing he wouldn’t run in 1968.
The Smothers Brothers cared even less for Nixon, growing bolder in using their “Comedy Hour” for dissent. But soon after Nixon’s victory in ’68 CBS canceled the series, a move Tommy insisted was driven by pressure from the White House. (It was later revealed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post that Nixon’s campaign paid for an investigation of the brothers.) Tom and Dick sued CBS and won a judgment of just under $1 million, but their powerful prime-time platform was gone.
In 1972 Tommy produced one of history’s most unusual political attack films, “Another Nice Mess,” which I detail in my book “Playing POTUS.” It starred impressionist Rich Little as Nixon and actor Herb Voland as Vice President Spiro Agnew. The bizarre conceit was that Little and Voland played Nixon and Agnew played Laurel and Hardy. The film was a financial fiasco, a creative flop — and quite a mess in its own right.
Tommy remained a comedic activist, describing himself as more progressive than brother Dick. He once approached me with an offer to buy “Candid Camera” — the show invented by my father Allen Funt — believing that its brand of reality-based comedy meshed well with his style. I thanked him, but said no.
Tommy and I played golf a few times in the AT&T Pro-Am tournament at Pebble Beach. I marveled at the way he pranced happily down the fairways, even after awful shots, pulling out his yo-yo to entertain fans.
Despite his battles with politicians and network executives, Tommy always maintained a gentle touch. His comedy was pointed, but not mean-spirited — something that seems to have gone out of style today.
After President Johnson left office, due in part to pressure from Tom and Dick, LBJ wrote to the brothers: “You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives. If ever an Emmy is awarded for graciousness, I will cast my vote for you.”
Copyright 2023 Peter Funt distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Funt’s latest book is “Playing POTUS: The Power of America’s Acting Presidents,” about comedians who impersonated presidents.