Tom Smothers, one half of comedy duo the Smothers Brothers, died on Tuesday (December 26) at his home in California. He was 86, and had been battling cancer in recent years.
Smothers was joined by his brother, Dick, to perform as the Smothers Brothers beginning in 1961, and were booked to play venues like New York’s Blue Angel. As the Smothers Brothers, Tom and Dick performed satirical numbers which were targeted at the rising folk scene in New York at the time.
That year, The New York Times’ Robert Shelton commented on the pair’s appeal, calling them “a pair of tart-tongued singing comedians” and writing: “It is a result of a good deal of musical acumen and a fresh type of stinging satire, directed at a field wide open for it – folk music. The pair use a merciless variety of musical and comedy devices to smother the folk-song craze in wit.” Shelton particularly praised Tom for being responsible for “a bulk of the humour”.
In the early 1960s, the Smothers Brothers made frequent appearances on television programmes including The Judy Garland Show, Burke’s Law and The Ed Sullivan Show, before finally debuting their own comedy show, The Smothers Brothers Show, in 1965. While that programme was short lived, it was succeeded by the more successful The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. It featured a mix of musical guests including George Harrison, Joan Baez and Janis Ian, and rising comedy stars including Steve Martin and Bob Reiner.
When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was eventually cancelled in 1969, Tom Smothers remarked that he believed CBS was ordered to remove the programme from the air by President Richard Nixon. “When Nixon said, ‘I want those guys off,’ they were off,” he said in a 2001 interview. “If [Vice President Hubert H.] Humphrey had been elected, we would have been on.”
The pair would go on to pursue acting roles in films including Brian De Palma’s Get To Know Your Rabbit following the end of their programme, and in 2011, Tom Smothers was awarded the Jack Green Civil Liberties Award by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Sonoma County chapter, for his advocacy against censorship and political activism.
In a statement, Journey Gunderson, executive director of the National Comedy Centre, praised Tom’s political activism and groundbreaking approach to comedy with his brother. “Tom Smothers was not only an extraordinary comedic talent, who, together with his brother Dick, became the most enduring comedy duo in history, entertaining the world for over six decades – but was a true champion for freedom of speech, harnessing the power of comedy to push boundaries and our political consciousness,” he wrote.
In addition, Tom’s brother, Dick, also expressed his admiration for his brother in his own statement. “Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” he wrote. “I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off stage, for over 60 years. Our relationship was like a good marriage – the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed.”