Comedy and music have been so intertwined in my mind for so long that I’ve never really seen them as two separate art forms. Tommy Smothers was a big reason for that. While Tom Lehrer is the influence I wear on my sleeve most often, Tom Smothers was always right there on the other sleeve.
When I was a single-digit-year-old, old enough to use the family record player but not old enough to care about the 4-5 rock records in the family record collection, I checked out my dad’s collection of comedy records, almost entirely from the 1950s and 1960s. He had some classic standup albums from that era, and comedy music classics like The Best of Spike Jones, Victor Borge, Songs by Tom Lehrer, Portsmouth Sinfonia, a Stan Freberg compilation, some PDQ Bach, some Allan Sherman, and no fewer than 5 Smothers Brothers albums.
Is it any wonder I ended up writing the kind of music I write? I had entire songs from those albums memorized years before I ever picked up an acoustic guitar, and when I started writing my own songs, injecting humor wasn’t even a conscious decision.
The brothers Smothers intended to be a folk duo. Early on, though, Tom wasn’t confident he had the chops to go pro, but felt he was funny enough to do comedy, so it worked its way into their song intros, and quickly made its way into the songs too.
The genius of Tom and Dick’s onstage personas belied the genius of arranging and writing that material. The guy playing dumb onstage was a brilliant craftsman (his brother, one of the best straight men in any comedy duo, was no slouch either) – the jokes and songs hilarious, the musicianship incredible. They sat squarely between standup comedy and folk music, refusing to take either one entirely seriously, keeping audiences on their toes and defying expectations at every turn. From 1961 to 1967, they released 10 classic albums, most recorded live onstage, including a ‘greatest hits’ album made up of completely different recordings than the ones on those albums.
And when the audience grew to the point the Brothers had their own comedy-variety TV show, did they go mainstream and play to the middle? No. No they did not. The core satire became even more pointed, going after deserving targets like a corrupt US presidential administration, a misguided overseas war, and the show’s own network censors, never losing its genius comedic writing, timing, and performances.
After the show’s cancellation, Tom continued to speak up, fighting against censorship and pushing for peace, civil liberties, and freedom of speech, for the rest of his life. He often made the point that Freedom of Speech meant little without the freedom to hear that speech.
The duo retired from performing in 2010 after more than 50 years of touring, making occasional appearances from 2019 to 2022, and even planned a tour for 2023, but that had to be cancelled after Tom’s lung cancer diagnosis, and he passed away earlier this week at the age of 86.
Comedy has lost another icon, one who won’t easily be forgotten, and one whose influence can’t be overstated. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite Smothers joke, bit, song, or even album, so I’ll close with a simple quote from Tom:
“Freedom of speech is not the problem. It’s freedom of hearing. You can say anything you want, but if there’s a consolidation of media, they don’t have a mike for you, or they don’t cover your protest or other things, it’s not heard.”