"The things you can say to a sibling, if you get into a fight, you can clear a room. You couldn't say those kinds of things to someone that wasn't a brother."
– Tommy Smothers
Guy MacPherson: Have you played Vancouver before?
Tommy Smothers: Oh yeah. In the early days, gosh almighty, we used to play at a place called the Cave.
GM: My dad was the bandleader there.
TS: (laughs) He'll remember us! I think. We would play in there, that would be in the mid-70s. We were working on a new act or something so we went up there and played three or four days.
GM: You're booked up, I see, until 2007.
TS: Yeah, we've got some bookings. (laughs) We used to do about 110 dates a year but now we're getting near kind of the end of our career. We're not on the cutting edge anymore. But we fill our places generally wherever we go.
GM: I can imagine. You're the longest-running comedy team in history, is that right?
TS: Well, you know, staying together is very difficult. It's like an old marriage and I guess no comedy team has stayed together as long as we have.
GM: I interviewed Cheech Marin earlier this week, who's playing the day after you're here, and he said he was playing golf with you...
TS: (laughs) That's right.
GM: He was talking about how you went to counsellors to stay together.
TS: Yeah, we got along so poorly that ten years ago we had to have couple counselling, and an 18-hour session with these people and it made a big difference. We're also getting older so we're smoother about it. It's 48 years now. We're going into our 48th year of working together.
GM: And 60-odd years of being brothers.
TS: Yeah, they said we should just forget about being brothers and treat each other like professionals and stop bringing up old shit, you know?
GM: Ah! That's the key. Because I was wondering if it helped or hurt that you're related.
TS: I think it helps because the things you can say to a sibling, if you get into a fight, you can clear a room. You couldn't say those kinds of things to someone that wasn't a brother. That's probably why [these other groups] break up. Because you can go so much farther and deeper (laughs).
GM: But you haven't had any of those blowups in years?
TS: No. We still disagree about everything. I mean, he's more conservative politically and also is a pragmatist. He's very pragmatic and wants everything to line up and put in a box. And I'm a little bit looser (laughs). And other things are different. Our wives. Sometimes we don't like each other's wives and stuff like that. And we eat different food. He's been on the AA program. He's been 14 years without a drink. And he's a health nut. Of course, that puts a lot of pressure on me. I've got to drink for both of us. (laughs)
GM: (laughs) So sometimes when you were getting angry on stage, you were really angry off stage.
TS: There was always a nice edge there because there is a difference. We love each other but we do have a lot of sincere differences, considering we're from the same family and everything, the same gene pool and stuff. And I'm older. I'm 22 months older. So we have disagreements. It's easier on stage because we don't have to fabricate personalities. So I can say anything, I can go anywhere and he will take the opposite view. I know it. Especially when we ad lib and stuff like that, improvise. I guess we are the last of the comedy teams because people don't do it anymore.
GM: People don't do it. And I'd like to see more of it. Why do you think they don't do it?
TS: It's difficult. That's why they don't last very long.
GM: But they don't even try anymore.
TS: I haven't seen any be successful. But I guarantee you the first young group that comes out in their twenties, like Dickie and I did, and have a genuine conflict of personalities that works, they're going to be huge. The country's waiting for another comedy team.
GM: But you have to split the earnings, too.
TS: (laughs) In the early days of Vaudeville, there were so many comedy teams, the straight man always got the most money because it was the skilled position. It was always considered a skill position. It was only until the late '30s that they started to split it equally. But the straight man always got the most money because it's the most difficult of the positions to play.
GM: I wonder if now, when everyone's a comedian, as they say, if nobody would want to be a straight man. Everyone wants the laugh.
TS: (laughs) I know! But you look back in history, you look at Bud Abbott in Abbott & Costello, he was a great straight man. And Oliver Hardy of Laurel & Hardy, and Dean Martin, George Burns, Dan Rowan of Rowan & Martin. When you look at the successful comedy teams, they always had these great straight men. And they always had more fun. And the comics always anguished about everything. Because that's why they're comics, trying to work out their psychological problems.
GM: You didn't start out as comics, though, did you? Didn't you start out as folk musicians?
TS: Yeah, we started out in folk music. I was fairly funny in high school so I wanted to be a comedian but more I wanted to be a bandleader. I wasn't good enough. I wasn't a good enough musician but I was pretty good. And we sang regular songs and then folk music came in around '58 with the Kingston Trio and some of those groups, and Peter, Paul & Mary. And that's about the time we started having fun with folk music. And it slowly evolved to be a running argument between two brothers who sang but never finished a song.
GM: Do you remember if there was one performance that stood out where you were getting laughs and thought, "Hey, maybe we should start doing it this way more often?"
TS: It wasn't one performance. It was a series of performances when we started out as a duet in Aspen. I did all the introductions. I'd just make up stuff for every song. And Dickie said, "Why don't you try repeating some of that stuff?" I said, "I don't know." I didn't know that you could repeat the stuff. And I started repeating it and Dickie would say, "That's wrong." And pretty soon he'd say, "That's wrong, you're stupid." It sort of became an argument. And he talks more than I do now. It takes a little pressure off me. It gives it better pacing. We learned our craft along the way.
GM: You still learning or you got it down now?
TS: Uh, we got it down pretty good, but you never stop learning in this business. You always pick up something.
GM: You say you weren't good enough to be a bandleader. I'm wondering about these great musical comedy acts like Victor Borge, Pete Barbutti, Dudley Moore. They're really good but do they feel like they're not quite good enough to be a serious musician?
TS: There's something about comedy that if you have the gift, you gravitate towards it because it is more unique than being a good musician. It takes you places that you... People used to say when Victor Borge was done, "Why don't you finish a song? Why don't you play a song all the way through?" And when we finish, people come up to us and say, "Why don't you finish a song?" (laughs) But you know, the comedy is very precious. It's very different. And if you get the comedy gift going, there's a tendency to let the other stuff take a second position. I'm a pretty good guitar player and we sing very well. We do a little Gilbert & Sullivan, and we do a couple of Broadway songs, a couple of folk tunes, a madrigal. So it's a real eclectic mix now. It's not just folk music, but we started in folk music.
GM: But you can't beat the laughs.
TS: Nah. There's nothing better than getting a laugh. (laughs) And there's nothing worse than trying to get a laugh and missing.
GM: When you were fired from CBS in 1969, did you think, "That's it. Our career is over"?
TS: I pretty much did. I lost perspective, my sense of humour. I became a poster boy for the First Amendment, freedom of speech, and I started buying into it. It was about three years when I was deadly serious about everything. And I saw Jane Fonda on television one time on the Tonight Show and I was watching her and said, "Aw, man, what is it that bothers me so much?" I said, "Oh! No sense of humour." That was an epiphany for me. I just said, "That's the end of that. I'm going to start having fun and look where the jokes are and not take life that seriously." I'm still politically active, I'm still angry, but I've got it in the right position now.
GM: That's where a lot of political comics miss the boat, I think, where they care too much. Instead of seeing the humour, they're out there preaching.
TS: Dick Gregory was a black comedian who got caught into it. And so did Lenny Bruce. Bill Maher's still doing something really nice, though. So all my heroes are like Bill Maher and the guy who did the movies... uh...
GM: Who's that?
TS: He did Fahrenheit 9/11.
GM: Oh yeah, Michael Moore.
TS: Michael Moore. I love these guys who are out on the edge and keep a perspective about it.
GM: Of course, Dennis Miller switched sides.
TS: Oh, man, did he turn south. Well, he's not funny anymore.
GM: (laughs) It's funny. When you don't agree with them, they're not funny anymore.
TS: Well, you know, I went up and saw his act. He was here about three years ago in Santa Rosa and I went over and saw it. And I kinda started heckling because I couldn't believe it. And my wife said, "Just shut up and get outta here." So I left. I walked out. I was so upset. It was just, "bomb everybody, those ragheads, people in mud huts, they don't have a country, they're a bunch of stupid assholes." 9/11 turned a lot of people around. They lost their perspective and became nationalists and fascist by nature.
GM: This was a real conscious decision by you to get your sense of humour back. Was it easy?
TS: It was easy once I realized what was wrong. I was trying to be funny and I couldn't get it until I saw her and then I realized I was so far off base, that you can take the serious subjects and have fun with them without becoming just an advocate or a spokesman for a cause. And that's what happened to me. Once I saw that, it was almost like I spun 180 degrees. I still cared about the issues but I got it back in place. It was such a relief because I thought maybe that was the end of our career. I said, "I'm not funny anymore. I just don't know how to be funny."
GM: Within that three year unfunny period, was that when you did Tom Smothers' Organic Prime Time Space Ride [in 1971]?
TS: (sheepishly) Yeah. (laughs)
GM: What was that?
TS: It was a kind of a weird show for prime time access. They were trying to open things up for independent producers and things like that. It was a shot at it but my head wasn't right. Then I started getting funny again after that and I started doing some plays. Dinner theatre and stuff. Playing Play It Again, Sam. And my brother did a couple of plays. And then we went together on Broadway and did two years in a Broadway show called I Love My Wife. We did it on Broadway and did a national tour in the late '70s. In the '80s, we started going back and doing the act again and it just took off again. It was like starting from the beginning. We were opening act for everybody. We had to start from the bottom. Could hardly get an agent. Because we were pretty dead in the water and we worked our way back and got another show. And we're cooking along now.
GM: Had you broken up before that or you just stopped working.
TS: We just stopped working and we just did some plays to get our heads clear. And someone said, "Do you want to do this Broadway show?" We didn't even play brothers in it. It was great fun. I learned a lot of skills. But we did no acting skills, just stage presence that we brought into the act when we started again. So I think we were probably better than we ever were. We're just not as unique now. The first time you get by with being unique and different. And then as you get in the business and know what you're doing, the craft comes in and the skill comes in. And you get better with time.
GM: Was the Space Ride show a sketch show?
TS: Yeah, it was sketch and it had some cartoons in it. It was a breakthrough show.
GM: How many did you do?
TS: We did twelve, I think.
GM: Who was on it with you?
TS: Um... (laughs) I can't even remember.
GM: It seems like you were unlikely champions of free speech in that you were folksy and clean cut and likeable and all that. But the variety show didn't start out that, did it?
TS: No. We had no idea. I think it was that we were just quite in tune with the consciousness of all the people thinking the Vietnam war was bad. And voter registration and voters' rights. And all these things were happening and all of the people on our show were young and we all started taking that position. It just slowly evolved until they started saying, "You can't say that." And of course that's the worst thing you can tell a comedian: "Don't say that." Well, they're gonna say it. (laughs) And then we got involved and it was great fun. We always thought that the shows...
During the first year, we kept saying the show has to have something to say more than just empty sketches and vacuous comedy. So we always tried to put something of value in there, something that made a point and reflected what was happening out in the streets.
GM: And it wasn't always something that you said, but it could be a guest that you had on.
TS: Oh yeah. We had Pete Seeger. We said, "Sing whatever you'd like." We had Joan Baez, who dedicated a song to her husband who was going to jail for resisting the draft. It became the only show on television at that time - and, I might add, the last show since that time. In thirty years, there's been no shows that are political satire. There's been dramas and stuff. But no shows where you actually question government policy. They don't allow that. I mean, look what happened to the Dixie Chicks. I mean, no one'll play their records. Isn't that something? God almighty! And we were thrown off the air. But it's worse now than it's ever been.
GM: Do you think the war in Iraq is a parallel to the war in Vietnam?
TS: Oh, absolutely. The same type of people running it, the same arrogance, the same mistakes, going into someone else's country and trying to do something, except saying there's a light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam, the same thing they're saying here. And you can't tell who the enemy is because of the people all dressed the same, no uniforms. You know? So it's a disaster. This country is just... ugh. I can't believe these people will vote... I mean, thank God Canada's around. At least the Canadians are bright.
GM: Well, we just elected a conservative government aligned to Bush.
TS: That comes and goes. I mean, the television's smart, the people are good. Every time I get in Canada I feel comfortable.
GM: You should move here. Bring your winery up here.
TS: (laughs) They've got some good wineries up there.
GM: What do you think was the edgiest sketch that you yourself performed in? Are there any that stand out?
TS: Um... Time-Life is going to be putting out all the old shows, the best of. And I'm in the midst of editing these things and going back. And I'm going back and pulling out all the things that are anti-war or social commentary and putting it on one reel to see if there's some kind of confluence over the 76 shows we did. So it'll only be about ten minutes or twelve minutes of the show that would have something in it that was controversial. I can't remember all the things. We did one thing where we promoted Another Mother For Peace, one of the great organizations of women in the United States. We brought the picture out of Another Mother For Peace with a flower and a bird, and CBS said, "You can't do that because it might be a Communist-front organization." I mean, Jesus.
GM: And did you do it?
TS: Well, we did it and they cut it out.
GM: With the re-release, will you include the stuff that was cut out?
TS: Oh yeah, all of it. Everything. And in our show up there in Richmond, we have a 12-minute video where we take the highlights of some of the show and our history as kids growing up and stuff. And when we're finished with it, it sounds just like it's happening today but it was 30 years ago. When Pete Seeger sings in Waste Deep in the Big Muddy, 'the big fool says to push on', it sounds just like Bush and Cheney and these guys pushing this thing into the ground.
GM: Is there such a thing as a just war, do you think?
TS: Well, sometimes there's just wars. I mean, if someone attacks you and comes in and starts taking you over, but to attack someone... I mean, Vietnam didn't attack us. Iraq didn't attack us. Yet we're all over the place. The thing is, when you get power it becomes a necessity to try to use it. And the United States is the biggest weapons seller around the world and doing the most damage. It's just shameful.
GM: You say Dick is more conservative. Was he at that time, too, when the show was on or has it come with age?
TS: Yeah. He didn't care one way or another. He said, "You just don't make any mistakes." I said, "I won't." Of course, I did and we were fired. (laughs) So we have our arguments. He's a guy that says don't give them food, give them a fishing pole, don't give them fish. Let them learn how to fish. Basically his make-up is more conservative. But he's around me all the time and our tour manager, Marty, and we're all screaming, left-wing liberals. (laughs)
GM: So he does get some influence.
TS: Yeah, we kind of beat up on him a little bit (laughs).
GM: You don't do any political material in your live act, do you?
GM: You do?
TS: When people leave the show, they know exactly where we stand. We haven't walked away from it. If we did the same show on television, we'd have all kinds of problems. Television's controlled by the right wing people now and it's a different world.
GM: You were really combative with the censors. Have you mellowed with age or you still like a good fight?
TS: Well, I've mellowed with age but still I don't like people telling me what to do. And as long as we're doing our concert shows, people know what they're going to see and so we don't have to back off at all. It's not hard-hitting satire but it's certainly strong social commentary about the condition of the world and the condition in the United States. But it's not a preachy show; it's a fun show. It's a family show and it's got the right amount of sarcasm and the right amount of laughter.
GM: You used to chide Bill Cosby to take a political stand. Now he's kind of doing that in the black community.
TS: He's beating up on his own people.
GM: He's taking hits.
TS: Well, he should. I think he's an asshole.
GM: (laughs) Still.
TS: Yeah. But that's okay. He's a great comedian. He's a great comedian. But he kept his mouth shut during the Vietnam war and I didn't see him much in any of the civil rights movement. He was quiet. And that was during the sixties, the height of it. But I like that he's speaking up. He's saying some good things.
GM: But it's against his own people.
TS: Well, he's criticizing, and that's good because nobody else is. His commentaries are, I think, correct. But I haven't really delved into it. I haven't heard his whole speeches. I hear bits and pieces. But he's a great comedian. He's a contemporary. We're both the same age. We go through different things, we just took different trips to get there.
GM: But you haven't paid him back for the punch in the head.
TS: No, I haven't yet.
GM: One day. You're waiting.
TS: (laughs) Yeah. When we're 75 years old, he'll turn around and I'll give him a blindside (laughs). It probably won't hurt by the time we'll be hobbling around in our walkers. I don't think about him at all anymore.
GM: How did your character develop, because from all accounts you're not a dim bulb.
TS: It developed out of puberty, the awkwardness of growing up. For a while there I thought maybe I was going to be like Jerry Lewis and become so one-dimensional the character didn't grow. But it did. Now I'm 69 years old and the character works good. It has a lot more depth than it used to. But it did come from the awkwardness that we all feel in social situations at one time or another.
GM: How does it have more depth?
TS: Just by doing it longer. We have kids, been divorced, we've been through wars, we've been hired and fired. And we talk on another level. It's not just about "Mom likes you best." There's different conversations going on now.
GM: Do you really think Nixon was responsible for your firing?
GM: Does the White House have that much interest or power now?
TS: Now they have more power.
GM: Would they take a show off the air now? Or could they?
TS: They took the Dixie Chicks out of the thing. You know, fascism is an agreement between industry and government. They become the same. And if someone is like, "I don't like what they're saying", then let's not play them. The people that own the stations agree with the government.
GM: So it's maybe not Nixon making a call, it's the owners acting preemptively.
TS: No, back then it was Nixon. Nixon had his own list and everything. And he had The Plumbers investigated. So no, that was direct. Now it's wonderfully indirect. It's a tacit agreement.
GM: Do you still do the yo-yo man character?
TS: Oh yeah. That's part of the show. The Yo-yo man is even billboarded. We give an announcement: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen. An evening with the Smothers Brothers, a visit from the yo-yo man," and it gets big applause.
GM: How long have you been doing that?
TS: Since about 1988.
GM: How did that start? Obviously because you're good at it.
TS: No, I wasn't good at it. I had done it as a kid. But I remember the original Duncan yo-yo demonstrators back in the fifties and forties. And this song came to me from Mason Williams. He said, "Listen to this song." It was about a travelling yo-yo demonstrator. It was a Cajun song and it was really cute so we started singing it, my brother and I. And Mason said, "Why don't you try some yo-yo tricks?" So I brought out the yo-yo. Most of the time I was winding it up. And over the next several years, the word was out that the Smothers Brothers were doing yo-yo and these old-timers would come up and give me all kinds of... The world champion in 1936, the Kansas state champion, these guys were all in their eighties and nineties and they'd come out and do yo-yo tricks and show me different things. Then it became a requirement for us to do (laughs). The kids love it; the adults love it.
GM: So you've gotten quite proficient at it.
TS: Yeah, I'm about a, say, 12 handicap. But since no one else is doing yo-yo on the stage, I look like I'm a scratch yo-yo player.
GM: Are there any younger yo-yo champs now?
TS: Oh, yeah. It comes in spurts. They have the world championships in Chico, California. And about every seven or eight years it explodes again. But they've got kids now that have been on television that do two-handed yo-yo... I mean, the advancement in yo-yo is like the advancement is skateboards and bicycles, people doing backflips and stuff.
GM: I remember as a kid in elementary school we had somebody come and put on a demonstration.
TS: Yeah. How old are you?
TS: Yeah, that would have been the sixties, the end of it?
GM: Early seventies.
TS: Yeah. The peak was the late sixties and it just kind of went away a little bit. And in the eighties it started again. And in the eighties and nineties, it was the number-one toy in Japan and in some of the cities here in the States it was huge. And in England, too. They have these very special axles now that you can spin these yo-yos, you can do about ten around-the-worlds. It's gotten high-tech (laughs). But it has a philosophy. Dickie, my brother, does the voice of Yo, which is the announcer, like a radio announcer, a sports announcer: "Oh, the yo-yo man's out of his groove! He missed that one. Don't quit, yo-yo man!"
GM: How long a segment is this on the show?
TS: About seven minutes. Depending on if I make the tricks or how many times I have to try.
GM: The sitcom you did before your big show, directed by Freddy DeCordova. Did you think the writing was horrible?
TS: It was probably written okay. It just didn't use our skills. It was over-written. Way over-written.
GM: What were you memories of it?
TS: I had so many lines I had to memorize and learn, and there was no audience, and getting up in the dark and going to work, and coming back in the dark. There were some of the best actors in Hollywood, character actors, that were on the show. It took away our guitar and our bass so we didn't know what to do with our hands (laughs). And a laugh track. It was awful. I struggled with that.
GM: Will that ever be released on DVD?
TS: I don't know. Thirty-two episodes we did. That was a season back then. And it won its time slot every night but it wasn't successful enough to continue, thank God. And then six months later we got the show with a live audience, which made a big difference. That was part of my motivation when we got The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. I didn't have any control over the original show so I said if I get another show I want creative control. And they said yeah, sure.
GM: And they've regretted it ever since.
TS: Yeah, but I had a great time.
GM: You wrote the liner notes for a comedy album by a guy named Murray Roman.
GM: Who is he?
TS: He was a writer on our television show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. And he was also a pretty well-known comedian. He did a couple of albums and stuff. One of them was a great album in the late sixties, You Can't Beat People Up and Expect Them To Say I Love You. He was a good friend. He died in a coma or a car accident or something.
TS: Oh... 1970? '69, '70, somewhere in there.
GM: A lot of great comics have released albums and you never hear of them again.
TS: That album was as close to kind of a breakthrough album. A very funny album. It had music that would... Each routine wouldn't have a specific ending, not a laugh ending, just some funky music would come in. And they pasted it that way with these little ten-second musical breaks into these sections so there was no beginning and middle and end. It was really good.
GM: You introduced Otis Redding at the Monterey Pop Festival.
TS: Did I?
GM: Did you?
TS: I don't know. I don't remember, I was so stoned.
GM: Did you have a role in the Monterey Pop Festival?
TS: Yeah, I was supposed to be, quote, "the rodeo cowboy", which means the one that goes out between the bands and I was supposed to talk to them. I did, I think, three breaks and then just wandered off. (laughs) Everybody was just out of it.
GM: So you were hired to be the comic relief.
TS: I wasn't hired; I was asked to be. It was a gift. They didn't give me any money. I got a badge [so] I could wander and where backstage and be with everybody. And John Philips had to do some of it, and different people. It was pretty neat.