The Danger of Comedy: Censoring Those Motherf*ckers


Published: March 12, 2009

Setup. Joke. Laughter. Applause.The basic framework for the majority of comedy.

It’s harmless and seems to exist for our pure amusement, until it crosses a certain line. In 1969, when the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” dared to play with the boundaries of comedy and politics, the show was cancelled. Now, 40 years later, the Smothers brothers controversy is still being analyzed in an upcoming book by David Bianculli, “Dangerously Funny: the Uncensored History of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and the question of what should be censored on network television is an on-going debate.

In February 1967, CBS began airing “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” a comedy and variety show. The brothers, Dick and Tom, were famous for their songs, banter and both surprise and scheduled guests, which included George Harrison, The Who, Cream and Jefferson Airplane.  Tom played the fool while Dick played his annoyed (and more intelligent) counterpart.

The “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” started out rather innocently, but as the show’s target audience began to lean more toward the youth of America, the humor became more politically charged and outspoken about the Vietnam War.

One of the most infamous incidents occurred when folk singer Pete Seeger, the show’s guest for the second season premiere, was censored by the network when he sang his Vietnam protest song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” It was only due to widespread public objection that Seeger was allowed to come back later in the season to perform his song. Other censored guests included Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez and Dr. Benjamin Spock.

At the start of the 1968-69 season, CBS demanded that the Smothers Brothers hand over their shows—entirely completed—10 days before the scheduled airdate so that the censors could have ample time to make all the “necessary” edits. When the brothers eventually refused, CBS suddenly cancelled the show on April 4, 1969, a week before the end of the season. Ironically enough, in addition to the fact that the show had a large following and high ratings, the brothers had just recently won an Emmy award for their writing for the show. While CBS explained that the reason for cancellation pertained to the brothers’ refusal to follow through with the network’s demands, it ultimately came down to censorship, and the brothers insisted that the network had violated their First Amendment rights.

The brothers sued CBS, and in 1973, after years of legal warfare, the court ruled in favor of the Smothers brothers, explaining that their having been fired was illegal (due to the fact that their contract had been renewed weeks before the cancellation) and that their First Amendment rights had, in fact, been violated.

In retrospect, the general public—or at least a majority of the general public—can look back and see how ridiculous it was to have censored someone like Pete Seeger, but it seems that every generation will have to battle with its own controversy. Sure, smaller, less widely watched channels can get away with more “controversial” programming, but for larger networks—primarily the Big Three (ABC, NBC and CBS)— television writers and producers will still be forced to debate with network censors over what is deemed inappropriate.

Today, the subject of television censorship forces us to question why there is still a persisting battle. Perhaps it’s just the natural result of generations clashing with one another. With each new generation, there is the expectation that it will attempt to defy the rules and regulations made by its predecessors.

Two comedy programs with different styles, “Saturday Night Live” (“SNL”) and The Daily Show, are filmed right in our own vicinity. It’s natural to wonder how these shows deal with the issue of censorship today. William G. Clotworthy, who was once a long-time censor of “SNL,” published his book, “Saturday Night Live, Equal Opportunity Offender: The Uncensored Censor,” in 2003 about his time as the late-night comedy show’s man-who-called-the-shots. In his book, he explains that when the show’s writers would attempt to defend their First Amendment rights, he’d argue with them that one’s right to freedom of speech is forced to deal with the different playing field of network television. It’s no longer just about writing and transmitting those words; everything must also be placed in context with who is paying for the shows to be broadcast.

Smaller shows like “The Daily Show” tend to get away with more because they aren’t owned by any of the Big Three networks and because their audiences tend to be less in numbers.  When Jon Stewart took over as host of “The Daily Show” in 1999 (following Craig Kilborn), the program became more politically focused.  Though the writers of “The Daily Show” and Stewart himself deny that the show holds much influence in terms of political sway, the show, to some degree, has become a source of news for the younger generation.  It’s not merely a source of amusement, and it’s not the only place where one should look for news; however, it does give its audience a different take on politics through a largely uncensored lens.

Perhaps the Smothers brothers don’t seem that unique today.  Perhaps we’ve just become jaded and used to the fact that censorship continues to exist, but in 1969, the cancellation of the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was a milestone—and it gave the brothers the satisfaction of knowing that their show was important enough to be analyzed and censored.  It was “dangerous” enough to become influential.