Home Entertainment Tom Smothers, Musical Comedian of Smothers Brothers Fame, Dies at 86

Tom Smothers, Musical Comedian of Smothers Brothers Fame, Dies at 86

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Tom Smothers, one half of the Smothers Brothers musical comedy duo, died on Dec. 26 in Santa Rosa, Calif. due to cancer. He was 86.

Smothers’ younger brother and co-star of “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” Dick Smothers announced that Tom died at home with his family.

Dick Smothers said in a 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. 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.”

Tom and Dick Smothers were known for their musical comedy act in which they performed folk songs on acoustic guitar and double bass, respectively, and bantered together. Elder brother Tom was known for his signature line, “Mom always liked you best.”

The siblings are also remembered for infusing social commentary into their humor; “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” which ran for three seasons on CBS, became controversial for its political critiques and sympathy to counterculture amid the Vietnam War era. The show was suddenly canceled by CBS in 1969 in what was widely seen as a politically motivated move by the network under pressure from President Nixon’s White House.

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born on Feb. 2, 1937, on Governors Island in New York but the brothers were raised in California, and both attended San Jose State University. He began performing alongside his younger brother at an early age, eventually incorporating comedy into their folk performances. The two made their big debut at San Francisco’s famed Purple Onion nightclub and released several albums, riding the wave of folk music and comedy albums in the early 1960s. The brothers’ most popular albums were recorded for the Mercury label, including “The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers,” “The Smothers Brothers Play It Straight” and “It Must’ve Been Something I Said.”

Before landing their own CBS show in 1967, the brothers were featured on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar, “The Garry Moore Show” and “The New Steve Allen Show.”

Reiner was quick to pay tribute to Tom Smothers on social media, crediting him with helping to launch his career as an actor and filmmaker.

“In 1968, Tommy Smothers plucked me out of the improv group, The Committee, and gave me my first writing job for his show. Tommy was funny, smart, and a fighter. He created a ground breaking show that celebrated all that was good about American Democracy. We loved you best, Tommy,” Reiner wrote in a post on X.

Journey Gunderson, executive director of the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y., saluted Smothers as “an extraordinary comedic talent.” The production team on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was a springboard for such comedy superstars as Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Lorne Michaels and David Steinberg.

“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,” Gunderson said.

His statement continued, “Tom was a true pioneer who changed the face of television and transformed our culture with ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,’ which satirized politics, combated racism, protested the Vietnam War, and led the way for ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘The Daily Show,’ today’s network late night shows, and so much more. We were proud to bring Tom and Dick out of retirement and reunite them on stage in 2019 to celebrate their legendary careers, and we are honored to preserve Tom’s remarkable work and legacy here at the National Comedy Center for generations to come.”

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was also known for attracting top musical artists of the era including the Who, Simon and Garfunkel, Steppenwolf, Mama Cass Elliot and Judy Collins.

Tom Smothers accompanied John Lennon and Yoko Ono on guitar in June 1969 for the recording of the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance” during Lennon and Ono’s second “Bed-in for Peace” PR stunt to protest the war in Vietnam. After the brothers’ battles with CBS and censorship, they were embraced by fellow artists as counterculture heroes and free-speech warriors.

“The Smothers and their team of writers tested censorship boundaries by showcasing controversial political content, the majority of which focused on contemporary anti-war themes as well as racial justice, drugs, and other risqué humor. [‘Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’] highlighted social consciousness and thought-provoking concepts, which it introduced via comedic mediums, while bridging the generation gap by featuring both established artists and new talent,” according to a recent University of California at Santa Barbara article on the series and its impact.

“During the show’s third season in 1968-69, the Smothers increasingly chafed against network censorship brought on by political pressures. The show was ultimately canceled in 1969 by network CEO and President William Paley, with the reason given that the Brothers failed to meet pre-air episode delivery dates. In response, Tom and Dick filed a successful lawsuit against CBS, proving they had met all contract requirements and had been canceled unjustly. Unfortunately, the original [‘Smothers Brothers’] never returned to the air.”

Both Tom and Dick Smothers were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2010. Tom was belatedly awarded an Emmy in 2008 for his writing contributions to “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” after choosing to remove his name from the ballot for the 1969 Emmys out of fear of stirring controversy. Steve Martin presented the commemorative award in 2008.

Smothers’ survivors include Marcy Carriker Smothers, his children Bo and Riley Rose Smothers, grandson Phoenix, sister-in-law Marie Smothers, and several nephews and a niece.