NEW YORK — Getting fired from work isn’t usually a cause to celebrate. But the Smothers Brothers aren’t your run-of-the-mill comedians.
The duo has stepped out of retirement to commemorate the day 50 years ago when CBS canceled their show over their political impudence.
Tom and Dick Smothers — aged 80 and 82 respectively — reunited Monday for several appearances at the Chautauqua Institution and the nearby National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York.
“It’s really an honor to be honored in this way,” Tom Smothers told The Associated Press on the eve of the events. “At least we’re both alive and not having someone speak for us. We can mumble our own way through.”
The two discussed their firing in an onstage discussion and later unveiled a display of archival material they donated to the center, including their iconic red suit jackets, Tom’s guitar and Dick’s bass, scripts and creative papers, and legal documents.
“People come up to us and say, ‘We love you guys. I wish you were on television now,’” Tom Smothers recalled. “It’s a different world today.”
CBS abruptly yanked “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in April 1969 because of their persistent and humorous opposition to the Vietnam War, support of civil rights and tweaking authority. They welcomed controversial anti-war guests and resisted efforts to censor the show. The brothers weren’t allowed to use the phrase “sex education” or joke that someone was “a known heterosexual.”
“Don’t tell a comedian not to say a certain word. For sure they’ll do it,” Dick Smothers said. “The funny thing is, I look back at those things. They’re so benign, but at the time they were volatile.”
The brothers responded to their firing by filing a breach of contract lawsuit, in which CBS lost and ultimately had to pay. “We had such a minor payment dollar-wise, but that wasn’t the point,” said Tom Smothers. “We had to do it.”
Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the National Comedy Center, called “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” ”an inflection point for comedy — influencing generations of comedy creators. We look forward to sharing the Smothers Brothers’ important story and preserving it for future generations.”
Tom and Dick Smothers continued to perform up to 200 club and concert dates each year after the firing. They took their comedy show to ABC in 1970, to NBC in 1975, and back to CBS in 1988-89, but they never caught on again.
Many comedians see their influence in such envelope-pushing performers as George Carlin and Bill Maher. Tom Smothers is proud of that legacy but points out that wasn’t the plan.
“We didn’t do it intentionally. No guy goes to war and takes a bullet on purpose,” he said. “You have a mission to do.”