Monday, November 28, 2011

PBS airs documentary about the cancellation of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 1960s


Tonight, WETA in Washington presented the 2002 film “Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”, directed by Maureen Muldaur.

CBS took the comedy show off the air in 1969, out of nervousness of the comedy team’s satire of the power structure at the time, especially of the Vietnam war, as Richard Nixon took over.  The show was cancelled in April 1969.  However, CBS had started ordering delivery of the show early for possible censorship in the fall of 1968, even before the election of Nixon.  (That was just about the time that I arrived at Fort Eustis in my own Army service).   CBS, in the “Black Rock building” was quite fearful of the Nixon administration, according to the documentary. 

The film took the position that performers who told the truth and argued for peace and democratic values faced “artistic suicide”.  

The film mentioned the Smothers Brother’s satire of the system of deferments surrounding the Vietnam military draft at the time, where people’s fates were based on “head size.”

The documentary shows typewritten memos where CBS says that the Smothers Brothers will not confine themselves within the taste requirements of the network.  There was also an issue of airing the shows to affiliates as well as owned stations (I remember that concept from my employment at NBC in the 70s.)

There followed an attempt at litigation, claiming that the government had unconstitutionally pressured CBS, presenting a First Amendment issue.  But there was not a First Amendment issue for individual artists on the air; only the owners of networks and stations had constitutional free speech rights in pre-Internet days.  The show won an Emmy award for best writing despite the cancellation.  The show would return in modified form in 1975 and again 1980.

Many celebrities, such as Bill Maher, Joan Baez, Leigh French and Rob Reiner appear.

There are not a lot of detailed links, but here is on from Georgia television. 

The Democratic Underground, involved in the Righthaven litigation, has a forum on it here.

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