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For over 40 years this dynamic duo have been impressing audiences
with their brand of comedy. Here Tom Smothers tells GARY JAMES about
how he was heckled by Harry Nillsson and John Lennon

Smothers Brothers There is simply no other act in the world like The Smothers Brothers. And it's unlikely that anyone will follow in their footsteps. For 43 years they have been entertaining audiences on stage, television and records.

GJ: Was it your intention when you were starting off, to see this act through as a career or did you think you'd only have a couple of years?

TS: My brother Dickie thought of it as a summer job that extended. I had no idea it would have this kind of longetivity. I always wanted to be a musician first. When I was a youngster I really wanted to be a bandleader. The comedy thing started coming in and I said, well that's pretty cool too. Our first 10 years were non-stop. 1959-1969 was like a roller coaster, straight up. The 70s were the dark Ages where we did Dinner Theatre and different things, like starting a winery. In the 80s we started working again and we ended up with a television series again. I guess people have never really achieved until they've fallen and risen again.

GJ: I don't believe anyone has tried to copy your act have they?

TS: Oh, it's kind of hard to do (laughs). It was unique. The form we used was pretty different. I always claim our success was based on this uniqueness. It was like the Wright Brothers plane. It was pretty unique. It was the first one, but it wasn't really a good plane (laughs). But, people paid attention.

GJ: I'm not sure that I would make that analogy. The Smothers Brothers were pretty good…

TS: I listened to some early stuff and I thought, oh man, the first album was a little shaky.

GJ: Who did the Smothers Brothers model themselves on?

TS: No-one.

GJ: So how long did it take to work up that act?

TS: It took quite a while 'cause I did all the talking. I just kind of ramble and make up lies about the songs were gonna sing, and Dickie would occasionally say "that's wrong". I said you ought to do some introductions yourself; he said "I don't know what to say". I said write something down and say it. Pretty soon, he'd say "That's wrong, you're stupid." Pretty soon, "You're wrong and you're stupid." Then he'd start talking more and more. Finally in the seventies we were doing a Broadway show called 'I Love My Wife' in New York for about a year. During the daytime we'd watch television. We'd see Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello. I kept looking at them and said "My God, the straight man does most of the talking". So when we started working again I put the pressure on Dick. His voice is going two-thirds of the time and I'm going about one-third. And that's probably what gave us a chance at longevity, watching the fact that Bud Abbott did ninety per cent of the talking. Oliver Hardy was the same. In the early days of Vaudeville , the straight man was paid more. His was the skilled position, like a drummer or bass player in a band. If the audience believes the straight man, they'll believe the comic. But if the straight man isn't any good, then everything becomes false.

GJ: Do you ever get people asking you why you never played a song straight through without a wisecrack?

TS: We get that all the time. After the shown, somebody will say "Why don't you finish a song?" You know, we come pretty close. We used to put in two songs that we finished all the way. Endings are hard (laughs).

GJ: You were on 'Give Peace A Chance' weren't you?

TS: I was playing guitar on that.

GJ: In 1975 you were playing The Troubadour when there was an interruption in your act…

TS: Oh yeah, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. Harry was a dear friend. I told him I was going to go out to New York and work a place called The Cellar Door. Dick and I hadn't been working. I told him that I was going to work on some material. The club manager said "Hey! Harry Nilsson is here!" I said "C'mon! Someone says he's Harry Nilsson!" Harry had gotten on a plane to see me ad-lib my way through a show without my brother. I got up there, and I bombed. I followed some folk-rock group. I did an hour and a half worth of material in twenty minutes. my timing was off. I asked the audience if they had any questions and pretty soon it got a little loud. Harry started hollering questions from the balcony. Some guy below started heckling. I only got my act together on the third night.

Not very long after Dick and I opened up at The Troubadour, Harry told John Lennon "Tom really likes heckling because he doesn't have an act and it helps him (laughs). So they came all ripped and stoned and started yelling stuff and it turned into a riot.

GJ: Were you amazed or angry when they were creating all this commotion?

TS: Oh, I was angry. This wasn't like the Cellar Door when I was on my own. It got a little out of hand. Paul Newman was there and a whole bunch of Hollywood people. Every time there was a silence, they would holler something crude. Of course it got pretty heated. I got flowers from Lennon and flowers from Harry and they apologised the next day.

GJ: Did you know it was John Lennon who was thrown out of the club that night?

TS: Yeah.

GJ: Because Harry told you he was bringing John along?

TS: No, he didn't. I saw people coming in. I knew they were there but I didn't know they were going to disrupt the whole thing, though.

GJ: Are you surprised what TV shows get away with these days in terms of political humor? It makes what you did on The Smothers Brothers Show tame in comparison…

TS: You have to put it in context. In prime today, you hear no political satire. Back in the 1960s we were in prime time, saying get out of Central America, get out of Vietnam. It's pretty well controlled now. All political satire is being done in the fringes: 11.30 PM or Saturday Night Live. That's when there's hardly anybody watching. There's an illusion of free speech. People say "Don't you wish you were on television now, Tom, you could say anything you want". I say, well, I'm not hearing very much - a lot of vulgarity but not a lot of content.

GJ: Do you ever get tired of doing all the promotional events, and interviews, to help sell your shows?

TS: No. I enjoy the interviews. It's the travel that wears you out. It's disruptive.

GJ: With 103 performances in 2001 do you remember when you played the Verona, New York and the Turning Stone Casino?

TS: Yeah. The place was beautiful.

GJ: Are you coming back?

TS: I don't know, it depends. We did a lot of shows last year and I was surprised at the response. We're nearing the end of our career and we re selective about live dates. We're lucky that people still come out to see us. We just take it year by year. We have a cancellation clause. If people stop showing up, or we lose our edge, and it's not funny any more we just wrap it up.

© 2002 Gary James. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.


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