When elevator the doors open at CBS Television City, there are only two people inside; Carol Burnett and Groucho Marx. I manage to gushingly introduce myself as a brand new writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Carol politely congratulates me, and then Groucho shakes my hand, says, “Nice to meet you, Ted. You know, you’re much shorter in person.”
The elevator only goes up two floors, but I’m already in heaven.
Two days ago, this was only a dream. Literally.
It is a Friday afternoon in late August, stifling hot even up here in the Malibu mountains. Right now I’m in the employee lounge at L.A. County’s Juvenile Detention Camp, Kilpatrick, trying to catch a fifteen minute nap before I begin my four hour shift supervising the dorm. I must have dozed off because I’m dreaming that someone is poking me, telling me that Sandy is on the phone. I have fantasized about this call so many times in the past week that it must be a dream. But no, because I open my eyes to Margo, our tight ass, humorless office manager.
As I hurry across the hallway into the office, Margo reminds me about the rules of no sleeping in the employee’s lounge and no business calls at camp. If this call is what I hope it is, perhaps I will tell Margo to go fuck herself.
I pick up the phone - and I still remember his first words: “Are you sitting down?” Sandy says they loved the Dirty Dozen sketch and want to hire me on staff! I start in two days, on Monday! I am getting the minimum salary of five hundred a week. That isn’t exactly minimum to me, considering as a Probation Officer, I’m getting $750 a month. I’m so surprised, I say it out loud, five hundred a week?!
On Monday I am going to fulfill a dream. I do not tell Margo to go fuck herself. She has eavesdropped on the call and the look on her face is enough.
From Here to:
Here - In Two Days.
As I walk down this wide hallway towards the Smothers offices, I’m passing poster sized color photographs of the CBS stars of the era: Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, George Burns, Doris Day – And, holy shit, look at me! I’m here too!
I’m also amidst the swirl of other people going about their business; Network executives (always in suits), production assistants (never in suits because they actually work), prop guys, make up people, set decorators (wouldn’t be caught dead in a suit.) I will soon learn that those who are not in show business are called (by us), “Earth People.” Thus, we are special; we are not of this earth. Surely not me, not now!
Suddenly, turning a corner and coming right at me is Lily Tomlin, being escorted by a couple of guys in suits. As she sweeps by, she gives me one of those ambivalent smiles that suggests she doesn’t know me, but because I’m here in this building, I might be someone important. This heady feeling of acceptance and importance will last for, oh, about another two minutes.
In the Smothers’ outer office I casually drop my name to the outrageously cute receptionist in the miniskirt, white boots and Streisand bob. It is immediately apparent that Lily Tomlin isn’t the only person who doesn’t know who I am.
I’m sent down the hall to the associate producer who tells me that we’re short of office space and I have to share one with another brand new writer. No problem. I’ll be more comfortable around another rookie, maybe even make a new friend, might even learn something.
Mark “No” to all of the above.
Might as well get this out of the way right now: This article goes back over four decades and obviously some of the people mentioned here have died. In most cases I’m going to write about them as if they were still around. It’s my tribute to some and it also saves a lot of time having to keep score. I also will not hesitate to speak ill of the dead. Some will say this isn’t fair because they aren’t here to defend themselves. But, life isn’t fair so why should death be? I will have some nice and not so nice things to say about many people, dead or alive. So lighten up, it’s only my opinion - and my way of tainting those who can’t get back at me.
A few minutes later I meet my new roomie, Jerry Music. He’s a short, rotund, bearded and balding man, just a few years older than I. When he pumps my hand I immediately get the impression he’s running for something and needs my vote. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but man oh man, this guy really likes me! I will soon learn that Jerry is this way with everybody
Jerry Music will soon change his first name to Lorenzo and he will eventually be credited with co creating one of the better sitcoms in television history, The Bob Newheart Show. His voice will become nationally recognizable as Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda and the cartoon voice of Garfield the Cat. So, obviously there were plenty of people who thought better of him than I. He will pass away far too soon, in 2001. However, I am going to speak ill of him anyway.
On that first day, Lorenzo and I are told that there will be a writer’s meeting the following morning. On a 30 minute sitcom its mostly coming up with story premises for individual episodes. However, an hour comedy/variety show needs much more and varied material; ideas for monologues, sketches, musical numbers, song parodies, teasers (A teaser is that quick, one minute spot that opens the show before the first commercial.) We’ll also be thinking of ideas for recurring pieces, like Pat Paulsen’s editorials or Leigh French’s, Tea With Goldie. Plus, we need ideas on how to use the guest stars on upcoming shows.
Not only are Lorenzo and I sharing an office, but they also want us to try working as a team. Theoretically, writing teams are more productive. One member of the team might be stronger in story construction, the other with the joke. I’ve worked both as a team and as a single, have no problem with either. But, with a team there has to be some kind of chemistry.
Naturally we want to make a good first impression, so Lorenzo and I get to work. By the end of the day, putting it diplomatically, I feel that our writing skills and sense of humor differ widely. Putting it not so diplomatically, I keep thinking, “Jesus, where the fuck did they find this guy?!”
But, I say nothing. It’s only our first day and perhaps my perception is skewered. Maybe were both just nervous, trying too hard, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, I think I’ve come up with a couple of pretty good ideas for the show and I’m excited, looking forward to tomorrow’s meeting.
The next morning as we all file into the producer’s office, I’m the one with the fraternity pledge smile plastered to my face. At the moment, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is the hottest thing on television, the show that is threatening to knock number one Bonanza out of first place in the ratings. I’m thrilled just to be in the room.
This is early September, the beginning of the first full season and many of us are meeting for the first time. I immediately notice two guys sitting together on a couch across the room. Both in their mid thirties, they radiate a bemused, casual confidence and, unlike me, look like they belong. Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick are a team that will become best known for writing several successful Broadway plays, including, Norman, Is That You? and Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. Ron and Sam will become my best friends on Smothers, my mentors and confidants. They will not only help with my writing, but also guide me through the minefield of wicked, petty politics that will run rampant on this show. Their office will become my classroom, my sanctuary and I’m not sure I could have survived without them.
Al Gordon and Hal Goldman are both in their early fifties, the old pros on the staff. They’ve been writing together for over fifteen years and have already won an Emmy for The Jack Benny Program. Al is a little fireplug of a man, a chatterbox, always kibitzing. Al is the one who is “good in a room”. If you need a joke, he’s your guy.
I want to be like Al.
Mason Williams takes his guitar everywhere, even to writer’s meetings. Right now he is over in a corner by himself, messing with some chords. In a few months he will have a number one hit song, Classical Gas and a new, best selling album. Uninvited, he will come into our offices and hand out autographed copies of same, which some of us find a bit pretentious. Although Mason is credited with writing some of Tom and Dick’s superb nightclub material, I could never pin down anything specifically funny he wrote on the TV show. I always thought Mason was intensely in love with himself and immensely over rated as a comedy writer. Normally, I just stay away from guys like him, but I will come to actively dislike Mason because he was also extremely adept at nasty, malicious, behind the back office politics. When I eventually found out that he was saying some ugly, totally bullshit things about me, I immediately blew into his office, told him if he bad mouthed me again, I was going to play soccer with his guitar, his albums and his ass. And this was waaay before soccer became popular.
I’m not alone in my feelings about Mason. Our two producers, Ernie Chambers and Saul Illson, Ron, Sam, Hal and Al and are not overly fond of him either. Soon there will be a weekly pool won by the person coming up with the best insult joke made at Mason’s expense. (One of the first was to rename his album, Classical Ass.) However, because he is Tom Smothers roommate and best friend, he is never confronted - except by Ol’ Shoot-Himself-In-The-Foot, me!
Allan Blye and Mason Williams aren’t officially writing partners, but share an office and usually work together, specializing in the elaborate musical comedy numbers. Allan Blye is Canadian, a former rabbi and cantor. Soon after Smothers he will team up with Chris Bearde (a writer from Laugh In) and they will go on to a very successful career writing and producing such shows as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Super Dave and The Andy Williams Show. Allan is pleasant enough to me, but we will not become friends nor do I ever go to him for advice. I think the fact that he worked so closely with Mason kept me away.
The writer’s meetings are overseen by producers, Ernie Chambers and Saul Illson. Both in their late thirties, they are gracious men who approach most problems with an even keel and gentle humor. Ernie Chambers is particularly supportive and will provide me with an incredibly simple piece of writing advice that I still use to this day. It happened a few weeks after this meeting, when I was having trouble constructing the story line for a sketch.
I’m going to stop here to emphasize how important story construction is to a writer. The story is the foundation that you hang everything else on; the characters, the dialogue and the jokes. Let’s use the analogy of a completed script being like the human body. Okay, now whether it is a two hour screenplay or a six minute sketch, think of the story as the skeleton. Simply, if the skeleton/story is weak or flawed, the whole thing sags, doesn’t quite work, sometimes will collapse altogether. Anytime I’m having a persistent problem writing, the first thing I do is go back and look at the story. Incidentally, this is why many producers will ask for a story outline (also called a “treatment”) before committing to a full script.
Ernie Chambers gives me a simple, concise formula for story construction: “Get your characters up a tree, throw rocks at them, and then get them down.” Another words, create a problem, complicate the problem, solve the problem.
However, before you can start constructing the story, you need the idea. In my workshops we also pitched ideas, however that was kid’s stuff. This morning I am playing with the big boys. I am in, you might say, The Adult Joke Store.
Ernie begins by announcing that we have scored a major coup by booking one of the top musical acts in the country, Simon and Garfunkel. Paul and Art have also shown an affinity for comedy, so Ernie wants us to start thinking of something for them.
Beautiful! Perfect! Jerry and I got this nugget of information late yesterday and I have come up with what I think is a very cute idea: It basically involves a supposed accidental cue card mix-up, wherein the singers have to work off Tom and Dick’s cards instead of their own. So, the deadpan Paul Simon has to do goofy, Tommy Smothers-type Material.
Does This Seem Like Filler to You too?
But, for the moment I don’t say anything. And, for good reason.
Like in most office environments, there are protocols, mostly unwritten, but they evolve from common sense, professional courtesy and a subtle pecking order. When you’re an unproven rookie, best to listen and learn. So, I keep my mouth shut, soaking it all up, deferring to the older guys, the obvious A-teams. My time will come.
And, no doubt about it, these meetings are also a measure of a writer’s stature. Yes, what you actually write will be the real test because it will demonstrate you can execute. But, a meeting like this one is high profile and during it you’re definitely being judged.
When comedy writers work together (setting aside the personal ribbing), if someone comes up with a joke or funny idea, a laugh out loud is rare. The typical reaction is a smile, a nod of the head and a, “That’ll work.”
Now the meeting is in full swing - and I’m starting to squirm, becoming more and more uncomfortable. Why? Because my so-called partner, Lorenzo is giggling, laughing, guffawing like this is a late night talk show and he is the ass kissing sidekick of every writer in the room. I notice he’s got it down to a science because he is watching Ernie Chambers, and when Ernie reacts positively to something, Lorenzo will punctuate it with a laugh or a , “That’s great!”, usually both. He is sitting right next to me and there’s nothing I can do unless I am willing to shout, “I totally disown this sycophantic suck up!”
And, this is going to get much worse, right now.
We’re talking about some ideas for Pat Paulsen, the comedian with the Basset Hound face and droll delivery. His fake editorials are already a hit segment on the show and Pat will eventually become so popular that next season he will have a comedic run for President of The United States.
Lorenzo surprises me by suggesting a sketch wherein Pat plays a tired, overworked shoe salesman, waiting on a finicky, overbearing woman. The twist is, as Pat waits on her, the woman is absently humming, singing pieces of songs with the word “Moon” in them. Blue Moon, Moon River, By The Light of the Silvery Moon, etc. And, every time Pat returns from the stockroom with a different shoe, he looks a little bit more like The Wolf Man. The woman is so insufferable, so preoccupied with her shoes that she doesn’t notice that Pat’s face is now covered with hair, his teeth fanged and he’s growling and howling in answer to her questions.
Its a cute idea and everybody loves it. There’s only one problem. It’s my idea, from a workshop sketch I wrote a year ago! I had mentioned it to Lorenzo yesterday and his contribution was to suggest a couple of songs with moon in them.
But, I can’t say anything. Not here, not now. I’ve been here less than two days and I’m not about to raise my hand and whine, “That’s my idea!”
I am so stunned, so pissed that I also forget to mention the Simon and Garfunkel bit.
Apparently, my anger shows because I notice Ron Clark looking at me, shaking his head, a wisp of a smile on his face.
After the meeting I’m still so furious that I don’t trust myself to go back to our office. This isn’t just about my ego, it’s also my job. I was hoping to make a good impression this first day. I’m also a little insecure. I mean, did I miss something here? Did I somehow misunderstand how things are done?
Ron and Sam invite me to lunch at the Farmer’s Market next door. A few days before I arrived, Lorenzo spent some time hanging out in their office.
Nope, I didn’t misunderstand.
Tomorrow, Lorenzo and I will have a little talk.
The next morning as I walk into our office, my intended confrontation with Lorenzo is immediately forgotten – because, as I look around, I am, no exaggeration, struck speechless!
Yesterday, Lorenzo stayed late (apparently, very late) and has turned our office into Nineteen Sixty Seven!
For openers (no pun intended) the door is gone, replaced with a curtain of beads. The bulbs in all the lamps have been painted purple, green, blue, whatever. There’s also a strobe light that makes the new psychedelic posters on the wall shimmer and undulate, instantly giving me a ripping headache. There’s candles and incense burning, an Indian rug on the floor, bean bag chairs, even a tiffany lamp and a…a hookah! The only thing missing is Janis Joplin singing Ball and Chain and a Chicago cop beating the crap out of somebody.
“What do you think?” Lorenzo says, grinning proudly.
Apparently the word is out because people start parting the beads, looking in, oohing and aahhing. Ron Clark, married, owner of a Cadillac and a new baby, peeks in, looks at me with empathy and amusement, says, “Groovy!”
I’ve always been rather proud of my sense of whimsy and the ability to make a fool of myself, especially if it will get a laugh. But this? This has nothing to do with being hip or daring or antiestablishment. I consider this lame, a sad attempt to attract attention - and all I want to do is be far away. Lorenzo and I are like a bad first date. But, instead of it being over in a few hours, I could be stuck with this guy for the next eight months. No thank you. No way.
View of Headache From Inside my Brain.
Ten minutes later I’m back in the Associate Producer’s office, begging: Get me out of there! I’ll take anything! George says, sorry were packed tight…humm…unless...
I’m so desperate, I miss the twinkle in his eye.
Wow, I now have my very own office! And, it’s huge! High ceilings, varnished hardwood floors and there’s even a piano. I’m over in a corner, sitting on a folding bridge chair at a battered metal desk. I’ve also got a lamp, a typewriter and a wastebasket. But that’s cool, at least I have a real door.
I get to work. After an hour or so, our Musical Director, Nelson Riddle comes in and starts tinkling on the piano. Nelson Riddle is one of the most celebrated musical arrangers in the business, currently producing a string of hit albums with Frank Sinatra. So, I’m not about to suggest he take himself and the piano somewhere else. Hey, come on, Ted, you’re a professional, tune it out and get back to work! And, I actually do. This is going to be all right!
About a half hour later, The Ron Poindexter Dancers come slithering in. Okay, a plump, middle aged musical director I can ignore, but now I’m looking at a dozen beautiful girls with professionally perfect bodies encased in thin, almost transparent leotards. I try not to stare, but nipples are everywhere!
If you’ve already figured out that George has put me in the music rehearsal room, you’re a lot quicker than I was. This will be my office for the rest of the season.
Before we move on, I want to make it clear that it is not my intention to denigrate the persona and rather bountiful legacy of Lorenzo Music. Looking back, having endured and absorbed a few more of life’s lessons, I don’t think Lorenzo deliberately, with malice, ripped me off. I believe he was a survivor, a guy who made the most of the talent he had using his people skills, networking and politics. We co-existed for the rest of that season with not a negative word. At the end of the year, I was let go and he was asked to stay. Maybe I could have learned a lesson from him.
To me, the old Fats Waller song, This Joint is Jumping best describes the last half of the sixties. The whole country feels like one big cocktail shaker. Everything I grew up with in the fifties is being challenged, turned upside down: Morality, music, civil rights, fashion - and then there’s my father constantly harping, “When are you going to get a haircut!” I ignore him. This is my time.
CBS Television City is a three story, box-like building occupying half a city block on the corner of Fairfax and Beverly boulevards. This is the Fairfax District, one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The Fairfax High football squad is a perennial doormat, but the debating team is Super Bowl caliber. And, it is said that in the kitchen of Canters Delicatessen, even the rats wear yarmulkes. Because of the low rents in the area, it also attracts the “Flower Children.” It is common to see braless girls with flowers in their hair, guys with ponytails and tie dye t-shirts, alongside Hasidic Jews in their black suits and prayer shawls. Not surprising that The Free Press Book Store, the hub of the counterculture in L.A. chooses to set up shop here. And, all along Fairfax Boulevard, mostly heading east, thrift stores, music stores and head shops thrive alongside kosher meat markets and bakeries.
However, on the west side of CBS is the upscale, touristy Farmer’s Market. Here, there are gourmet fruit stands, food stalls, gift shops and a pet store where you can buy a doggie sweater emblazoned with the Star of David for your $500, pure bred Yorkie puppy.
Not far to the East is Laurel Canyon, the spawning ground of such sixties legends as The Doors, The Mamma’s and Pappas, Sonny and Cher. I also live in Laurel Canyon, in a studio apartment with my Basset Hound, Fred.
I am not exactly a member of the counter culture. First, I’m a little too old, already in my late twenties. Second, I haven’t got the time or inclination for all the drugs and social protest, I’m just trying to hang onto my job. I don’t dress the part either because I allow my mother to be my fashion consultant. Bullocks, Robinson’s and The May Company are not exactly on the cutting edge of counter couture.
However, there are a number of attractive things in this era that I do get into. (Pun unavoidable.) When I was in high school, significant sex demanded at least going steady, meeting her parents, always trying to sustain that shy, virginal, misleading little smile. But, now I can drive along Fairfax or Sunset or through Laurel Canyon and there are these yummy young things hitchhiking everywhere. And, with Fred as a chick magnet, my own apartment and a little bit of weed for the slow starters, I am scoring big! Goddamn, if I was a football coach, this would be running up the score!
One day I pick up a freshly scrubbed, breathtaking little blonde. She’s just five months out of high school and has hitchhiked here from Nebraska. Fred is already licking her, getting her ready for me. But, the third thing she asks me (after, “Where are you going?” and, “Can I come?”) is, “Are you an Orange Communist?”
I, thinking this is some kid of new cult thing, answer, “No, I’m not a joiner.”
She says, “No, I mean, do you want an Orange Communist.”
I learn that an Orange Communist is a type of LSD. And Nebraska, extolling its sensual virtues, says she never has sex without it.
I am not, repeat, not making this up.
I say no thank you. Later today I have to buy groceries and dog food, so I need to remain in the solar system.
Unfortunately, it isn’t long before that murderous little shit, Charlie Manson comes along and puts a damper on everything. Suddenly, before a girl will go to bed with you, she needs to know things about you, like your name.
Do Not Get in Car With Him.
At Smothers, it’s becoming clear that I’m in this writing thing over my head. Yes, I have talent, but I’m woefully lacking in experience and fundamentals. I’m hanging on by getting little bits into the show, like Tommy’s introduction of guest, Ravi Shankar, the Indian Musician and Beatles collaborator. I have Tommy call him, "Rabbi Shankar." Dick corrects him and Tommy apologizes with an, “Oy vey!” It gets a very good laugh and gives me some much needed confidence. Another Tommy malaprop is introducing the musical group, Herman’s Hermits as “Herman’s Helmets.” Dick again corrects him: “Tommy, its Herman’s Hermits. Hermits, not helmets. Tommy nods, says, “Kinda hard to put a hermit on your head.”
However, the piece I come up that probably saves my job is derived from a joke that I had recently heard somewhere. I think it’s the perfect teaser for Tom and Dick to open the show, but it creates a dilemma. Simply, its not my joke. But, I’m desperate, so I decide to gamble. I’ll write it, submit it, and if anybody says anything, well, I’ll…Oh, come on, its just a joke that has been going around! Who the hell knows where it came from? (I tell myself.)
So, I write it and everybody loves it and two weeks later it gets on the air. Here’s an approximation of how it went:
We open on Tom and Dick. They say the usual, Hi, welcome to the show, our guests tonight are, blah, blah, blah. Then, Tommy says that since the show is on at a time when a lot of little kids have to go to bed, he would like to tell them a bedtime story. Dick compliments Tommy on a thoughtful idea. Tommy looks into the camera and begins:
Once upon a time, there was this big game hunter who was walking through the dark, dark, dark, darkest part of the jungle. He is very brave, but he wishes he had a flashlight. Suddenly, he sees a big elephant. A really big, huge, big, big, elephant! The elephant sees the hunter and trumpets a warning!
(Tommy makes trumpeting noise.)
The hunter knows that this really big, huge, big, big, elephant could kill him with a single swipe of it’s really big, huge, big, trunk - or squash him like a teeny, tiny, itsy bitsy little bug. So, the hunter starts to back away. He's brave, but not stupid. But, then he sees that the elephant has a big thorn stuck in its foot. The hunter comes forward, bends over and gently removes the sharp thorn from the elephant’s foot. The elephant looks at the hunter, the hunter looks at the elephant. The elephant smiles, then gets up, turns and disappears into the jungle…
Many, many years later, the hunter goes to the circus. He’s having a very nice time when suddenly a bunch of elephants come out and start doing tricks. Then, this one really big, huge, big, big elephant turns and looks at the hunter. The hunter looks back at the elephant. The elephant smiles. Then, it slowly walks all the way across the ring to the hunter. The two of them gaze into each other’s eyes, then the elephant reaches out, gently picks the hunter up in its trunk - and then slams him to the ground, breaking every bone in his body and killing him dead!
Dick is appalled, says: Tommy!!!
Tommy turns to the camera and with a devilish grin, says, “Wasn’t the same elephant.”
The piece is so successful that it even makes the show’s comedy album. No one has ever said anything to me about its origin. Still, I vow never again to consciously use anything that isn’t 100% original with me. And I haven’t.
Soon I will write a joke that Tom Smothers loves and I don’t. This simple little gag is a harbinger of the dissension that will soon infest our show.
Premiering this same season on NBC is Laugh In. Its an innovative departure from the conventional comedy-variety show format of mid to long sketches, elaborate musical numbers and guest stars in somewhat stogy, predictable pieces. Other than Rowan and Martin’s opening monologue, little on Laugh In is predictable or seems to last more than a few seconds. The show is fresh, fast paced, an instant, colossal success.
This is not lost on Tommy Smothers. He asks us writers to start coming up with quicker pieces and blackouts. A blackout is a very quick, self-contained joke. Set up. Punch line. Go to black. Next!
In Case You Were Still a Twinkle in Your Mother's Boyfriend's eye.
I get to work. I’m very good at these quick pieces because they don’t require a lot of structure. After a couple of days I’ve got about two dozen blackouts. There’s one I’m not totally comfortable with, but I turn it in anyway. The set up is basically good, but I haven’t yet found the perfect punch line. However, I’ve learned to throw anything reasonable out there and hope that it will eventually morph into something better.
This one joke that will cause me so much trouble needs a little historical perspective:
In the late sixties the term, “Credibility gap” was used to describe the difference between the bullshit (now called, “Spin”.) that the Lyndon Johnson administration was putting out about Vietnam - and the truth. Credibility gap was a very popular term used by those who opposed the war.
In my “flawed” blackout, Tommy is dressed as a painter. He appears perplexed as he stands in front of an easel, paint brush and palate in hand. Dick enters and asks Tommy what’s wrong. Tommy replies he’s trying to paint a portrait of our president, Lyndon Johnson, but the painting lacks credibility.
Dick says, what’s the problem?
Tommy answers, “Too many gaps in the brush.”
Tommy loves the joke, but I don’t. Oh, it’s okay, but it’s reaching, trying too hard. I like the basic idea, but I was hoping someone would eventually come up with a better punch line. I say this to Tommy.
He is amused and I sense impressed with my honesty, but tells me he’s going to do the joke as is.
This is where I should shut up.
As tactfully as I can, I tell Tommy I don’t believe this joke meets the high standards of our show. I opinion that funny trumps everything and the audience is watching our show for that, not because this weak joke fits his political agenda.
Tommy does the joke anyway and it gets an okay laugh.
As the season progresses into early spring, Ron and Sam’s office becomes the gathering place for a group of us I will call, The Professionals. It consists of Ron, Sam, myself, Al Gordon, Hal Goldman and occasionally, Ernie Chambers and Saul Ilson.
I have named this group, The Professionals because we are all frustrated with what we believe is the deteriorating quality of humor on our show; that the funny is taking a back seat to the political. More and more, if a joke or segment makes a political point, it gets in, even if it is poorly constructed and heavy handed. We may appear frivolous, but we take our license to make people laugh very seriously. We look at it “professionally.” My earlier clash with Tommy about the credibility gap joke was a harbinger of things that are now here.
Its important to make clear that I admire Tommy for wanting to articulate what he believed in. I also think that using humor to comment on social issues and politics is not just to be admired, but crucial to our democracy. However, funny should be Job One. I’ve heard John Stewart say pretty much the same thing.
But Tommy, supported by Mason Williams, Allan Blye and Lorenzo Music, runs the show. And what Tommy wants, Tommy gets. For labeling purposes I will call these guys, The Controversials. This philosophical division between the two camps is not openly acknowledged. We don’t exactly get together on weekends and play each other in softball. However, not one of The Professionals will be asked back for next season.
Where is Dick Smothers in all this? I don’t know. Dick is always pleasant, nods, smiles when we cross paths. But, we exchange maybe a sentence or two in the year I am here. Dick keeps a low profile and most of us have no idea who he really is.
What eventually broke The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour has been been the subject of many articles and books. My view of things was from the ground floor; I wasn’t privy to any of the star vs network battles that went on above me. However, I was there and I saw what I saw.
Again, I have no desire to do a hatchet job on Tommy Smothers. This show occupies an extraordinary place in broadcasting history and it is special to me too. I consider it my birthplace as a comedy writer. But, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my take:
Tommy Smothers had a lot of passion and courage, that’s a given. However, I believe that all morphed into an obsession - which caused him to neglect his first obligation - to make people laugh.
At the end of the season, all The Professionals are fired or leave voluntarily. Tommy promotes Allan Blye and Mason Williams to producers and brings in a bunch of new, very young writers. Yes, Rob Reiner, Bob Einstein and Steve Martin will go on to stupendous careers, but at the time they’re all five years younger than I, even rawer beginners. (Steve Martin has been quoted as saying he had no idea what he was doing.)
Steve Martin & Bob Einstein. (Super Dave.)
Unlike the year before, there is no core of veteran writers like Ron, Sam, Hal and Al to advise. No doubt there are many flashes of brilliance, but you rarely win with a team of rookies. I remember watching and being surprised at the show’s sophomoric inconsistency.
Most who have weighed in on what caused the untimely demise of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour cite censorship and Tommy’s contentious relationship with CBS. I think that was part of it, but I believe the deterioration in the quality of the writing (and the resultant slippage of the ratings) is what really killed it.
At the end of my season on Smothers, our writing staff is nominated for an Emmy, but we don’t win. The following year the rookies are nominated and do win. So...there you go.
And yes, getting in Tommy’s face about the “Credibility Gap” joke probably cost me my job, possibly an Emmy. But still, when I look in the mirror I like what I see.
I’m sure Tommy feels the same way.
Even With Only Two Seasons on The Air, The Show Has Become A TV Comedy Icon.
A few weeks after the end of the season, Ernie Chambers and Saul Ilson host a goodbye party for all the writers at the Magic Castle restaurant up in the Hollywood Hills. Everybody is talking about their next job. Ernie and Saul are set to produce The Leslie Ugguams Show in the fall. Hal and Al are moving over to The Carol Burnett Show and Ron and Sam are going to New York as head writers for The Kraft Music Hall. I am very flattered when Ernie says he thinks I’m talented and will do just fine. However, I am going nowhere but home.
Over the summer the Emmy nominations are announced. My mother asks me what I’m going to wear to the awards.
Mom, everyone wears a tuxedo and I have to go rent one.
Mom says power blue is very “in” this year.
In September, the Emmy ceremonies are held at the Hollywood Palladium and the Smothers Brothers table is right down in front. Frank Sinatra is singing the opening song and I’m captivated by the charisma of this living legend. He is so good, so incredibly enchanting, that it seems like he’s singing to, looking right at me.
It didn’t occur to me until many years later that he probably was looking right at me. Of the hundreds and hundreds of people in the Hollywood Palladium that night, I was the only one wearing a powder blue tuxedo.