I know going into this piece that not too many readers are going to be familiar with the two men in this photograph, Tom and Dick Smothers. This goes way back in time to a television series that was cancelled in early 1969, months before the Manson/Tate hoax slammed the door on the anti-Vietnam War movement of that era. I enjoyed the boys, even as I recognized the only true comedic chops belonged to “Tommy” on the left. Dick on the right was a man with a light sprinkling of talent, a bass player who could sing, but not very well. He was used as Tommy’s straight man. He also, later in his career, took a shot at acting. He was not very good at that either.
I sat down to watch this panel discussion of the boys and their television career last week, and quickly realized that the whole thing, the origins of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and how it went off the rail and became a vehicle for anti-war protest was … nonsense. No one gains such a high-profile as that without support from high up. More about that later. First …
It took me a long time to understand this concept, not in the mechanics, but rather how embedded it is in our landscape. The idea that people spring up from grassroots to oppose those in power is intriguing. It can happen, does happen, but we never hear about them. Those who are allowed the spotlight are controlled. Otherwise, no notice. Every Democratic political leader – Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi … is controlled opposition. If they strike us as insincere and lacking authenticity, it is because that is what they are.
The Dave McGowan (fake death 11/22/2015) book Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon was fake opposition about the fake opposition in the music business during this same era. No musician of that time came to prominence without high-up support. He wrote about their fake deaths as if they were not, like his own … fake. (I am linking there to the Weird Scenes Facebook page. I was allowed to post one time, mentioning that McGowan’s death was faked, and was quickly banned – within minutes! I even said in my comment that I only had a little time to make my point, so pay close attention.)
It is true to this day – no one in the music business rises to fame without support from above. Many lack real talent, and thousands of people who have real talent have to do something else for a living. You’ll find them having day jobs while playing small venues like bars and coffee shops – if you love real musical talent, that is where to look.
Comedy is a little harder – laughter can be faked, but real audience delight is something we can sense. There are plenty of fakes around. Louis CK, Dave Attell, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Ricky Gervais, Bill Hicks, Mark Maron, Patton Oswald … are not that funny! Audiences can be guided by power of suggestion, but I don’t see much in the way of people who are naturally funny. I enjoy Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Letterman, Conan O’Brien, John Mulaney, Brian Reagan … they seem gifted and come across as genuine.
Have I offended everyone now? Do I seem smug in castigating our current offerings in comedy? Relax. It is just my opinion. It is all subjective.
The Smothers Family
Tommy Smothers was, in my opinion, naturally funny, and the only reason that the Smothers Brothers act had any steam at all. His facial expression, childlike fake hurt feelings and feigned stupidity all combined to cause genuine laughter. For me, anyway.
The Smothers Brothers today operate the Remick Ridge Vineyards. That name, Remick, is a key behind their success. But let’s go back to the beginning.
Tom (February 2, 1937, age 82) and Dick (November 20, 1939, 79) were the sons of Thomas B. and Ruth (nee Remick) Smothers. Thomas Sr. was a U.S. Army Officer, hence the boys were both born on Governor’s Island, New York. That was a then an Army base, and was a military base going way back in time, even before the Revolution.
I am going to do a little genealogy here, with the reader’s understanding that I’m not very good at it, and also that there is a lot of guesswork on my end with smoke and mirrors on the other. Tom and Dick’s father, Thomas Bolyn Smothers was a major in the army, and a graduate of West Point. His generations go back only a few, to maybe 1795, when I arrive at “unknown unknown” as parents. His profile is managed by Erica Howton, a name that rings a bell. There is no “Smothers” in ThePeerage.Com, but there is a Smithers. I won’t guess on that matter.
It gets interesting. Here is the official story, from Find A Grave:
Graduated from West Point, Class of 1929. [Thomas Bolyn Smothers] became member of the 45th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts. Report date: 7 May 1942, he was held at Hoten POW Camp (Mukden) Manchuria 42-123. He survived the Bataan Death March only to die on a Japanese Hellship, they were en route to Korea, when a Allied pilot [sic] mistakenly bombed the ship, he was a victim of friendly fire. He was buried at sea. There is a monument at Fort William Mckinley, Manila, The Philippines. His family was awarded the Purple Heart Medal & Bronze Star Medal. He left three children: Tom, Dick & Sherry and wife, Ruth Remick Smothers.
It is always dicey to imply a fake death on someone when indeed the death might have been real. I have a slight problem with this one, and so tentatively offer that problem, with all due respect to the family: No body.
Further, the family moved to Redondo Beach, California after the war. That is an exclusive beach community in southern Los Angeles, though they could easily have lived far away from the more exclusive properties. It is hard to be in the present and try to imagine someplace now as it was then. I suspect, however, that the move, from Governor’s Island to Redondo Beach, might well have followed the career of Major Smothers, still alive at that time and engaged in some other Intelligence function. Not everyone can just move from one coast to the other, from a military compound to a beach community.
In this sense, the careers of Tom and Dick Smothers might well have belonged with all the others in McGowan’s Weird Scenes – military brats, connected to military intelligence.
The real diamond in the Smothers background is the mother, Ruth Remick Smothers. Her lineage goes back into the 1600s in New York state, and of course, in it is contained a “George Washington Remick.” That is a common thing I have encountered quite often in the peerage, that first and middle name. (The Remick line is also managed by Erica Howton.) I did not find the name “Remick” in the peerage.
We are told that the Remick Ridge Vineyard was owned and managed by Ed Remick, Ruth Smothers’ father. I can only surmise that since it is now owned by Tom and Dick Smothers, they inherited it, and further, that it has been in the family for generations. Vineyards in Sonoma Valley are treasure troves, and no one could afford to purchase on a mid-range entertainer’s salary. I have found that, federal reserve notes aside, real assets stay in the families. They have real value and do not change hands. The term for this sort of asset control among wealthy families is “landed gentry.”
In other words, the Smothers Brothers were juiced. (Just out of curiosity, I looked up the ancestry of actress Lee Remick. She too was juiced, but this is where I stop, as I would be dealing with various family trees and looking for cross-connections. I’ll leave the genealogy right there, as I have already gotten confused. Better minds must work that stuff.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
I went searching for an appropriate clip from the TV show, and settled on the one above because at five minutes it is short enough that readers might actually watch it. There is a treasure trove of Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour material available, enough that I might spend some tired evenings watching them. Much of it was original and funny. The show had very good writers, and strong production values.
The clip above was considered avant–garde for its time, the young lady, Leigh French placing the word “Hate” across the weather map, and then changing it to “Hope.” She daringly makes references to “hot hordes,” a play on words speaking of girls on the California beaches, and of marijuana … then a verboten subject. She was pushing the envelope.
The show, when it came on, was aimed at younger viewers ages 15-25, and so got me where I lived, then 18. I and my classmates eagerly waited each episode and chatted them up each week. The controversy around the show made it all the more interesting. Styles had changed during that time, young people with longer hair and hippie-like costumes. Unknown to us, this sort of new fashion was handed us from above, a product of the music scene introduced by Vito Paulekas and his Laurel Canyon dancing girls, and slowly expanded on us as if a natural grassroots phenomenon. It was not an accident.
The show itself was handed to us as a natural event as well. However, the cast of characters was too good to be spontaneous. Writers included Albert Einstein (“Albert Brooks”) and his brother Bob (Super Dave Osborn), Steve Martin, Mason Williams (Classical Gas), Rob Reiner and Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci). Musical guests paraded through – Jefferson Airplane, Peter Paul and Mary (themselves controlled opposition), Steppenwolf and even Pete Seeger, long banned from American television. The Beatles even used the venue to introduce Hey Jude and Revolution, the first of the musical video genre. George Harrison stopped by now and then – that doesn’t normally happen with ordinary programming. It was as if the mildly-talented brothers were magnets for people with real star power.
They had us. How could they not given such a parade of talent? And then, just as abruptly, it was all taken away. The show was cancelled in the spring of 1969. It would reappear now and then, but the magic was gone. Tom and Dick went back to live performances. (I saw them many years ago in Billings, Montana and saved a poster advertising the performance, long since lost.)
The assumption behind the rise and fall of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is that it started out mildly counter-cultural, and then got wild and carried away, part of the anti-Vietnam war movement. Given what we know now about Tom and Dick, wealthy landed gentry, only lightly talented, having no barriers before them to attaining national fame, it is safe to say that the show was given to us to herd us into one place for a beating. That is the whole point of controlled opposition, to lead us … nowhere, dash our hopes, leaving us with a feeling of fugue, nowhere to go with our best and brightest instincts.
I think of Tom and Dick Smothers as the Bernie Sanders of my youthful era, put in place to show the way out, but in fact going nowhere by design. They played victims very well, engaging in a lawsuit with CBS and landing a large settlement for cancellation of the show before the contract expired. That does not read well … that is, it adds to the idea that the show and the Brothers Smothers were a natural phenomenon, but it smells more like a fake script. I have seen fake court proceedings all around me since my awakening years back, and this has that odor about it.
But I must say, it was fun. I enjoyed every episode and found Tommy Smothers delightfully entertaining. I even thought he played a mean guitar. It never occurred to me that the boys had turned to comedy because they could not do music very well, and that while offering some very funny material, probably none of it was original. It does not work that way for improbable success stories of members of the landed gentry. They did not happen on us by accident. They were part of the scripted events of the late 1960s, designed to bring us up and then tear us down, to destroy that word that Leigh French wrote across that chalk board above … HOPE.