Censor the narrator

David Bianculli's love for the Smothers' Brothers Comedy Hour fuels Dangerously Funny so it's no surprise that this a 400 page admiration of the 1960s variety show rather than a critical assessment or a dispassionate history of the show. You'll find a mini biography of Dick and Tom, details about specific shows, and play-by-plays of the shows battles with the CBS censors.

Tommy Smothers emerges as a canny businessman and spotter of talent, committed to his beliefs but also surprisingly driven to propel small disagreements with his bosses into scorched earth battles. Those battles have become part of TV lore. Bianculli's research shows that CBS's censors weren't part of a well-oiled machine trouncing any hint of expressed opinion contrary to the network's own. The censors come across as behind the times and behind the eight ball on most occasions, playing catch up to avoid angering the affiliates. Unfortunately Bianculli doesn't present any information directly from the affiliates, who seem to the be ones who had the biggest problems with what the Smothers' Brothers were putting on screen.

What was on screen combined old-fashioned showbiz stalwarts like George Burns and Bette Davis mixing with the likes of Joan Baez, Glen Campbell, Donovan and the Who. Some of it sounds hilarious  (the Honey House, dedicated to the dead wife from the Bobby Goldsboro hit), some of it ground (and guitar) breaking, some of it woefully dated (Tea with Goldie) and quite a bit involved the bane of my existence, folk music. But that's the challenge of variety shows, not everything scores. The mix of old and new was both the strength of the show and a source of discomfort - viewers who watched for Bette also saw Pete Seeger and were, or the network feared would be, offended.

This is an interesting story and Bianculli tells it well. I wished he'd spent more time exploring why Tom Smothers felt the need to fight CBS over the small stuff rather than save his chits for the bigger battles. It became clear, to me at least, that CBS ultimately fired the Smothers Brothers for being more trouble than their ratings were worth but why Smothers maneuvered himself into a corner where CBS felt it had to fire them to save face it still a mystery.

Prior to reading this book I'd never seen a full episode of the show for various reasons: it was before my time, variety shows frighten me and self-congratulatory Baby Boomerism makes me nauseas. I had heard about the show, mostly in the context of the censorship battles and it being canceled for allegedly nefarious reasons. It's a tribute to Bianculli's infectious enthusiasm for the show that after finishing this book I went in search of episodes to see it for myself. I still think Mason Williams' Classical Gas is more gaseous than "a gas!" and I'd still rather redo the grout in the guest bathroom than have to watch Harry Belafonte or Peter, Paul and Mary. Bianculli's a good writer, not a miracle worker.

I also take issue with Bianculli's contention that nothing on TV has tackled on since the Smothers' Brothers lost their gig, other than David Kelly's Boston Legal. Everything from Chappelle's Show to Law & Order have tackled tough topics in prime time; even Saturday Night Live manages something trenchant once in a while.

A word about the audiobook version. The narrator, Johnny Heller, and the producer of this production should be sentenced to hard time. Heller is fine reading the straight passages but for some reason known only to him, the producer and I presume, Satan, he felt the need to provide an imitation of every single quotation from anyone even the slightest degree of fame. And not a particularly good imitation. It's ok when Heller is imitating Tommy Smothers' halting stage delivery, I guess that helps the listener get the joke. A lame LBJ imitation doesn't help sell the meaning of "I will not seek my party's nomination" and there is absolutely no occasion that calls for an imitation of Harry Belafonte or David Steinberg's speaking voices. None. By chapter five, every time a quote seemed in the offing I cringed in  anticipation of another embarrassing impression by Mr. Heller.

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