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January 3, 2024

I don’t know why TCM releases its “In Memoriam” video in mid-December because there are usually some deaths of famous people before the end of the year, and sadly, this year was no exception. Among those who passed over the Christmas-New Year’s week were two famous comedians and a highly-honored actor.

British actor Tom Wilkinson died Saturday of undisclosed causes at 75. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for “In The Bedroom” and Best Supporting Actor for “Michael Clayton.” He also appeared in dozens of hit films, including “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Batman Begins,” “The Full Monty,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Stand-up comic Shecky Greene died Sunday in Las Vegas of natural causes at 97. Greene appeared in a number of sitcoms and movies, and was a frequent performer on the old variety shows and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” But his real stomping ground was Las Vegas. He was one of the few performers who was allowed to “go long” (within reason) if he felt like it. Usually, casino bosses strictly enforce show lengths to ensure the crowd leaves the theater and gets back to gambling ASAP. But they knew Shecky drew in the high rollers who would gamble anyway, so they gave them what they wanted.

And last Tuesday, Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers died at home in California at 86, following a battle with cancer.

While the Smothers Brothers are probably best remembered for the controversy over their 1960s CBS series, that was only a small part of a career that spanned decades. Tom and his younger brother Dick started as a folk music act, but they said they didn’t know many songs, so they started doing humorous banter (“Mom always liked you best!”), which took over the act and made them stand out in the self-serious folk music scene. They cut over a dozen albums and even did a short-lived sitcom in 1965 with the ‘60s high concept of Tom being Dick’s dead brother/guardian angel.

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” debuted in 1967 and was an immediate hit with younger audiences. It was the first show to feature hip musical acts like The Who (it’s the show where Keith Moon put explosives in his bass drum without telling anyone and destroyed Pete Townshend’s hearing), and one of the first to feature hippie/pot jokes and do songs and sketches critical of the Vietnam War. It gave a first break to such writers as Steve Martin, Bob Einstein (aka “Super Dave Osborn”) and Mason Williams (“Classical Gas.”) But the controversial political content was too much for CBS, which fired Tom and Dick, sparking a lawsuit. Little remembered is the fact that they actually brought the show back more than once, but its moment had passed. They went on to other endeavors, including live shows, the Broadway hit “I Love My Wife,” Tommy’s winery and his later fame with kids as “The Yo-Yo Man,” showing off his trick yo-yo skills.

Dick Smothers later said that they were actually moderates, and if you look back at the show, its political satire is pretty tame compared to what we see now. It was just the first to do it. Years later, in accepting an honorary Emmy, Tommy jokingly thanked his writers for getting him fired.

I’d recommend checking out some of their albums of folk music-based humor, like “Curb Your Tongue, Knave,” or the funny children’s album, “Aesop’s Fables The Smothers Brothers Way.” And if you want a reminder of my favorite bit from their CBS TV show, look for a copy of the LP “Pat Paulsen For President.” Paulsen’s deadpan bumbling speeches are still a hilarious send-up of a certain type of clueless politician who could actually end up being President these days.

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  • Jeanne Bostrom

    01/04/2024 08:06 PM

    Loved, loved, loved my Tommy Smothers. Even from my earliest memories as I was born in 1964. He did a great impression of Johnny Carson.