When I think of the word revolution, I think of the old Beatles song “Revolution” where they sing:
You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world.
Definitely, in my younger days I wanted to change the world. I was positive I was right about everything. I have a T-shirt with Lucy Van Pelt that says “If everyone listened to me they would all be right!” I thought you had to give speeches, lead marches. Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Whatever it is, it’s got to go! I’ve learned that revolutions come in many forms, even in a TV variety hour.
It was Christmas Eve, 2002. I was broke and needed some cash, so I took a housesitting job in El Cerrito, not far from my hometown. I was lonely, drinking hot chocolate, wondering what the heck I was doing all alone on Christmas Eve. I was going home the next day for Christmas, but still, it bites to be alone on Christmas Eve. I flipped through the channels on the TV set, trying to find something that wasn’t Christmasy. I saw a promo for a documentary that was coming on called Smothered, and it had a picture of the Smothers Brothers. Intrigued, I snuggled back on the couch and started to watch.
I knew a little bit of the Smothers Brothers—Tom Smothers lives in the Bay Area and they used to appear a lot on the local talk show People Are Talking. I also knew that they had a variety show back in the 1960s. What I didn’t know was how daring they were at times, and how it got them fired.
According to the website TV Party, the Smothers Brothers were given their own variety hour after their sitcom failed. They featured the variety-hour standbys: Jim Nabors, Jack Benny, and Jimmy Durante. However, they also had the Jefferson Airplane, with Grace Slick giving the Black Power salute. It had Leigh French, a pretty pigtailed woman who did a sketch titled “Have Tea with Goldie.” Tea was a slang word for pot, and she would greet her audience with a cheery “Hi!” And there was no doubt she was.
I started to get into the documentary. I knew there was controversy when the show was canceled but I wasn’t sure why. First off, Grace Slick giving the Black Power salute didn’t earn many fans over at CBS. They had Pete Seeger singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an anti-war song which was also a jab at President Johnson; plus, Pete Seeger was on a blacklist for years. This still confounds me, partly because one of my first records was Sesame Street Presents Pete Seeger where he sang songs with Big Bird. How can a guy who sang with Big Bird be on a blacklist?
The censors of the show got out of hand. For instance, they heavily edited a Joan Baez performance where she tells the audience that her then husband David Harris was going to prison for resisting the draft. However, they cut it off with Baez saying “My husband is going to prison,” then they had her start singing “The Green Green Grass of Home.” God knows what people were thinking at home that night. “What’s Joan Baez married to some guy who’s going to prison? Does her mother know about this?”
Every week the network presented items of concern to the show. One of them, according to TV Party, was that, at the end of one show, Andy Williams gave a plug for an upcoming TV special. If you get offended by Andy Williams plugging a new special, something’s up.
The final straw was when David Steinberg gave a sermonette about, of all things, Jonah and the Whale. On NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Steinberg preached that "The Old Testament scholars say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The Gentiles, the New Testament scholars say, 'Hold it, Jews, no.' They literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament.” Yeah, ouch. While looking at a possible TV studio in San Francisco into which to move the show, Tommy Smothers found out that he and his brother were fired, and that sermonette was the reason why.
I was just fascinated with the documentary. When it was released on DVD, I watched it again. Dad didn’t understand why I would be interested in the Smothers Brothers. “All that happened before you were born,” he said. “Why would you be interested in an old variety show?” I couldn’t explain it at the time, but now I can, which is why it ties in with our topic of revolution.
What intrigued me about the show was that Tommy and Dick Smothers were starting a revolution right before our eyes. They weren’t on the streets protesting and threatening to blow up things; instead, they were telling jokes. One moment, a sketch with Jimmy Durante spoofing Alice in Wonderland; the next, Janis Ian singing her controversial hit “Society’s Child.” They had Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” and followed it up with the Jefferson Airplane. They were doing something different, week after week, saying they weren’t crazy about the things that were happening, but that they going to their best to entertain you and make you think.
I never considered myself a revolutionary; as Rita Rudner once said, the scandalous thing I’ve ever done is read under a bad light. Yet I know that a revolution can start when you say something isn’t right and must be changed. I know I’ve done that in my life. Someone once said to me recently, “Why don’t you focus on your real writing rather than blogging and promoting yourself?” After wanting to chase this person around with scissors, here’s what I come up with:
Any writing I do is real writing, and it’s telling the truth about my life. It’s saying this is it, this is who I am. If you like it great, keep reading; if you don’t, find something else to like. I truly believe this is revolutionary, quietly revolutionary.
And the Smothers Brothers were revolutionaries. They were two clean-cut guys who graduated from San Jose State University. They led a revolution into America’s living rooms in the late ‘60’s. It was with music and sight gags and jokes, with Nelson Riddle leading the orchestra and co-stars like George Gobel and Liberace. It is the kind of revolution that I can appreciate, forty years later. That’s the thing about revolutions. They never die.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries