“Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” writer and performer David Steinberg pays tribute to Tom Smothers, who died Dec. 26 at age 86.
I met Tommy (and Dick) Smothers when we were performing at the Hungry I in San Francisco in the late 1960s. I did standup, and Tommy immediately wanted me to be on the show they were creating because I was a different kind of comedian — like they were. I had done a sermon, which was something I had developed at Second City. Tom and Dick, Tom especially, couldn’t get over the uniqueness of it. “Let’s put it on the air!” he said.
The second time Tommy asked me to come on the show, I did one of my sermons.
“Moses takes the shoes off his feet, approaches the burning bush, burns his feet. God goes “Aha! Third one today!” Moses swore. We are not sure what he said. There are many Old Testament scholars who believe that it was the first mention of Christ in the Bible.” CBS was irate.
A week later, Tom and I were hanging out, and he said “I want to show you something!” He opened up the door to his room and there were bundles of mail. “That’s your hate mail!” Tom said, as if I should be so pleased and excited by this. Tom was thrilled that it created such an uproar.
Tom was mischievous. So when CBS told him not to do another sermon, he says “We’re going to have Steinberg on again.” I did another bit on their show, and then the next time, Tommy asked me to do another sermon. I chose Jonah. One of the lines in that bit was “And the gentiles, as is their want from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.”
The rest is history. The network got what they wanted: the Smothers Brothers were thrown off the air. For a variety of reasons. The sermons were a final straw, because who isn’t offended by religion? But what we did on television had never been there before. It was controversial. Irreverent.
To me, Tom and Dick were the epitome of bravery in the face of attacks by power; integrity in the face of corruption and harassment; and courage in tackling the important issues in the face of those censors intent on stifling freedom of speech. Doing “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was one of my favorite things. So was looking at the duffel bags of hate mail with Tommy. I owe so much to him for his faith in me. I will miss him very much.
David Steinberg is a veteran comedian, writer and performer who worked on CBS’ “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” from 1967 to 1969. He is the author of the 2021 book “Inside Comedy: The Soul, the Wit and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades.”