Teamwork

How and why the Smothers Brothers became the last great comedy duo

The great comedy teams are almost gone, and by "almost gone" we're saying that unless you somehow score tickets to Sunday's already sold-out Smothers Brothers show at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts you're pretty much left with the Naked Trucker and T-Bones.

"What about Penn and Teller?" Dick Smothers suggests helpfully . . . but then again, no. "I guess they're not so much comics as they are funny magicians."

Also, Penn and Teller aren't so much funny, anymore, as just plain obnoxious. Their act once paid homage to the high, ancient art of illusion by irreverently and inventively debunking the grandiose phoniness of made-for-TV magicians. Now they've got their own cheesy TV show (Showtime's Bullshit), where they've become just the latest practitioners of the low art of crankiness and cheap shots.

Meanwhile, the Smothers Brothers roll on—not only still funny, but still in good humor—riding a nearly 50-year-old act they began not so much as comedians but as funny musicians. They emerged from San Francisco's coffeehouses and hipster clubs around 1960—Tommy on acoustic guitar, Dick on stand-up bass—as Eisenhower was being replaced by Kennedy and the disconsolate postwar bongos of the Beats were being drowned out by vigorous, new-generation folkies. At first, the Smothers Brothers played the songs straight. But as they began to get attention for their funny banter during breaks—most of it playing up a sibling rivalry between them—the joking became a bigger part of the show.

"Our differences onstage are real," says Dick, 67, who plays the sensible but impatient straight man to older brother Tommy's immature but lovable goof. "But those characters are exaggerations of each other—I'm actually more like Tommy's character offstage, and he's more like mine. But we're both competitive."

Soon the Smothers Brothers had created an act that gave comic voice to the embarrassingly sweet reality of the first generation of adult baby boomers—people who had grown up with the comforts and benefits of suburban life, full of the sense of possibility for themselves and responsibility to others, but who nonetheless couldn't overcome the nagging resentments of childhood.

"Our act is based on the fact that Tom likes to lie, omit and deny responsibility, like any child in America," says Dick, "and that I can't stand it when he tries to get away with it. I scold him, I'm mean to him—ostensibly in the name of helping him, of teaching him, but actually to make myself look superior."

Ultimately, the tension between the brothers—whether sparked by a disagreement over an incident in American history or just a matter of proper etiquette—disintegrates into the trivial. Then comes their signature line: "Mom always liked you best!"

"Actually, that line just came out one day," Dick recalls, "when I ran out of words to insult Tommy, and he ran out of comebacks."

Tom's desperate accusation gets the same laugh of recognition from the audience today. That's kind of sad. A little endearing, too. But Dick isn't sure that's why the Smothers Brothers have survived and thrived longer than any comedy team in history, to become the last great one remaining.

"The basic answer is that we stayed together," he says, "and we did that by going to counseling. We made it for 30 years, but eventually we went to couples counseling. That's essentially what we are, you know—a couple, like a married couple that got together, each thinking the other person was somebody else. Tommy and I are very different, and we have to be in each other's faces, day in and day out, working. Somebody says something, somebody else wonders what he meant and resentments build up. But it continues to work, and we do, too."

It's been 40 years since they were at their zenith in the late 1960s, when The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hourwas among the top-rated shows on CBS—only to be suddenly cancelled by the network for incorporating counterculture views and anti-Vietnam War protest into its sketches. That kind of outspokenness is still pertinent, as well.

"But I don't know what our hook is," says Dick, although he obligingly struggles to come up with something. "We've always been unique, but that doesn't mean something's going to last a long time. Conversely, we are also familiar; our show keeps the same shape and our longevity makes us markers in people's lives. But whenever we get onstage, we do our best—we never walk a show. The bottom line is, I don't know. I guess we're still around because we're still funny, and I only know that's true because people are still laughing."

Why aren't more people laughing at new comedy teams? Why is standup dominated by lone comics, rather than teams like the Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin? Such acts dominated stages through the 1960s, then disappeared.

"People don't grow up wanting to be part of a team, anymore," says Dick. "It's more confining and more complex, like being a part of a jazz ensemble. Most of the time you have to play your designated part, and even when you are allowed to go off on a tangent, you and the others have to work so that you can finish together. Tommy and I have to feed one another and we have to listen. That's where we create. That's where, sometimes, it can get brilliant. We do the same show year after year, yes, but the same show isn't always the same show."

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