Tom Smothers, one half of famed comedy duo, dies at 86

Dec 28, 2023, 4:25 PM

Tom Smothers...

Tom Smothers, here in 1987, dies at 86. (Mark Junge/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

(Mark Junge/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Comedian Tom Smothers, who with his brother performed as the singing comedy duo the Smothers Brothers, has died, according to a family statement shared by the National Comedy Center.

He was 86.

Dick Smothers, Tom’s younger brother and professional partner, said his brother was at home at the time of his death related to cancer.

“Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” Dick Smothers said in a statement. “I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off stage, for over 60 years. Our relationship was like a good marriage – the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed.”

The folk-singing brothers became pioneers with their biting satirical comedy that was at the forefront of their CBS variety show “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” which ran from 1967 to 1969.

CBS famously yanked the show from the air after they ran afoul of the network for their political critiques, defense of civil rights and their opposition to the Vietnam War.

“Fifty years later I look back on us being fired and I’m still pissed off,” Tom Smothers said to laughs in a 2019 interview shared by “All Arts TV.”

Smothers was born in 1937, a year before his brother Dick, and the pair grew up in California and began performing after attending San Jose State University.

In an interview with CBS News last year, Tom Smothers said he and his sibling didn’t initially think of themselves as stand-up comedians.

“We thought of ourselves as folk singers,” he explained.

After breaking into TV with their music, their “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” became a hit.

“It was just the biggest thrill, it was unbelievable!” Dick Smothers told CBS News.

Their mix of music, skits and political send ups – with Tom as the bumbling guitarist brother and Dick as the bass-playing straight man – challenged network censors of the time.

The brothers often joked about the criticism they faced for their candor during their comedy hour, but freedom of speech was something they took seriously.

“The right for us not to allow even to give our viewpoints to other people who are interested in hearing it is contrary, I think, to the principle of our country and to the principle that makes the world go round,” Tom Smothers once said on their program.

“The times were changing so quickly in the sixties and we didn’t change them,” Dick Smothers said during an appearance on CNN’s “The Sixties” docuseries.

“We just reflected ‘em,” his brother added.

Their brand of comedy was extremely influential for many in the business, including some who have gone on to become household names.

Early writers on their show included Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Rob Reiner and David Steiner, according to a UC Santa Barbara Library article on preserving their comedic and musical legacy.

After then CBS chief executive officer and president William Paley canceled their show, citing their failure to meet delivery dates for their episode, the brothers successfully sued the network to show they did not breach their contract. The program, however, never returned to air.

In a 2010 interview with CNN, David Bianculli, author of the book “Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,’” said that looking back the series was relatively mild by modern standards, but considered controversial given the family-friendly landscape of the era.

“There was nothing that was serious on TV in prime time,” Bianculli said. “And the Smothers Brothers, in an entertainment variety show, were trying to talk about the war and talk about the presidential policies and sex and drugs and rock and roll. It was just the only place for a young generation to go to get that sort of information.”

Bianculli said Tom Smothers “was the one who fought most of the battles,” something he confirmed in “The Sixties.”

“They said that the social subjects we touched on were not appropriate for the 9 o’clock family viewing hour,” Dick Smothers recalled. “They came up with any excuse to make it difficult.”

“And I came up with any excuse to push it,” Tom Smothers added.

The pair announced last year that they were returning to the stage with a tour in 2023.

A private memorial service for Smothers will take place in 2024, according to the family.

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Tom Smothers, one half of famed comedy duo, dies at 86