City of Smotherly love
Apr 7, 2005
Author: Jim Kershner
Position: Staff writer
Source: Spokesman Review
Smothers Brothers bring their classic comedy act back to Spokane
Tom Smothers has spent his career driving his brother Dick slowly insane.
For 46 years (yup, the Smothers Brothers started back in 1959) Tom has devoted his onstage act to being as exasperating as possible toward the more stable Dickie. Yet offstage he is the biggest Dickie Smothers fan on earth.
"Dickie is the best straight man," said Tom, by phone from his Sonoma Valley vineyard home. "He ranks up there with Bud Abbott and Dean Martin and Oliver Hardy.
"In the early days, the straight man was paid more money. It's called the 'skill position.' He's kind of like the quarterback. He's like the lead singer of the group."
Yet it's Tommy who gets most of the laughs. That's the way it has always been, and will be on Tuesday night when the Smothers Brothers return to the Spokane Opera House to play a pops concert with the Spokane Symphony.
They'll play a few of the fractured folk songs that made them famous in the 1960s and Tom will do a few yo-yo tricks (he's an expert).
They'll try to make the orchestra members laugh. "It's like having an audience behind us, too," said Tom.
And he'll devote plenty of time to driving Dickie insane.
"I always try to surprise my brother, particularly in the opening monologue, which is pretty loose," he said.
Not as loose as the old "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," which famously was yanked by CBS in 1969 after a series of censorship fights. These days, the brothers' act is mostly nonpolitical, like it was both before and after their CBS show.
Today, the Smothers Brothers carry on the classic comedy team tradition of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen, Martin & Lewis and Nichols & May.
Those acts all have one thing in common: They all are defunct.
"Dickie and I are the last comedy team," said Tom. "That form of entertainment was such a staple in American comedy and comedians don't do it anymore. Gosh, if two young comedians could put together an act, it would just kill."
Why aren't there any?
"It's kind of a difficult thing," said Tom. "It's like a marriage. The reason teams didn't last long is that (after a while) they just can't stand each other."
Since Tom is so good with an ad-lib, we decided to fire a few random questions his way:
Funniest comic working today: "Robin Williams or Tim Conway."
Best guest on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour": "Bette Davis was a great guest. George Burns and Jack Benny were great. Benny was (one of my inspirations) because of his timing, and the air and the spacing that he used. That's the way Dick and I like to work. We like to have lots of air and space."
Most distinguished alumni of the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour": "Steve Martin and Rob Reiner. They were both writers, who performed in small bits. Both made their TV debuts on our show. Mason Williams was wonderful, too."
Best comedy album of all time: "Nichols and May" (1961's "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May").
What's harder, yo-yo or guitar-playing? "About the same. I'm barely adequate in both."
Favorite movie: " 'Groundhog Day.' I thought it was just such a complicated idea and I couldn't find any flaws in it. And another Bill Murray movie, 'What About Bob?' I'm such a fan of Murray, not just what he does, but the way he lives his life. He rejects celebrity in his own way."
Favorite recent movie: " 'Sideways.' They didn't make fun of wine and they showed all the beautiful vineyards. I thought it was a great film." (Tom owns the Remick Ridge winery in Sonoma.)
His idea of a perfect afternoon: "A round of golf with a couple of good buddies and a barbecue after. I'm an 18 handicap. I used to be a 12. I haven't been playing enough lately."
Best Tommy Smothers ad-lib, ever: "On the Johnny Carson show, it was with Bette Davis, and she sat down and I was sitting on the couch. I said, 'I just want to say you're the queen of film, I'm such a fan,' and I was giving her all of these wonderful accolades and I got stuck. And I looked at her and said: 'Do you mess around?' "