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Tom Smothers, half of the famed comedy and music duo the Smothers Brothers, dies at 86
Tom Smothers

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Today, we commemorate the passing of Tom Smothers, a luminary half of the celebrated Smothers Brothers comedy and music duo, renowned for their staunch advocacy against racism, opposition to the Vietnam War, and unyielding stance against the constraints imposed by television censors. Tom, succumbing to the onslaught of an aggressive form of cancer, took his leave at the age of 86, within the confines of his abode in Santa Rosa, California. This somber announcement emanated from the Smothers family and the National Comedy Center.

Reflecting on this loss, Tom’s brother, Dick Smothers, aged 84, shared poignant sentiments: “Tom was not merely the affectionate elder sibling one would desire in their life; he was an unparalleled creative collaborator.” In a statement, Dick further expressed gratitude for the six-decade-long journey they traversed together, both on and off the stage. He characterized their relationship as akin to a flourishing matrimony, where the passage of time kindled an ever-deepening love and respect. A sentiment that resonates as a true blessing.

The Smothers Brothers, unapologetic in wielding their platform to scrutinize authority, left an indelible mark on the landscape of 1960s media—a period marked by reticence and aversion to confrontation. The notoriety of their irreverent content, consistently lampooning the powerful and amplifying the voices of Vietnam War critics and civil rights advocates, led to the premature demise of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS in April 1969.

Fast-forwarding to a commemorative event in 2019, marking the 50-year anniversary of their dismissal, the duo maintained a humor-infused perspective on their pivotal roles in pop culture history. Tom Smothers, in an interview with The Associated Press, remarked, “It’s truly an honor to be acknowledged in this manner. At least we’re both alive and capable of articulating our own thoughts. We can navigate our way through with a touch of mumbling.”

Recalling the CBS termination of 1969, Dick Smothers dismissed the notion that their comedy was anything but “benign,” despite the backlash it incurred. He asserted the futility of instructing a comedian to refrain from a particular word, noting that such directives only serve to stoke the comedian’s inclination to defy. Looking back, he acknowledged the seeming benignity of their content, juxtaposed against the volatile sentiments of the time.

Even as of 2004, Tom Smothers expressed skepticism regarding the readiness of American audiences to embrace candid political discourse during prime-time television. In a landscape saturated with profanity, explicit content, and violence, he observed a conspicuous dearth of substantive social commentary.

The genesis of Thomas Bolyn Smothers III dates back to February 2, 1937, on Governors Island in New York. Born to homemaker Ruth Remick Smothers and the late Army Maj. Thomas Smothers, who succumbed as a prisoner of war during World War II, Tom later relocated to suburban Los Angeles. Both brothers earned their degrees from San José State before embarking on their illustrious journey in comedy and music, refining their artistry at revered establishments such as San Francisco’s Purple Onion and New York’s Blue Angel.

Post the curtain call on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” by CBS, the duo persevered, contributing to various endeavors over the ensuing decades. Tom Smothers, wielding an acoustic guitar in a Montreal hotel room in 1969, found himself in the company of John Lennon and Yoko Ono recording “Give Peace a Chance.”

However, the zenith of mass popularity attained through their CBS show remained elusive. Instead, they etched themselves into the annals of comedic excellence, employing laughter as a vehicle to address weighty subjects. Tom Smothers, reflecting on their approach, asserted in 2019, “We didn’t do it intentionally. No one willingly goes to war and purposefully takes a bullet.”

Journey Gunderson, Executive Director of the National Comedy Center, drew parallels between the Smothers Brothers and the lineage of contemporary comedic shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show.” In her statement, she hailed Tom Smothers as an extraordinary comedic talent, a champion for freedom of speech, and a force that harnessed comedy to push the boundaries