Bucking Authority

Tom Smothers is annoyed. And he appears to be enjoying it. We've just seen an afternoon matinee of Outside Providence, a charming, funny little coming-of-age story in which the teenage protagonists swear like angry sailors and smoke more pot than a whole convention of California asthma sufferers. Set in the early '70s, Outside -- written by Peter and Bobby Farrelly (of Something About Mary fame) -- is a profanity-fueled homage to recreational authority bashing; it's The Catcher in the Rye for stoners."It's basically one pot-smoking scene after another," pronounces an elegantly goateed Smothers, eager to offer his energetic critique. "And I'm not square on that subject, but it got to be so redundant." As we amble from the theater and set our trajectory toward the nearest cup of coffee, Smothers -- the 62-year-old, yo-yo twirling, elder-half of the infamous Smothers Brothers comedy duo -- concedes that he is not the film's target audience. "I was never a stoner in high school -- so I can't identify with all that pubescent drug stuff," he says. "I didn't get high until I was 21." That would have been around 1958, just before Tom and his brother Dick Smothers hit it big with a string of irreverent comedy albums. Their success as recording stars eventually led to television. After a goofy 1965 sitcom -- with Tom playing an inept guardian angel -- the brothers hit their stride in 1967 with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. An immediate, top-rated sensation on CBS, the variety show quickly became a major censorship battleground, as the Smothers' increasingly progressive political views -- they were outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, for one thing -- threw the network's censors into overtime. The Brothers resisted all attempts at censorship, balking loudly when CBS pulled co-star Pat Paulsen's mock presidential campaign speeches -- "If nominated, I will not run. If elected I will not serve" -- and when the censor clipped the remarks of singer Joan Baez. (While dedicating a song to her then-husband David Harris -- she straight-forwardly explained that he was about to serve a two-year prison term for resisting the Vietnam draft -- CBS cut Baez' speech right after the word 'Prison,' denying the public her explanation of why her husband was jail-bound). The show was finally canceled, still performing in the top 10, during the summer of 1969. Other television shows soon followed (on other networks), and the duo has enjoyed a tremendously fruitful touring career -- Tom, also a successful wine-maker, can frequently be seen on Bill Maher's late-night Politically Incorrect program -- but history will best remember the Smothers Brothers' as those brilliant T.V. troublemakers from the Sixties.We have our coffee.Squeezed into the corner of a quiet cafe, Smothers is still grousing playfully at the sheer number of "objectionable phrases" that were crammed into Outside Providence, the tale of a blue-collar kid (Shawn Hates) with a red-neck dad (Alec Baldwin) who always calls him Dildo. After being transferred to a highbrow "prep school," he locks horns with the school's sociopathic administration. He does this mainly by lighting up joints and swearing a lot."It was a nice little movie, but man, every other word was 'fuck,'" Smothers marvels. "'Fuck' this, and 'fuck' that. It's the Farelly brothers," he surmises, targeting the film's writers, a very different pair of envelope-pushing siblings. "That kind of language is indulgent and unnecessary."Wait. Is this Tom Smothers talking? Former poster-boy for Free Speech?"Let me tell you something," he laughs. "There's a great illusion that we now have more freedom merely because people say 'fuck' more often. So here we are, the language in movies and on T.V. has gotten raunchier, the subject matter has gotten sexier and more explicit -- but there's no content to it."People come up to me and say, 'Man, don't you wish you were on T.V. today? Look what people get away with saying?' And I answer, 'Really? What are they saying?' It's all jack-off joke and narcissistic reference to bodily functions. There's practically no real political satire or social commentary. And as we get further along with these media conglomerations owned by major corporations, you won't see a single word of political satire on primetime T.V."But wow, we've got 'freedom of speech,' so we'll still have Hill Street Blues, with its dirty words and naked behinds," Smothers adds evenly -- managing to reveal his obvious passion while remaining entirely calm."When we were censored," he continues, "it wasn't four-letter words we were fighting for. It was ideas. We were censored for talking about the war, about voter registration, about Martin Luther King. If we were on the air right now we'd be talking about how our government is up for sale to the highest bidder, we'd tell how all these politicians, busy playing the money game, have turned America into the most corrupt country on the planet. We'd talk about how American arrogance has damaged country after country, all around the world.Shaking his head, he adds, "We sure wouldn't waste what 'freedom of speech' we have, trying to pass off a few four-letter words."Which brings us back to the movie."I was thinking," Smothers says, "The kid in the movie handles every confrontation by telling the authority figures to just shut up. It gets him in more trouble."He reminded me of me," he says with a smile. "I got into so many screaming matches with Network presidents. But I know now that I handled it all wrong. I was 'Bucking authority.' I was behaved inappropriately. I know that, and I know I'd do it differently now."But," he adds, grinning widely, "It doesn't mean I wasn't right."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.