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Thomas Bolyn “Tom” Smothers III was born in New York in 1937. With his family, including younger brother Dick, Smothers moved to California where he graduated from Redondo Union High School and attended San José State College. At college, in 1959, Tom and Dick Smothers formed a folk music group called Casual Quintet and began to perform at San Francisco’s Purple Onion. They secured a sort of residency at the venue, performing for an impressive 36 weeks.
By 1961, Tom and Dick Smothers were going by their trademark name, the Smothers Brothers, and got themselves booked at New York’s Blue Angel. Reviewing the “pair of tart-tongued singing comedians” for The New York Times, Robert Shelton wrote, “The appeal of the Smothers Brothers totals more than one Tom Smothers plus one Dick Smothers. It is a result of a good deal of musical acumen and a fresh type of stinging satire, directed at a field wide open for it—folk music. The pair use a merciless variety of musical and comedy devices to smother the folk-song craze in wit.”
Shelton praised Tom Smothers, in particular, attributing the “bulk of the humor” to him and describing the older brother, then 24 years old, as “a high-cheekboned bright-eyed guitar-player with a wealth of forehead and inventiveness.”
In the early 1960s, the Smothers Brothers featured often on television programs like Jack Paar’s Tonight, The Judy Garland Show, Burke’s Law, and The Ed Sullivan Show. And, in 1965, the brothers debuted their very own sitcom, The Smothers Brothers Show. The show made it less than a year and was succeeded by the more successful The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. The variety program featured musical guests like George Harrison, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Janis Ian, Ray Charles, and others, and boasted up-and-coming comedy writers like Steve Martin, Bob Einstein, and Rob Reiner.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was canceled in 1969, and Tom Smothers has said he believed CBS ended the program due to pressure from the newly elected president, Richard M. Nixon. “When Nixon said, ‘I want those guys off,’ they were off,” Smothers said in 2001, as The New York Times notes. “If [Vice President Hubert H.] Humphrey had been elected, we would have been on.”
Following the show’s cancellation, Smothers remained outspoken about politics, and he also ventured further into acting, appearing in Brian De Palma’s Get to Know Your Rabbit, the 1980 comedy Serial, and more. In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Sonoma County chapter gave him the Jack Green Civil Liberties Award for his political activism and fight against censorship.
Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the National Comedy Center, said in a statement today:
Tom Smothers was not only an extraordinary comedic talent, who, together with his brother Dick, became the most enduring comedy duo in history, entertaining the world for over six decades—but was a true champion for freedom of speech, harnessing the power of comedy to push boundaries and our political consciousness. Tom was a true pioneer who changed the face of television and transformed our culture with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which satirized politics, combated racism, protested the Vietnam War, and led the way for Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, today’s network late night shows, and so much more. We were proud to bring Tom and Dick out of retirement and reunite them on stage in 2019 to celebrate their legendary careers, and we are honored to preserve Tom’s remarkable work and legacy here at the National Comedy Center for generations to come.
“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 added in his own 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.”