From 1967 to 1969, Tom and Dick Smothers hosted The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a politely edgy comedy show that tested the boundaries of mainstream television and the patience of CBS executives. Playing to a younger demographic, the show took positions against the Vietnam War and for the Civil Rights Movement, while featuring musical acts that challenged the norms of the era–everyone from Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, to the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, to Buffalo Springfield and Simon and Garfunkel.
Then came The Who in September 1967. Making its American network TV debut, the band picked up where they left off a few months ago at the Monterey Pop Festival. They performed “My Generation” and went into auto-destruction mode, smashing their guitars, toppling their drums, and creating general mayhem, before bringing the song to a close. But for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Who added a special twist, packing Keith Moon’s drum kit with explosives, a few too many, it turns out.
Here’s how Allan Blye, a producer-writer for the show, remembers it:
The Who wanted to do a big explosion at the end of their performance. In dress rehearsal, it was a powder puff. So, I say to the special effects guy, “We have to make a bigger boom.” Unbeknownst to us, The Who had told their own guy the same thing. When the explosion went off, it affected Pete Townshend’s hearing permanently. Keith Moon got blown off his drumstand, but was too out of it to know.
Stunned yet poised, Tom Smothers walked onto the stage, only to find his acoustic guitar snatched from his hands and smashed to smithereens too. He later recalled: “Everyone was so shocked.” “When Townshend came over and grabbed my guitar, I was busy just seeing where the bodies were, seeing if anyone was injured. He picked the guitar up, and people kept saying, ‘Did he really ruin your guitar? It looked so real!’ And I’d say. ‘Well it was real! I was confused as hell!’ ”
The suits at CBS abruptly canceled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969, leading the brothers to file a breach of contract lawsuit, which they eventually won. (They discuss the sting of that whole experience with David Letterman here.)
Tom Smothers died yesterday at age 86, “following a recent battle with cancer.” His brother Dick announced his passing, stating: “Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner. 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.” And so were the rest of us.