2011 Jack Green Civil Liberties Award Honoree
“It’s hard for me to stay silent when I keep hearing that peace is only obtainable through war. There is nothing more scary than watching ignorance in action. So I dedicate this Emmy to all of the people who feel compelled to speak out and not afraid to speak to power and won’t shut up and refuse to be silenced.”
–Tom Smothers, accepting a special Emmy Award in 2008 for his TV writing 40 years earlier.
Tom Smothers has long been a symbol of resistance to censorship through his fight to present matters of vital interest to a wide American audience.
Tom and his brother Dick were born in New York City and grew up in California. They graduated from Redondo Union High School and attended San Jose State, where Tom was a gymnast and Dick was on the track team. In 1959, they formed The Smothers Brothers, a folk-singing duo that first appeared at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. They soon developed a combination folk music and comedy act that played for live audiences and made hit record albums.
In 1967, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV revolutionized prime-time television by using comedy to delve into taboo subjects; drugs, racism, police brutality and to satirize politicians and criticize the unpopular Vietnam War. The show became one of the highest rated and most criticized on television as social conservatives railed against it.
As the show’s producer, Tom waged a running public battle with CBS over censorship of pointed com-mentary and the protest songs of guest stars including Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Despite the high ratings, CBS abruptly canceled the show in April 1969, during the show’s third season, ostensibly for failing to comply with rules for submitting tapes of the show for review before broadcasting. The brothers sued CBS for breach of contract and won their case.
Tom kept to his outspoken ways and anti-war activism. On June 1, 1969, he joined John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their “bed-in” in a Montreal hotel, strumming his guitar during the recording of Lennon’s song, “Give Peace a Chance.”
In the years that followed, the Smothers Brothers pursued their career, touring widely, returning to television and becoming the longest-running comedy act in U.S. history. Tom continued to speak out on the important issues of the times. Their show and battles with censorship at CBS became the subject of a book Dangerously Funny by David Bianculli and a PBS documentary Smothered.
Tom now lives in Kenwood with his wife Marcy, where they grow grapes for fine wine. Tom has mastered the yo-yo and performs as Yo-Yo Man.