From Serling to Smothers: Reacting to the System in 1950s and 1960s America

By Jude Warne

“Push the envelope…You know who uses that phrase? People who don’t have the guts or the brains to work inside the system. Letter writers, radicals. Howard Dean.”
-Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock

Since its earliest days the medium of television has been used to express viewpoints on society and politics, offering a means through which to communicate to the masses. Such viewpoints were often contrary to those of television networks and faced limits of censorship, particularly during such volatile political times as the 1950s and 1960s. While some programs chose to rebel against such practices in full view, defying the networks and in turn facing the consequences, others chose to assume an appearance of conformity while simultaneously expressing contrary views hidden within their episodes. These differing approaches were largely colored by programs’ genres and their limits and opportunities within these genres. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a variety program of the 1960’s was, by its generic nature, encouraged to react to and poke fun at political situations of the day. However, when these expressions grew to be in direct opposition to those of the network the program became continuously censored and was eventually canceled. Rather than back down, Smothers Brothers continued to express its liberal ideas knowing the strife that would ensue.

In contrast The Twilight Zone, a science-fiction program of the late 1950s and early 1960s was, by its genre’s nature, encouraged to tell bizarre tales seemingly separate from any known reality. It was under this guise of fiction that the program’s creator, Rod Serling, was able to express his liberal political leanings and opinions on society and escape the censors’ scissors. By working within the system rather than confronting its unjust limitations head on, Twilight Zone enjoyed great freedom and largely went unnoticed by networks that, had they realized what was going on, would have brought the program to an end. This enabled Serling to reach the public, while the Smothers brothers were prohibited from being able to do so consistently as their sentiments were presented directly, exaggerated by the variety show format, and were subsequently attacked by the network.

Serling began work as a professional writer following his return from service in World War II, acting as a writer for Cincinnati’s WLWT-TV station’s weekly dramatic anthology program The Storm. Serling’s first obvious success was his 1955 piece Patterns written for Kraft Television Theater, which he won an Emmy for best original teleplay writing. He continued to write dramatic teleplays dealing with moral and societal issues, eventually completing his well-known 1956 Requiem for a Heavyweight for CBS’ Playhouse 90. This success resulted in additional Emmys and a signed contract with Playhouse 90 as a head writer. Despite his success at Playhouse 90, Serling decided to depart from the series and begin work on a new science-fiction series, soon to be dubbed The Twilight Zone. Choosing to leave a successful and well-respected program such as Playhouse might have seemed a compelling move at the time, and a risky one at that. However, behind the scenes of success, Serling had grown extremely frustrated by the limits and cuts imposed on his writings by the network and its sponsors.

“At the start of the fifties, when TV had only just begun its explosive growth, and was still an accoutrement of the educated classes, there had been room for high populist art…      however the medium proliferated and sponsors and network officials began to worry         about alienating and losing their audience…as a result TV playwrights were faced with increasing censorship…”

Serling’s scripts, such as his “Noon on Doomsday” episode for United States Steel Hour, were dramatically altered in content by their networks. Serling’s insistence upon featuring stimulating topics such as suicide, lynching and adultery caused networks to carefully overview his episodes and rid them of such controversial issues. Serling, who very much believed in his ideas and his work, and who viewed these acts of censorship as unjust, was all the more determined to communicate his ideas to the public. Serling soon realized that a shift in genre would allow him to disguise the same controversial plot points along with the political and societal ideas that he strongly wished to express.

“Science fiction gave Serling much more flexibility in developing his political and social      themes in a safer context. The censors would not allow two senators to engage in current political debate, but they could not stand in the way of two Martians saying the same thing in allegorical terms.”

During a time when live television programs were decreasing in popularity Serling’s new series offered an opportunity to test out the success level of a newer format. Generic confines proved an asset to Serling, who had learned from previous dealings with censors in his dramatic teleplay work that had been viewed seriously and thus realized as politically liberal. “Serling did not have to keep fighting in the Twilight Zone. As his wife Carol pointed out, ‘The TV censors left him alone, either because they didn’t understand what he was doing or believed that he was truly in outer space.’” This gave Serling the go-ahead to write what he desired without it being removed through censorship. Twilight Zone provided entertainment during the turbulent years between 1959 and 1964.  It responded to American viewers’ fears of the ensuing Cold War, the tail end of the McCarthy era and blacklisting, the Cuban Missile Crisis and communism in Europe and Asia. Audiences were thus provided with an entertaining and thought-provoking refuge and escape from increasing societal chaos. Simultaneously, viewers were fed Serling’s pro-justice and pro-equality ideology that spoke to the times they sought to escape, thus addressing their concerns albeit indirectly.

Perhaps the 1964 episode entitled “I am the Night, Color Me Black” was the most outright relevant to societal woes.  In it, a giant storm cloud forms over a small town in the American South that is dealing with issues of racism amongst its townspeople. This episode is particularly metaphorical and conceptual and borders on the edifying.  The show often dealt with very relevant concerns of the day such as the threat of nuclear war or communist blacklisting.  Because these subjects were featured under the guise of the fantastical and in settings not of the known world, they were free from harm.

“The first season also contained more meditations on the threat of nuclear war by the author (Serling), who joined the anti-nuclear group Citizens for a Sane Nuclear Policy in 1955, and was one of the most active members of its Hollywood chapter. The first ‘place’  the bomb was dropped on American television was in a memorable episode called ‘Time Enough at Last,’ a morbidly ironic tale that aired November 11, 1959.”

Even though program content often escaped CBS’ censors, those executives who suspected Twilight Zone’s plot disguises and wanted to bring Serling and his success to an end frequently cut program funding. This resulted in sets with low production value and little room for extra glamour in aesthetics, which ultimately contributed positively to the show‘s overall look:

“Instead of resorting to censorship, Aubrey, who was apparently determined to see  Serling’s one-man show canceled as soon as possible, began to make Serling’s life     miserable by pulling on the financial reins…ironically Aubrey and his auditors probably   enhanced the show’s storytelling power and its effectiveness…”

L.A. Times reporter Cecil Smith referred to the series as “…tales of imagination and suspense, ranging from adult science fiction to fantasy, even to the occult, yet the stories and characterizations are handled realistically… and from a look at the pilot they have logical explanations.”

Eventually the program was canceled, after five seasons on the air, as Serling rejected ABC‘s purchase offer which required a shift in genre: “When the Twilight Zone was dropped by CBS in 1964 after five seasons, Serling rejected ABC’s offer to buy it because ABC wanted to turn it into a series of ghost stories. This format would have been limiting.” As the 1960’s began to intensify in political and societal unrest, Twilight Zone’s network decided to abandon its formerly successful program. In early 1964 CBS had become disenchanted with the program’s decreasing ratings and no longer wished to include the series in its production budget. Serling, rather than accept a bid from ABC, refused to accommodate its subtle genre shift request, and only returned with a new series in 1970 with NBC’s Night Gallery. There was no question however, that Serling had not taken advantage of his years of screen time and subsequent audience access during the success of Twilight Zone. He had designed the format of the show so as to allow for this expression:

“Whatever the topic of a given story, The Twilight Zone was overtly didactic. Serling’s cryptic on-camera introductions of every segment were integral to the style of the show.  He also supplied verbal commentary at the conclusion of each episode, remarks that  summarized the lessons to be taken from the story we are often encouraged to regard as a  parable.”

These parables, had they been conveyed through a typical dramatic teleplay, would have been discovered by censors.

“Tommy Smothers, for all his earnest pleas, never has been able to understand the limitations on free speech in broadcasting. The constitutional guarantee to voice his views does not include an assurance that 200 television stations will saturate the nation with his words.” Tom and Dick Smothers began their entertainment careers as a folk music group in the late 1950’s, performing in small clubs along the West Coast. The brothers quickly realized that their on-stage banter between songs was the strength of their act and began to shape their duo persona around this. Dick would play stand-up bass, Tom would play guitar and they would both sing, but amidst this Tom would give rambling and inane song introductions and interrupt designated straight-man Dick during the songs with ridiculous questions.

The Smothers Brothers garnered a following, eventually getting a booking on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show in February 1960 which awarded them national attention. The duo’s popularity grew as they recorded a slew of comedy albums, and in 1965 CBS contracted them to star in a new sitcom. The Smothers Brothers Show, as the program was dubbed, lasted for one season before being canceled. The plot situation featured Tom Smothers as his brother Dick’s guardian angel who frequently got in the way of Dick’s pursuits at his publishing job and in his love life. This dynamic duo, that of Tom playing off of Dick’s straight-man, would be preserved for the future variety program; however, the Smothers Brothers were not writers on the show and felt that sticking to the sitcom’s scripts ruined the essence of their impulsive and improvisational comedic talents.

Despite the failure of The Smothers Brothers Show, CBS was aware of the Smothers brothers’ connection to younger and newer audiences and decided to give them a second opportunity at a series. A variety and comedy program was chosen to accent the Smothers’ performance strengths, and as variety programs were particularly popular at this time, it was seen as a promising venture:

“For variety currently is the spice of TV life, no matter what the network press    department announcements say about meaningful drama…Television programmers        apparently believe that if viewers respond happily to a liberal helping of one TV dish,      they develop an insatiable appetites for it.”

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour premiered on CBS in February of 1967 and instantly attracted younger and hipper audiences with its cutting-edge humor, performances by popular musical acts of the day such as Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield and The Doors, and socially relevant political references. Ironically, it was these very aspects of the program that lead to censorship and network grievances.

As the show was a variety comedy program and thus presented outright objections to and critiques of political figures and sensitive issues in general, censors and networks consistently absorbed the program at face value.  Unlike Serling’s potentially controversial reflections and beliefs in Twilight Zone, Comedy Hour’s ideologies had nowhere to hide.  Sooner rather than later, the variety comedy show that had first been viewed by CBS as a promising modernized version of the reliable variety show format morphed into a controversial liability: “…almost from the beginning the Brothers have taken to climbing angrily on the nearest soapbox at regular intervals to accuse CBS of ‘censorship.’”[13]

1968 was a significant year for the United States, with the Tet Offensive the difficulties of the Vietnam War could no longer be ignored, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, violent protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and a new presidential election was at hand. Censorship controversies became evident as show guest Pat Paulsen documented his comical run for the Presidency, when CBS received letters from audience members expressing concern that Paulsen’s ongoing joke might disrupt other candidates’ chances of gaining the majority vote.

The most significant effects of network censoring were evident when having to deal with scheduled musical performances. During the second season of the series, Pete Seeger’s anti-Vietnam War tune “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was cut from the show, yet due to strong public outcry, CBS felt pressured and Seeger was allowed to come back at a later date and perform the song. Other musicians were not so lucky: Joan Baez’ song introduction was cut from the program because it addressed her draft-dodging husband, and Harry Belafonte’s performance of “Don’t Stop the Carnival” was cut because of the background screen showing violent images from the protests at that year’s DNC in Chicago.

As the Smothers’ transitioned into their third season, they began to respond to the censorship issues and deliberately shifted their focus to a targeted audience of the exclusively young. They invited guests they knew to be outspoken against the War, such as Dr. Benjamin Spock, which increased their percentage of censored material. The Smothers Brothers seemed determined now to stand up for the ideals of free speech and expression and rather than back down in fear of show cancellation, invited more opportunity for censorship. This reaction was rather fitting of the anti-establishment sentiments circling around at the time, and the Smothers Brothers continually insisted on proving their points: “That this comedy/variety show could instill such vehement objections had as much to do with television, CBS, and the United States circa 1968 as it had to do with the relevance of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour content.” The fight at hand was one between the culture of youth and freedom and that of perceived maturity and of the past.  Ultimately the program chose to feature a skit with comedian Elaine May that poked fun at the act of censoring program material, which was of course, also censored.

After just three seasons, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was canceled. CBS insisted its reasons for doing so had little to do with frequent censorship:

“In announcing cancellation of the show, Robert Wood, president of CBS-TV said the       Smothers brothers had consistently failed to deliver tapes of the program to the network in time for review by network executives and local stations.”

It was obvious however that CBS’ fury had been rooted in the Smothers’ refusal to adhere to the network’s conventional notions of what was appropriate for its audiences. The Smothers brothers’ rebellion against CBS was a paragon of American youth’s rebellion against its society’s institutions and imposed rigidities. Although the variety show format drew attention to the program’s anti-establishment and therefore anti-network ideals, it simultaneously created the opportunity to protest against unfair abuse of authority, here in the form of CBS censors. This opportunity strengthened the plight of anti-establishment ideologies that were most prevalent in the youth of 1960s society.

The fate of both Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and the Smothers brothers’ Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour proved similar in that both programs were canceled after a couple of seasons, albeit for different reasons. Serling had learned beforehand the lesson that the Smothers brothers were to learn, when he had faced censorship of his dramatic work in content considered controversial or inappropriate. Serling then made the choice to work within the system and disguise his political leanings and moral ideologies through science fiction, a genre of the unexplainable therefore impossible to condemn for direct temporal relevancy. This allowed him to get his ideas across to audiences for a time and avoid extensive conflicts with censors.

The Smothers brothers on the other hand met with censorship issues and chose to encourage the conflicts, perhaps less avoidable given the direct nature of their show’s genre. This program, at first glance appearing unsuccessful due to its censor-related cancellation, was simultaneously able to shine a light on CBS’ bigotry and gain support from young viewers, thus feeding the counter-culture youth movement of the era.  It is difficult to say which program had more of an impact on society and its history of entertainment culture.  It is important to note however that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is forever associated with its war against censorship and its embodied spirit of the 1960s, therefore rendering it a television martyr, while The Twilight Zone is recognized mainly for its science fiction narratives and not for valor or mettle.

Footnotes

Tina Fey and Jack Burditt, “Rosemary’s Baby,” 30 Rock, NBC, New York: 25 Oct 2007

2 Gordon F. Sander, Serling: the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (New York: Dutton, 1992) xviii

3 Don Presnell and Marty McGee, A Critical History of Television’s “The Twilight Zone”: 1959-1964 (Jefferson N.C: McFarland, 1998) 12

4 Presnell 12

5Gordon F. Sander, Serling: the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (New York: Dutton, 1992) 155

6Sander 162-3

7 Cecil Smith, “Series Spooky but Sans Ghosts,” Los Angeles Times 4 Aug. 1959: ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

8 Peter Wolfe, In the Zone: the Twilight World of Rod Serling (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular, 1997) 14

9 Rick Worland, “Sign-Posts Up Ahead: ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘The Outer Limits,’ and TV Political Fantasy 1959-1965,” Science Fiction Studies 23.1 (1996): 2

10 Lawrence Laurent, “Unsmothered Smothers,” Washington Post, Times Herald 12 Sept. 1969: ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 30 Apr. 2011

11 David Bianculli, Dangerously Funny (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009) 49-50

12 Cynthia Lowry, “Nets Boost Variety Shows,” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 25 Feb. 1968: ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest, Web. 1 May. 2011.

13 Clay Gowran, “ ‘TV Today’ Two CBS Comics Wage Teapot Tempest Over Gags: Smothers Tiff Irks Net Aids,” Chcago Tribune (1963-Current File) 2 Feb 1968: ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest, Web. 1 May. 2011.

14 Bianculi 210

15 Steven Alan Carr, “On the Edge of Tastelessness: CBS, the Smothers Brothers and the Struggle for Control,” Cinema Journal 31.4 (1992): 14

16 “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour Dropped by CBS TV,” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 5 Apr. 1969: ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest. Web. 3 May. 2011.

Works Cited

Bianculli, David. Dangerously Funny: the Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy    Hour. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Carr, Steven Alan. “On the Edge of Tastelessness: CBS, the Smothers Brothers and the Struggle   for Control.” Cinema Journal 31.4 (1992): 3-24. JSTOR. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Fey, Tina, and Jack Burditt. “Rosemary’s Baby.” 30 Rock. NBC. NBC, New York, 25 Oct. 2007.

Gowran, Clay. “TV Today: Two CBS Comics Wage Teapot Tempest Over Gags :Smothers Tiff Irks Net Aids. ” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 2 Feb. 1968, ProQuest Historical          Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest. Web. 1 May. 2011.

Laurent, Lawrence. “Unsmothered Smothers.” Washington Post, Times Herald 12 Sept. 1969.      ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

Lowry, Cynthia. “Nets Boost Variety Shows. ” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 25 Feb.       1968,ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest. Web. 1       May. 2011.

Presnell, Don, and Marty McGee. A Critical History of Television’s “The Twilight Zone”: 1959-  1964. Jefferson (N.C.): McFarland, 1998.

Sander, Gordon F. Serling: the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man. New York:        Dutton, 1992.

Smith, Cecil. “Series Spooky but Sans Ghosts.” Los Angeles Times 4 Aug. 1959. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

“Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour Dropped by CBS TV. ” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) 5 Apr. 1969, ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987), ProQuest.      Web. 3 May. 2011.

Wolfe, Peter. In the Zone: the Twilight World of Rod Serling. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling           Green State University Popular, 1997.

Worland, Rick.  “Sign-Posts Up Ahead: ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘The Outer Limits,’ and TV            Political Fantasy 1959-1965.” Science Fiction Studies 23.1 (1996): 103-22. JSTOR Web.             24 Apr. 2011.

3 thoughts on “From Serling to Smothers: Reacting to the System in 1950s and 1960s America

  1. The Cancelation of the Smothers was one of the saddest events in television history. The broke barriers and were canceled for it. More power to them, and to you for writing about it.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this article. What struck me most about this article, is the similarities between early television and early film. During the 1930’s the Hay’s Code was introduced by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributers Association, collaborating the with head censor William Hays. It basically disabled American filmmakers from making anything that Will Hays found indecent, such as adultery, murder, any sexual acts, and even married couples sleeping in the same bed. The Hay’s office, along with numerous religious groups, did not think the American public should be subjected to indecency. What I find interesting between television and cinema censorship, is that harshest censorship arose at a time in which each media form had its beginnings. I believe that media heads did not have the artistic ability to realize certain human actions must be used in certain works to make a story or series more realistic, more appealing to audiences, and in some circumstances, more artistic.

  3. Critical Studies: Television

    The Smothers Brothers were brilliant pioneers and many of the shows that exist today wouldn’t be around, or at least would have had a harder time getting out of the gate, without them. Today, we have our comedians who break the mold, but it’s astonishing that there aren’t more people pushing further. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the constraints of the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s unfortunate that creatives aren’t taking more pages from the Smothers’ and the Twilight Zone’s books today. Things can still be innovated and expanded or taken back a few steps in some respects. The work of men like the Smothers Brothers isn’t done just yet. You offered great commentary on this moment in history. Thank for paying respects.

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