Smothers Brothers Interview
Author(s): Robin Roth
Photos: Robin Roth
Editor: Mark Lewis
Published: July 17, 2008



Speaking with Dickie Smothers was amazing. I was taken back by ‘Dick’, the person and his candor. I already knew that the Smothers brothers are legends and American Icons however I also, found out that they are funny, talented, humble, kind, intelligent, generous, and wonderful human beings. I learned so much about the brothers that I never knew and their fans might not have known as well. Allow me to share with you my one-on-one exclusive interview with Dick Smothers…



Robin: How did you guys get started; how did the show get started, and how did the comedy and music evolve? 

Dick: THERE’S  A BOOKS ON THAT! THE SHORT VERSION… It started in San Jose in 1959. Growing up, Tom and I were always musical. Tom was the older brother. He was the ‘leader’. He always wanted to have music groups. Then the popular music was Folk. We had an audition at The Purple Onion and we got it. When we started working; we didn’t even know we were that funny. We were different and unique and that’s the thing that gives you a huge heads up, over quality and virtuosity. Then, comedy was unheard of in the Folk music field and comedians were on the fast track. We had a chance to learn really quickly.

San Francisco was a tourist town. We did a minimum of 3 to 5 shows a night. We were the opening act of three acts. We did about 12 minutes. We had to hang around so would go across the street and see people like, The Kingston Trio, Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Shelly Berman, and The Gateway Singers. The comedy is what dragged us along and we got some good breaks. Someone came to the club and saw us and we got signed by William Morris. We got a job on “The Jack Parr show… boom, boom, boom; 13 times we were on the show. We had an album at the time, “Live at The Purple Onion Album” and the album (that previously was not selling) started to sell from being seen on “The Jack Parr show”.  Mercury records wanted us to do another album. We were so hot on ”The Tonight Show”, that  Steve Allen hired us to be a regular on his prime time variety show along with Tim Conway, Steve Allan loved weird quirky talent. The formula, without our knowledge was consistent national television exposure and a record product. So, that started really getting us a buzz and we ended up doing 35 national spots the first year. It had a force of its own. We were really ‘dynamite’ in the clubs, even before we were nationally known, but we didn’t fill the seats except locally. The national exposure now had us filling seats. Everybody likes the new girl in town. Sometimes they fall in love with you before you are even quite good yet. We had the chance to learn and get our chops. The first ten years 1959 to1969, until we got fired from the television show, was a magical. It would have been a great movie.

Robin: How did you get fired?

Dick: We got fired because we got politically involved and they didn’t think our show should have that content on Sunday night. It was a family viewing hour. We weren’t near as strife as Lenny Bruce. Even George Carlin didn’t do what he did till later. His spiritual father was, I would say, Lenny Bruce and Robin Williams’ spiritual father was basically Jonathan Winters. We didn’t have any spiritual father. Tommy had a powerful feeling of what’s right and moral. He always had great ethics. He wasn’t afraid to get a group of guys together and get a variety show that was related to what was going on. We just happen to have a show in 67, 68, 69, at a very major point in American history. You didn’t know what you could and couldn’t do at any given time. Lenny Bruce would be a clean comic by today’s standards. I am very proud of what the young people did in the 60’s politically, but, there are other people who say they broke the system. You just gotta go where your heart is and see where it falls.

Robin: What musician and comedian inspired you the most?

Dick: Well, George Global inspired Tom and my brother inspired me. Not because of performing, but because I always disagreed with what he said. I think the reason we were unique is that our show took the style off of our relationship;   it’s an honest brother relationship. I don’t think our icons had any conscience effect on us, but we loved Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie, Jack Benny, and Red Skelton.

Robin: Did you get along as kids growing up?

Dick: Yea, we had normal disagreements and stuff, but Tommy was real protective of me. My mom lost our father in WW2. Tommy was the man of the family. It was really good having Tom as an older brother. Ya know when you go to school and your two years behind …if your brother was a loser you were looked on as a loser? But Tommy was well thought of in school, so that really helped a lot.

Robin: Was Tommy really the favorite?

Dick: Yes, but nobody will believe that if you put that down because the lie has been so perpetuated. But I don’t resent that because he was the first child born and that was natural. 

Robin: Did you find it hard, back in the day, having a clean act when all the other comics were being, how do you say… dirty?

Dick: There were only a few dirty comics back then. They were called underground comics. We rarely had people come up to us and say that they like the show because it was clean. But now, we get so many people telling us that they really like comedy where you don’t have to get dirty. We don’t put a value on it, like we’re good and their bad; it’s just what we do. I don’t think we’re smart and kinky enough to be that dirty. Ya know, Jack Parr (this is a great quote) said after we were on a few times, “I don’t know what you two have, but there’s one thing I know, no one’s gonna steal it.” That was such a great compliment because it meant that we were unique. Seinfeld and Rita Rudner are clean too and do it with good content.

Robin: What was your favorite group that you had on your show?

Dick: The most famous was the Beatles, but I liked Paul Revere and the Raiders. They were the most flexible. I Iove them all, they were all so unique. I liked the Turtles, Kenny Rodgers and the First Addition, Seals and Croft were good and of course Simon and Garfunkel and The Doors. There are so many great acts it’s really hard to pull them out. If they had some talent to do skit work, they were written into the skits. Paul Revere and the Raiders were just so hot doing the skits. 

Robin: Who was your favorite guest on the show?

Dick:  Pete Seeger, he’s such a great American. I loved his music and his heart. Bette Davis, she was such an icon and she loved working the skits with Tom. George Burns and Jack Benny, they were really good people. Jimmy Durante was adorable to work with, what a nice person. There were so many and we treated them with respect and did the best we could for material. It was phenomenal.

Robin: Favorite part of the T.V. show?

Dick: I loved our opening Tom and Dick spot because it was really the only time we did a hunk together. I loved the Pat Paulsen spots…I wasn’t in them.

I, also, liked it when we had a guest comedian and I got to be their straight man. I had the wildest ride of my life trying to be a straight man for Jonathan Winters. I really liked the Dick spot when I got to do my solo, but if the show was too long, they cut my solo out. It didn’t matter to me. It was all about the show. They would say the next day, “Did you see the Smothers Brother’s Show last night?” Not Tommy or Dickie Show. Tommy was the heart and sole of the production. He also had a lot to do with putting together the writers and staff.

Robin: Who was your role model?

Dick: I never thought about that.

Robin: How about political role models?

Dick: I distrust all politicians because of what they have to give up, to get where they go. The few that inspire me are the ones that stick by their guns with integrity, but then they become non-effective in the national scene. I liked George McGovern, same as Tommy. I like Ralph Nader today, because even though he’s not effective because of what he stands for and tries to protect, he is selfless. I like people who stick by their guns regardless of the consequences. I like people who are full of joy and have humility and strength, people who are not thinking they are God’s gift.

Robin: What is your greatest Show Biz memory?

Dick: One of them would be walking on stage at the Hollywood Bowl for the first time. With an acoustic bass and standing on a stage that would hold 200 musicians, and when we started singing, they ate it up, they loved us. Being on that stage and feeling so insignificant we thought, Lord, what have we gotten ourselves into? We get up to the microphone, and you say, this is not good but you use courage and then you hear the audience cheering. It is a lovely thing.

Robin: Most embarrassing moment?

Dick:  It was at the Academy Awards. We had to sing Cat Ballou. We took the song so seriously, that we put it in all our shows (and it isn’t a great show tune); we wanted to be comfortable with it. Tommy right before the show said to me, I want your verse and you take mine. I can’t argue with my brother. I tried to use logic but I gave in. Well, I sang my verse and he forgot his, where he was and the melody. He kept strumming and yelled, play magic fingers. I knew we were dead and started singing, Cat Ballou, Cat Ballou. After, we got glared at by every one on the production staff because we screwed up. We got dressed, rushed out, and didn’t go to the after party. What a personal humiliation.

Then, one time at the old Flamingo, Tommy forgot to zip his fly up a few nights and he was getting laughs even doing the serious songs. Tommy thought, we are really hot tonight, we’re cookin! Then somebody held up a napkin saying, pull up your fly.

The most accidental moment, which could have been deadly, was on our show when ‘The Who’ had their drum blow up with too much powder in it. Scrap metal flew all over the place. I think Peter Townshend damaged his ear drum on that one.

Robin: Did anyone you had on the show intimidate you by their fame?

Dick: I just love everybody.

I was taken back when Zubin Mehta came up to me and complimented my playing. 

Grer Garson intimidated me a little bit because I thought she was such a great lady and she tried to get me to be a little informal with her and call her Grer. I was calling her Miss Garson when she was on the show. I said, I can’t do that… I’ll call you Miss Garson. She said, ok then I’ll call you Mr. Dick. 

Robin: What do you think of today’s music…Rap… etc?

Dick: I had a hard time with it. I was typical of my generation. I thought rap didn’t have any merit. I’ve seen over the years there are all sorts of rap. I am very open to it now. It’s not something I would turn on to enjoy, but I give it its due. Each generation has every right to pick and choose their kind of music that talks to them. I like music that was popular before I was born, big band and music of the 20’s and 30’s. The rap seemed like the content was so angry and full of hate. It didn’t make me feel good. I think now that rap has evolved into an art form and it speaks to a generation of people, so I think it’s terrific.

Robin: What kept you motivated through the years and up to the present?

DICK: I try to use my life not just to fill each day with selfish pleasures but as a vehicle to grow. What keeps me going is that I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow on the adventure of life. I am so excited to find out what I can do, what I can share, experience, and learn. I don’t mean it selfishly. It’s like a Saint Francis prayer, the more you give away the more it comes back. Whoever you are, you’re a living testimony of life. If we just live our lives thinking about others, not only can we have a hell of a lot of fun, but we can help someone have a nice day.

Robin: SWEET! Do you have any other siblings and were they jealous of your success?

Dick: Yes, we have 2 younger sisters. They are not at all jealous. They are very proud of us.

Robin: OK, favorite junk food?

Dick: Oh gosh anything. I would say popcorn. I do like some of my old comfort foods, like the original Fritos…. I am a zero tolerance person when it comes to refusing junk food. I love chocolate.

Robin: Favorite thing to do when you’re not working?

Dick: I go to my favorite restaurant called, Simons Coffee House in Florida . It’s a breakfast place and I have my wheat grass shooter, my veggie drink and sit there and have a beautiful cup of Cappuccino with friends. It’s a small town and for the first time in my life I have a real structure of friends. I have always been a road person. Here, I feel I have a good group of supportive friends and acquaintances. I never felt more a part of a community. 

Robin: Do you have children?

Dick: I have six and Tommy has three. I had to always do better than my older brother because of the rivalry. I got married before him, I had more kids then him, and I’ve been married more times then him. It’s been a great ride!

Well, there you have it. I had the best time speaking with DIckie Smothers. What a phenomenal, down-to-earth, real person he is. I actually felt sad saying good bye to him. I’m gonna have to sneak down to Florida and hang with him at the Coffee shop.

Do catch the Brothers when they come to your town. Some acts have a gift keeping up, staying great, and never getting old. The Smothers Brothers are definitely among those groups.

Cat Ballou, Cat Ballou … Sorry Dickie, I couldn’t resist!