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As We See It

Oh, Brothers!

How a vintage act taught me to love Vegas for its oldies

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Comedians Tom, left, and Dick Smothers, shown here in an August 1965 file photo, announced the end of their touring days Sunday at The Orleans.
Photo: AP

While the rest of the city’s attention was focused squarely on the Miss USA pageant on Sunday, I was a couple miles west, taking in a far more important popular-culture event. That it passed with as little fanfare as it did was baffling, but something tells me that even if there had been fair warning, most of the entertainment press would still have been at Planet Hollywood, hoping some dimwit with huge fake boobs said something politically incorrect.

I was at The Orleans, where the Smothers Brothers were on stage together for the what may have been the last time.

And here’s the irony: I was there to do a column about how fortunate Las Vegas is to have all these oldies acts. I was going to remind everyone to see them before it’s too late.

Then Tom and Dick go and prove my point. Near the end of their 90-minute, tuxedo-clad show, Dick rambled a bit about how much he admired and enjoyed his brother, which is how you knew something was up, because for 50 years they’ve been publicly annoyed by one another as part of their shtick. Dick referenced how this is probably the last time they’d perform together on “a stage like this,” so thanks to the full house who had come. Then the show was over and the audience dispersed, many baffled. (The brothers, now 73 and 71, later confirmed their retirement from touring.)

I went back to the May 6 interview I did for my podcast and realized that, in fact, Tom did say, “We’re kinda retiring, taking a sabbatical for 10 years. Then you come back when you’re 90 and they give you a Kennedy Center Honor if you can still walk.” I thought he was kidding.

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Smothers Brothers announce retirement (05/17/10)

And speaking of kidding, I suspect you think I’m exaggerating when I say that this was the most important thing to happen in pop culture last weekend. Could I seriously believe the retirement of a duo whom half of America probably thinks is already dead is of more significance than what Miss Oklahoma thinks of Arizona’s immigration law?

If you don’t get it, you’re like me about two months ago, before I came to understand who the Smothers Brothers were and why it was embarrassing that I’d never seen them.

Here’s an abbreviated list of the acts whose lineage can be traced back to the Smotherses: Bill Maher. Jon Stewart. David Letterman. Stephen Colbert. Weird Al Yankovich. Norman Lear. Steve Martin. George Carlin. Lorne Michaels. Penn & Teller. The Dixie Chicks. The Who. Simon & Garfunkel. South Park. Yep, that’s all.

On a recent road trip, I played a podcast interview from NPR’s Fresh Air, in which host Terry Gross chatted with the show’s resident TV critic, David Bianculli, about Bianculli’s new book, Dangerously Funny. I hadn’t given it a priority because I regarded the Smothers as some dumb old act that pops up in off-Strip showrooms trying to cash out the last of the equity amassed by whatever fame they once had.

What I learned in that conversation and from reading Bianculli’s book is that from 1966-1969, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was the most important, groundbreaking, daring program in TV history. They fought CBS’ censors constantly to get taboo subjects, risqué bits and controversial artists on the air. The culture wars as we know them began there, and by the time CBS fired them in 1969, they had launched a litany of major acts and inspired the next generation to be more provocative and meaningful.

For whatever reason, I didn’t pick up on that comment about retiring when Tom said it, but now I’ve listened again and can hear the valedictory tone in his voice. We went through some of his CBS wars, through the fact that after their TV flameout and breach-of-contract lawsuit against CBS—which they won—they were relegated to dinner theaters and the Comedy Store in LA. Right-winger Howard Hughes, he said, blackballed the lefty Smotherses from Vegas in the 1970s.

In their show, Tom and Dick were hilarious and goofy. They touched lightly on some politics, but it was largely classic silliness. And there wasn’t a single empty seat.

The great revolution of the Celine Dion era is that entertainers at the height of their prominence finally gave this town and its tourists due respect. The stigma that anyone playing Vegas a lot probably doesn’t have a much else going for them is largely gone.

But now that this city feels secure in its primacy in the entertainment pecking order, it may be time to reconsider how we sneer at the oldie acts that fill up the rest of our showrooms.

My next stop? Well, I still haven’t seen Tom Jones. Or Don Rickles. Or Air Supply. Or Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, although I worry about that one—their website indicated that “Ms. Gorme is no longer touring.”

So you can have your beauty queens. They’re a dime a dozen and nobody will remember anything about them five years hence, let alone 50 years from now. Had I passed up on the chance to see the Smothers Brothers this weekend, I would have missed out. And I probably never would have known just how much.

Follow Steve on Twitter at TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.Com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. Email him at SteveFriess@aol.com.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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