God and the Pledge of Allegiance have been in the news lately, as they were 41 years ago last month. On April 4, 1969, William S. Paley, head of CBS, abruptly canceled “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” in no small part due to a gag involving the Pledge of Allegiance.
Tom and Dick Smothers, 73 and 70, respectively, are still performing. We saw them in Spokane in February. Their live show was hilarious. They were still spot-on with incredible timing, great voices and some of the funniest bits in comedydom. (In the ’60s, they were accused of commiedom, so to speak.)
The montage they did about their “Comedy Hour,” which ran for three seasons, brought back incredible memories: Pat Paulsen’s run for president (campaign slogan, “We can’t stand Pat”), Pete Seeger finally back from the blacklist and David Steinberg’s irreverent sermonettes (most were censored).
A few days after the show, my librarian wife brought home the book Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli. It’s a real page-turner, and I couldn’t put it down, but my reading slowed when Bianculli recounted a show taping on March 1, 1969.
The brothers led the studio audience, gathered around an in-the-round stage, in the Pledge of Allegiance to begin the show. “The entire audience had been coached, though, and enlisted as co-conspirators to recite the pledge with one phrase missing, the ‘under God’ part . . . and that bold secular statement led directly into Donovan’s ‘Atlantis,’ which hit the charts a month later. No time for applause, no time to react — and for CBS, no easy way to edit.”
Maybe the censors were more worried about other elements of the show and it went completely unnoticed. But viewers caught it. After the show aired, the CBS switchboard got 305 calls; 205 objected to the godless pledge and 90 slammed the entire program. That left 10 favorable calls.
There were other long-running issues CBS had with the loose-cannon, antiwar brothers, who were anathema to many station owners in the South. The clock was ticking, and they got the word from CBS on April 4. It was Good Friday. The last of its 73 episodes aired April 20. Its summer replacement was “Hee Haw.”
When the show was nominated for a writing Emmy in 1968, Tommy had withheld his name because he thought it would hurt the show’s chances of winning (it did win). In 2008, when he received a special Emmy, he said, in accepting it: “There is nothing scarier than watching ignorance in action, so I dedicate this Emmy to all the people who feel compelled to speak out, to speak to power and won’t shut up and refused to be silenced.”
One of the show’s earlier jokes had Tommy saying, “Easter is when Jesus comes out of his tomb, and if he sees his shadow he goes back in and we get six more weeks of winter.”
Now that’s a freethinker!
J. E. Hill is a member of FFRF, the Inland Empire Freethought Society and the Association of Ancient Historians. A U.S. Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, he has worked as an air traffic controller and as a shipboard navigator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He works for a nonprofit community foundation as a program director. He writes online at theskepticalreview.com.