WALKING WEST along New York's 44th Street, Tommy Smothers explains his limp. "I broke my ankle," he says. How? "I fell down." How? "Standing around I say I fell off a stewardess."
At 42, his pan is as dead as ever -- which may be for the best, since the ankle is serious business in Washington. It is the reason Tommy and Dick Smothers did not open at the Warner Theater last month in "I Love My Wife." It is the obstacle despite which they have brought the show to Baltimore's Mechanic Theater (where it continues through Saturday).
The Smothers brothers (with a small "b" -- they have retired the act of that name) hang a left into Sardi, where they are promptly escorted to a central table. They like New York, although they are a little too tired, after a long day of rehearsing, to burst into song about it. When they arrived last season to join "I Love My Wife" on Broadway, "the Con Ed guy, the black guy shining shoes, everybody said, 'Welcome to New York,' "Tommy recalls. "I said, man, it's cooking again!
"I got on the stage at 40," "I think it might turn out to be best sport."
Dick, the brother with gray in his hair (and, these days, a moustache), seems less certain: His best sport could be wine growing, which he practices at home in Sonoma Smothers Wine is now available in 31 states. But both hope their pending national tour, which ends in Los Angeles, will put them back on the show business map. "We'll get a lot of media people at that end seeing us (on stage) for the first time," says Dick. "A lot of those people don't have much imagination about what you can do until they see it."
They believe they still suffer from having been deemed "controversial" 10 years ago and -- perhaps a sharper thorn in Hollywood's side -- having won a $750,000 breach-of-contract judgement after CBS canceled their show in 1969.
From '70 to '76 they toured nightclubs and college campuses, did two shortlived series on NBC and ABC, and came gradually to the conclusion that "The Smothers Brothers," as an attraction, had exhausted its creative possibilities. Financially, splitting up was "not what you'd call an intelligent decision," says Dick. "But we knew that in front," says Tommy. "We adjusted our lifestyles to fit the different cash flow."
Dick concentrated on sports-car racing and wine-growing, and found time to make his professional theater debut in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" at the Cherry County Playhouse in Traverse City, Mich., followed by dinner-theater stints with "Not Now, Darling!" in Seattle and Salt Lake City. Tommy, meanwhile, was appearing solo at Las Vegas nightclubs, making his stage debut -- at the same Michigan theater -- in "play It Again, Sam," and doing a small movie role in "The Silver Bear" with Michael Caine.
The gap between their earnings as theSmothers Brothers and as just plain Tommy and Dick Smothers had turned out to be even wider than expected. "This is a terrible business," says Dick. "You're only good when you're working."
So they were in a responsive mood when the producers of "I Love My Wife," a moderately successful misical about, of all things, wife-swapping, approached them to take the show on tour. Just the same, their response, according to Tommy, was: "Send them (the New York stars) on tour, and we'll do it on Broadway." Their bluff was called. They did the show for nine months on Broadway, and now they are going on tour, too.
Despite its saucy-sounding subject matter, "I love My Wife" is a fairly discreet, old-fashioned show that is not likely to enhance the Smothers' repurations as trailblazers. "This play happens to fit us," says Tommy. He worried that the two of them had become utterly and eternallyidentified with their variety show personae, he says, "but it only takes about three minutes before I'm Alvin and he's Wally." (Alvin and Wally are the heroes, and two of the four characters, in the show.)
Even in their TV heyday, says Tommy, the brothers never saw themselves as very daring. "Actually, we had no meaning. I didn't know what satire was . . . . My comedy came out of puberty," When most of his fellow 12-year olds were learning how to be cool, he says, "I went to the other side. I wasn't smooth enough so instead of trying to be smooth, I went with awkard."
At Verdugo Hills High School, the Smothers were active in school politics, and they deplored the smirking style of most student orators. So Tommy composed (and passed on to Dick) a sure-fire speech -- guaranteed to get any shnook elected to any office. Without the slightest hint of a smile, he would tell the electorate to ask three questions about the candidate: "Is he copacetical? Is he relevant? And are his actions congruant to those of a mature office-holder?"
"I used every long word I knew," he says.
After a successful TV guest shot with Jack Paar, they were cast as brothers in a sitcom called simply "The Smothers Brothers Show" that enjoyed a brief popularity in 1965. "We knocked 'Peyton Place out of Friday night, it was such a hit," says Tommy. "And we didn't even like the show," adds Dick.
That show was canceled, but six months later CBS offered them their own variety show -- "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" -- opposite "Bonanza," the biggest hit of all. Soured by the earlier experience, they demanded artistic control of the new show, which the network was relatively happy to grant -- for the same reasons a political party gives a candidate wide latitude if he has been thrown into a hopeless race.
"We were probably the most naive people on television," says Tommy, but "we wanted to be socially relevant." He was 27; Dick was 25. "When you stop to think about it," says Dick, "we were young kids. The whole feeling and the strength of the show came from Tom. He hired and fired whoever he wanted."
Autonomy was the key, they say, and remains the key to the success of a show like "Saturday Night Live." On the other hand, Tommy points out, "they take on the good guys, the bad guys -- everybody. We were irreverent but we were selective. I think they also cross the line on taste sometimes (he cites a skit on Claudine Longet, Spider Sabich and Andy Williams). I don't think we ever did."
Johnny Carson's targets also range widely says Tommy. "He has no point of view. You know he doesn't care (ideologically)."
With elder-statesmanlike compassion, they lament the plight of Robin Williams, that "poor kid" who stars in 1979's hottest TV comedy series.
"He probably did three years' worth of material in the first six months," says Dick, expressing concern that Williams may run his act into the ground without better support from his writers. On the other hand, he says, Williams is a comic who can "get laughs with no material. oThere's not very many of those coming up . . . I like that kind of comedy. If you turn off the sound, you should still be able to laugh. Try laughing at Bob Hope without the sound. He's not funny."
California, like Ork, has served up a few comedians with the ability to make us laugh on slender pretexts. There was Tommy Smothers, for instance, with a wide-eyed deapan that said. "Okay, Sixties, do your stuff!" Just when Vietnam and the other social irritants of the decade were starting to register their full impact, he was the TV performer who probably did the most to keep the generation gap from opening into a crevasse. But today he looks back on that early stardom with mixed feelings. "Television hurt me," he says. "I started mugging to help bad material."
So young comics, beware!