Dick Smothers is out, but Tommy is there at the hotel, making phone calls to his winery and getting ready to play some golf, and when he is told that his people had scheduled the interview, he drops everything and sits down to talk.
"Dickie doesn't have anything to say anyway," he mutters. We laugh. This is something from the act, for Dick is the one nominally in charge.
Or is it? The comedy of the Smothers Brothers, who are at Blues Alley through tomorrow, is so intimately homey, so family, so real, that it is hard to tell where it leaves off. Lately Tommy has been studying the straight man, that eternal victim of the comedy teams, the guy who makes a career out of putting on top hats so the other guy can knock them off.
"The comic is always kind of driven, involved in detail, the timing, the creation of the act," he observes. "But the straight man enjoys life. Plays a lot of golf, gets around, has friends. Dean Martin. Bud Abbott. Oliver Hardy."
And Dick Smothers too, Dick Smothers of the Sebring car races, Dick Smothers the aerobat, the superb skier, the passionate golfer, the lover of great cuisines, the family man.
Tommy Smothers frames a square in the air with his hands. "It's how we are," he says. "Dickie says, well, somebody's got to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He taught me to eat a lot of different foods. How to be spontaneous, how to do what I want to do. Most of the time I am a worrier. I try to keep things in order. Not like the act at all."
Not that one ever really thought Tommy Smothers actually was the character he does onstage, with those broken-up pieces of sentences and that dumbstruck round-eyed look, the look of a kid who has just recognized his father in the Santa suit.
Theyare much more sophisticated now than when they created the act at San Francisco's Purple Onion in 1960. They are older: Tommy 50, Dick 48. The act is smoother, more at ease with itself and the audience.
"They're so polite when we start," he says, "they're more -- they come in with an attit -- they come in -- in with reverence. They want us to succeed, and then when they realize we're gonna be -- we're totally in control, then they. They relax."
But they are not that far from their stage personas. Tommy really talks that way. People still laugh to hear the brothers arguing in real life.
"Especially Dickie. He's so close to who he is, offstage and onstage. His wife says, 'I don't like you talking to me the way you talk to Tommy.' He'll do that. He'll say, 'That does not make sense.' Or, 'Why do you do this? It's not practical.' "
The act. Always they come back to the act. They split up for four years, made a fair success working separately, acted in a musical comedy together. But their bread and butter is the Smothers Brothers, and they know it.
They open with music, Tommy on guitar, Dick on string bass. Believe it or not, that was how they started at the Purple Onion: a folk song act.
But then, in the middle of something called "Boil the Cabbage Down, Boys," Dick ends a verse and calls out, "Take it!," and looks expectantly at his brother.
Tommy does nothing. Dick lectures him. In black and white the dialogue isn't really funny at all. But from this the two create a verbal chaos that leaves audiences weak from laughter.
"You're doing a great job," Dick sneers.
"Thank you very much," Tommy chirps.
"That was not a compliment."
"You said -- "
And so on.
In the midst of a sweet Spanish song Tommy suddenly bursts into German. Dick stops cold and stares at him. Tommy continues, innocent as a puppy who has made a nuisance, singing along in Spanish, humming, breaking into "Wagon Wheels."
Dick stares at him.
Tommy mutters in Spanish, makes clippity-cloppity horse sounds, gives his brother the most famous sidelong glance in show biz, plinks jauntily at the strings, at last lapses into silence.
At this point Dick could recite the phone book and get a laugh. His line is weak (the dialogue is, as always, improvised), but he quickly tops himself.
"You have a covert plan to wreck this song," says Dick.
"To the best of my recollection . . ." Tommy says, and they do a number on deniability, shredding and congressional hearings. In the '60s they were considered controversial because they voiced opinions about the news, which happened to include Vietnam. In '69 CBS even canceled their TV series. They have always insisted they were not political but were just reflecting the times. The political stuff seems almost out of character now.
In midsong Tommy shows off his considerable yo-yo skills with a yo-yo "specially designed for him by his psychiatrist." (Actually it was his dentist.) An attack on the classic "John Henry" veers surrealistically into "Dueling Banjos," only Tommy is dueling with the pianist, the talented Michael Preddy of Houston, and at last Preddy kills him with a crashing cadenza from Rachmaninoff.
In the stunned silence that follows, Tommy softly plays again the little tune that started it all. The marvelous thing about his timing is that you are not aware of it.
It goes on from there, the running gags, the non sequiturs, the stares, timeless as Abbott and Costello, spacey as "Waiting for Godot." You laugh, even at the "classic" numbers, which are numbers you've heard before.
There is not much new material in the act, which is put together with help from Mason Williams, their longtime idea man. "I guess our longevity has something to do with the fact that when we started out we were unique. It's probably gotten us a lot more applause than it should. Like the Wright brothers: Their planes didn't get much better after that first one."
In spite of their very different lives and separate ways -- Dick has five children, was married for the second time last year; Tommy is single by nature -- they are still extremely close. "Probably the most important relationship I have in my life is my brother," Tommy says.
It has been that way since their father died in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines and they moved to California. Redondo Beach High School, San Jose State College . . . they sang in barbershop quartets, madrigal choirs, entered talent contests. In 1959 they got a gig at the with-it Purple Onion, home of Mort Sahl and other '60s icons. It was a straight folk song act.
"I did the introductions, and he'd say, 'Well, that's wrong, that's stupid,' " Tommy muses, and you can see them up there, learning to stretch out the banter, milking the laughs, gradually realizing what their real act was going to be.
"Mycharacter started when I was in the fifth grade. I found I could get attention and laughter. Now he does 60 percent of the talking and that takes the pressure off me, there's more little gems. I don't have to do a hundred, maybe four, and maybe three are good."
But the music never evolved much beyond those days. By the time the Beatles came along they already had defined themselves as comedians and used music as "a kind of trampoline. People come in to see us and they're surprised we have that much music."
They work at it just the same. They are very good. When Dick sings "Poor Wand'ring One" from Gilbert and Sullivan, he sings the hell out of it, as his brother points out proudly.
They are working on a film about the yo-yo's great promoter, inventor Donald Duncan, and the yo-yo craze of the '50s. They are full of plans. There are so many things they can do well.
"Butas Dickie says, a straight man working by himself is just an announcer. I don't think either one of us is destined for anything except the Smothers Brothers. It's our craft. Art? Art is just an accident on the way to doing a competent job."
He winces when he hears that word. But if the Smothers Brothers isn't a work of art, what is?