The president of the United States was furious at being lampooned in yet another TV comedy skit. So he phoned the head of the TV network at 3 a.m. to complain.
The perturbed POTUS wasn’t Donald Trump, who tweeted Sunday that federal regulators should look into the “not funny” attacks on him on “Saturday Night Live.” The phone-calling president was Lyndon B. Johnson, who in 1967, long before Twitter, dialed up the head of CBS to gripe about “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
The weekly show hosted by folk-singing brothers Tom and Dick Smothers regularly skewered Johnson and his Vietnam War policies. The brothers sang the “Draft Dodger Rag” by Phil Ochs with such lines as, “I got eyes like a bat, and my feet are flat, and my asthma’s getting worse.”
When the United States imposed a travel ban to foreign countries, Tom Smothers looked in the camera and said, “Okay, all you guys in Vietnam, come on home.” On the show, LBJ impersonator David Frye even joked about the president’s “semi-beautiful daughters.”
Johnson’s two young daughters, Lynda and Luci, were fans of the highly watched show. But even they reportedly were upset about a mild skit on the top secret ingredients of LBJ’s barbecue sauce. Johnson apparently was bugged to learn on the show that “the Russians were 20 years ahead of us in barbecue sauce,” said one of the show’s writers, Saul Illam.
For LBJ, it was the last straw. In the middle of the night, he phoned CBS head William Paley about the Smothers brothers, demanding that the TV executive “get those b------- off my back.” That day, Paley asked the heads of CBS entertainment shows to get the brothers to back off, according to author David Bianculli in the book “Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
Instead of backing off, the brothers Smothers doubled down. They booked antiwar folk singer Pete Seeger to perform a song called “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” about a soldier being stuck in the mud. The lyrics were clearly aimed at Johnson and his Vietnam War policies. One part went: “We’re waist deep in the mud. And the big fool says to push on.”
At the last minute, CBS cut the song from the pre-taped show. The Smothers brothers cried foul and the next year succeeded in getting Seeger back on the show to sing the song uncut.
The brothers continued to push the political comedy envelop. In the fall of 1968, they featured Harry Belafonte singing “Don’t Stop the Carnival” against a backdrop of news footage showing Chicago police pummeling antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention. CBS cut that segment, too. It was replaced by, of all things, an ad for Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon.
“We were furious,” Tom Smothers said later.
By then, Johnson had made a surprise announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 1968. The announcement prompted Tom and Dick Smothers to write LBJ a letter conceding they had “occasionally overstepped our bounds” in mocking him. Johnson responded with a letter praising the Smothers brothers’ humor.
The Smothers brothers show continued its antiwar satire after Nixon’s election. The new president wasn’t amused. It was later revealed that some Nixon campaign funds were used to pay for a private investigation of the Smothers brothers.
Tensions continued between the brothers and CBS censors. Then in April of 1969 — just three months after Nixon had taken office — the network canceled the show. Its excuse was that Tom Smothers had failed to deliver an advance tape of a sensitive segment in a timely fashion. Smothers later claimed the network had killed off the show under pressure from the Nixon administration.
The brothers got the last laugh, sort of. They sued CBS for breach of contract. In 1973, a jury found in their favor and ordered CBS to pay the comedy duo more than $776,000. But this was far less than the brothers had sought.
The Smothers brothers weren’t the first humorists to be targeted by a White House. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s press secretary, James Hagerty, complained to the New York Herald Tribune about an account of his news conference in Paris by the paper’s young Paris columnist, Art Buchwald. The satirical story, Hagerty complained, was “unadulterated rot.” Buchwald responded: “Hagerty is wrong. I write adulterated rot.”
Mort Sahl was a top stand-up comedian in 1960 when he got a phone call from Joseph Kennedy, the father of Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. The elder Kennedy asked Sahl if he would “write some things for Johnny?” Sahl did. One of his jokes became the basis for a famous JFK quip about a telegram from his wealthy father. “Don’t buy a single more vote than is necessary. I’ll be d---ed if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”
After Kennedy was elected, Sahl angered the Kennedy clan by poking fun at the new president. Sahl claimed that Joseph Kennedy, a onetime Hollywood mogul, blacklisted him in clubs across the country, causing his income to plummet.
When Nixon campaigned in 1968, he tried to show he had a sense of humor by appearing on the popular TV comedy show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” The show’s tag line was “Sock it to me.” In his cameo appearance, Nixon looked into the camera and said, “Sock it to me?”
But like Trump, Nixon hated the press and comics who made fun of him. His “enemies list” included two comedians, Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory, both African Americans.
Trump regularly rails at the barbs of late night comedians. He tweeted Sunday about a rerun of an SNL skit: “It’s truly incredible that shows like Saturday Night Live, not funny/no talent, can spend all their time knocking the same person (me), over & over, without so much of a mention of ‘the other side.’ … Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this?”
On Twitter, there was amazement that the president had gone after a rerun. And SNL star Leslie Jones fired back on Instagram, posting a photo of Trump’s tweet and her own reaction: “This guy is an idiot. It was a rerun you moron!!”
The Trump tweets are in sharp contrast to that letter Lyndon Johnson sent to the Smothers brothers in 1968. It read: “It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to be the target of clever satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives.”
Ronald G. Shafer is a freelance writer in Williamsburg, Va., and author of “The Carnival Campaign, How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”
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