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Uncle Toby Lives

Daniel Ellsberg, the Smothers Brothers, and blasts from the past

12:00 PM, Oct 14, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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In Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67) there is a character called Uncle Toby who had been hit on the head by a flying stone at the Siege of Namur--and never stopped talking about it. Nearly three centuries later, two specimens are sitting on my desk which can only be described as Uncle Toby's in modern garments. One is a DVD of a television documentary, now being broadcast on PBS, about Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America. The other is a history of a television program entitled Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, published by Touchstone Books.

Uncle Toby Lives

Readers of a certain age will need no introduction to these subjects. Daniel Ellsberg was a Pentagon analyst in the 1960s who, in 1971, leaked a classified Defense Department assessment of the Vietnam war which became known as the Pentagon Papers. Because the the papers were secret, and Ellsberg’s actions constituted a crime, he became an overnight hero of the antiwar movement, even a well-publicized fugitive, and the Washington Post and New York Times won famous judicial victories over the efforts of the Nixon administration to prevent the papers’ publication.

It should be noted, however, that the events in question—to the dubious extent that they had much long-term significance—occurred almost 40 years ago. They are as remote from the present day as the invasion of Manchuria (1931) was from the time of the Pentagon Papers case. The most dangerous man in America? And yet Dr. Ellsberg has done little else in the intervening decades than dine out on his momentary notoriety, and keep the fires of his minor celebrity bright by relentless self-promotion and faux-martyrdom.

In an earlier incarnation I had a desk beside a reporter who interviewed Dr. Ellsberg—this was during the period leading up to the Iraq war—and was fascinated to listen to Ellsberg (now aged and mildly confused) ply my colleague, as he bid good-bye, with telephone numbers, email addresses, web sites, and the titles of movies and monographs that described, in greater detail, his Pentagon Papers career. I had a momentary thought of interrupting to ask if he had been at the Siege of Lamur.

Then there is Dangerously Funny. I will leave the question of how “funny” the Smothers Brothers ever were to another occasion; but this is a book about their brief (1967-69) musical-variety series on CBS that was cancelled after two-and-a-half seasons and anemic ratings. The Brothers, like more than a few show biz figures of the day (Bobby Darin, George Carlin), had been affected to some degree by the ferment of the 1960s, and their program featured some skits and performers considered to be slightly daring: Pete Seeger singing an antiwar anthem (“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”), on-camera complaints about network censorship, and so on.

Depending, to some degree, on your attitude toward the Smothers Brothers, they were finally dropped from the schedule either because CBS was angered by their “dangerously funny,” subversive humor, or there just weren't enough Americans tuning in. Either way, off they went in 1969.

Now it is 41 years later, and once again it is worth noting that the “controversy”--if that is the word for it--surrounding the Smothers Brothers and their “dangerous” humor is as remote from our day as the Al Smith-Herbert Hoover race for the White House (1928) was from theirs. I happen to think the Brothers were not especially amusing, and that featuring Pete Seeger and heavy-handed political humor in a Hollywood setting was a recipe for marginal success in a mass medium. And that is what happened: The Smothers Brothers drifted into professional obscurity, humor and politics moved on--and, like the Siege of Namur, it is difficult at this remove to recall what made it important. If it was important, which it wasn’t.

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