I read the news today, oh boy.
John Lennon’s lyric popped into my head Tuesday as soon as I read the texts from my friend Marcy Carriker Smothers. The first was a photo of a guitar next to a fire and Christmas poinsettia. The second included the news. “Beautiful and peaceful passing today at 1:40P. We had a lovely Christmas.”
Tom Smothers had been in hospice for months so word of his passing induced a sigh not a gasp. I thought of the “Day in the Life” lyric not because of the circumstances of his death — Tom was 86 and died of lung cancer — but because Lennon and Tom were close. At the 1969 Montreal recording of “Give Peace a Chance,” only two acoustic guitars strum along. One is held by Lennon; the other by Tom.
Tom came to the antiwar movement with sad bona fides. His father was a West Pointer who said goodbye to his namesake son in 1940, before heading to the Pacific to defend liberty. He never returned.
Nothing funny about that origin story. Still, through music, Tom and his younger brother, Dick, found their way to comedy and created an act that instantly impressed Jack Paar, the “Tonight” show host, who remarked in 1961, “I don’t know what you guys have but no one’s going to steal it.”
Six years later, the brothers debuted “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” their seminal variety show that used comedy to satirize issues like the Vietnam War, racial politics and drugs.
Despite the heavy topics, Tom came across as lighthearted and simple. During an audience question-and-answer session, a woman once asked, “Are you both married?”
“No, ma’am. We’re just brothers,” Tom said.
In real life, Tom thought and felt deeply. He cared about social justice and the creative process. He labored over details. The biggest contradiction was Tom’s onstage persona. A classic Smothers Brothers sketch would begin with the two singing a song until Tom interrupted or screwed up the words so badly that Dick pulled the plug. This would lead to wry observations or an argument that built to a punchline. The brothers would then return to the song, providing the sketch with a natural and satisfying finish. At heart, this was character comedy with Dick playing the bass and the straight man and Tom playing the guitar and the fool.
In an early episode, the brothers came out singing the Maurice Chevalier hit “Louise” while sporting boater hats. They paused to discuss the French and romance, and Tom instantlyclaimed familiarity. “You really know about those French wines and women?” Dick challenged Tom.
“Oh I know all about that stuff.”
The audience laughed, doubting his claim.
Dick was not about to let Tom off the hook. “French wine — what do you know about it?” he pressed.
“It gets you drunk,” Tom replied, nailing the punchline with exquisite timing.
In real life, Tom knew everything about wine. For decades, he owned and operated a vineyard in Sonoma that produced award-winning merlot and cabernet sauvignon. At first, he lived in a barn on the property, then later designed a main house with a huge stone fireplace and views in every direction so that you could follow the sun throughout the day. If the hot tub could talk, it would tell spicy stories about parties in the 1960s and ’70s and probably be the only one that could remember what happened.
By the time I visited Smothers-Remick Ridge Ranch, the hot tub was a place for kids to splash around. I’d first met Tom in 1988, when I was hired as a writer for the variety show’s second life. While working on the reboot, I roomed withthe associate producer, Marcy Carriker, who married Tom in 1990. Their two children — Bo and Riley Rose — would play with my own two kids. Marcy co-hosted a food and wine radio show with Guy Fieri, so dinner was always delicious. After the meal, Tom would sit by the fire, reading a thick novel.
It was a picture of domesticity that didn’t last. Soaking in wine country meant a lot of drinking, and the more Tom drank, the less fun he became. Knowing how brilliant and generous he could be, I found it painful to watch his behavior shift. If this seems harsh, I mention it because the truth mattered to Tom. Marcy and I would go on long walks to discuss the situation. We came up with a phrase that summed things up: “It’s tomplicated.”
Tom and Marcy separated 15 years ago but never divorced. And when Tom grew ill, she was there for him along with their children. “They have been rocks,” Marcy texted me hours after he died. She told me that over the last few months, Tom had never had a stranger care for him. She, Bo, Riley Rose and Marty Tryon, Tom’s former road manager, watched over him.
And so Tom spent a lovely Christmas Eve and Day surrounded by his family. He slipped away the next afternoon. As always, exquisite timing.
I hope Tom will be remembered. He was last on TV three decades ago, so except for comedy nerds, no one under 40 would have reason to recognize him. If you’re curious, there’s a smart 2002 documentary, “Smothered,” about the brothers’ getting fired from CBS, and an excellent book by David Bianculli, “Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Both the film and book reiterate what history has made clear: Tom was absolutely right about war being stupid and civil rights being worth fighting for. In his own way, he, too, defended liberty.
Or try sliding down a YouTube rabbit hole where you’ll stumble over early routines from Steve Martin, whom Tom hired as a writer before encouraging him to perform. I never met an entertainer who was more respectful of other people’s talents than Tom. He adored so many fellow artists, including Harry Belafonte, Harry Nilsson, Martin Mull, and (Mama) Cass Elliot, who lights up one of my favorite sketches from the 1968-69 season.
The concept is simply Elliot singing her hit “Dream a Little Dream” to Tom as he tries to fall asleep in a big brass bed. Tom doesn’t say a word but gets plenty of laughs. The bit is sweet, original, musical and funny. When you strip away the tomplications, Tom was all those things.