Good news for those of us in the TV history business: we’ve learned that George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov are developing a feature film about the tumultuous goings-on behind-the-scenes of the hit 1960s variety show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." Based on "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," by David Bianculli (it’s very good!), we expect the film will revolve around Tommy Smothers’ battle with CBS to keep his show on the air as the network tightened its reigns and increased its censorship demands as the pair didn’t veer from taking on religion, the Vietnam War, and the presidency. Of note, TV veteran Neil Patrick Harris is already slated to play the incorruptible Tommy Smothers.
We interviewed the team back in 2000. Tommy had this to say about their legacy: “If they look back, it was a pretty good comedy act, and that’s all we were, except that we happened to meet in time at a certain point, we met at the scene of the accident and therefore it elevated it above what we really are. Just performers and pretty good ones, and that little scene of the accident kind of elevated us, and they handled themselves well in that environment of confrontation, and maintained their integrity. That’s a sweet little thing. I hope my son looks back on that and see that, and says, my Dad stood up.”
There haven’t been too many films based on the behind-the-scenes of actual TV shows (there have been quite a bit of trashy TV movies, and a few good ones like the exploration of the filming of "An American Family" in HBO’s "Cinema Verite"), but there have been some exceptional ones. Here are the top contenders:
"Good Night and Good Luck" (2005) -- It’s no surprise that George Clooney and Heslov tried their luck once before in the sub-genre with "Good Night and Good Luck," the story of Edward R. Murrow’s decision to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt. The best part: actual historic footage of McCarthy was used in the film, and some audiences found “the character” too over-the-top. The well-researched piece garnered a lot of Oscar-love and certainly shows that team Clooney can deliver historically relevant films.
"Frost/Nixon" (2008) --Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s brilliant play on David Frost’s historic interview with Richard Nixon was criticized a bit for taking dramatic license with a few scenes, but stands out as a great representation of the backstory of one of the most iconic TV interviews of the time. It’s also interesting to note that, like Clooney, Ron Howard also began his own stellar career in television -- it’s served him well.
"The Insider" (1999) -- Another news-oriented film on the story of former tobacco executive Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, who agrees to go on-camera on "60 Minutes" to talk about unethical practices within the tobacco industry. This film is especially interesting in that, like the upcoming Smothers’ film, it’s the story of CBS’ desire to self-censor its own programming.
"Quiz Show" (1994) -- Directed by Robert Redford, the film "Quiz Show" captured the story behind top TV quiz show "Twenty-One"’s fixes. Contestant Herb Stempel (played by John Turturro in the film) blew the whistle on the scandal and it changed the face of advertiser-involvement in series for many years.
We interviewed Stempel in 2004 , and he put the film in context. “This was a docudrama. The movie itself was not a documentary. It was approximately 40% true. There’s a lot of dramatic license taken in it. For example, this will surprise a lot of people, I haven’t got a son named Lester. There’s a boy of eight years old in the picture shown known as Lester, who plays the drums. My son Harvey was actually a year and a half old when this was happening. He was in a crib. But, it made a more interesting story to have a growing up son to whom I supposedly would indoctrinate by asking all sorts of questions. I was a little miffed at the portrayal. I was shown to be a nerd, a square, and a hyper sort of a guy. I would never, for example, say something like, ‘That’s the greatest invention since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and I’m the greatest thing on it!’ This is not Herb Stempel…It was an over-the-top sort of portrayal of me.”
In the right hands, the Smothers Brothers story will find a way to be relevant in today’s cynical times. But in the end, their fight against backdoor corporate and government censorship in a very tumultuous time in our country’s history cost them their series.
When we asked the brothers “Would you do it again?” “Oh, in a minute, Tom said. “I’d probably do it the same way.”
The question is, would CBS?