(KQED Perspective aired March 2004)
By Michael Ellis
Last month I happened to be on the same plane as Tom Smothers and that brought back a distant memory and like all memories it may or may not have happened like I remember it. But it is true because it is my memory.
I am a 17 year-old high school student living with my parents in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Vietnam War is raging. My father is a die hard Nixon Republican, my mother a southern Democrat. There are only a few kids at my school who have long hair and are called hippies. There are rumors of drugs but the social changes raging in far off San Francisco are barely reaching the remote hills of East Tennessee. My friends and I are mostly concerned with getting drunk and which girls are “easy.” Quarter mile drag racing takes place on Saturday night in one of the nearby red neck towns. Some young men have come back dead from Nam but there is mostly patriotic and pro-war sentiment in all places around me.
I am watching the Smothers Brothers comedy hour. “Mother always liked you best” says Tommy to Dick. HA HA HA. And then it happens- a sixty second photo montage of the horrors happening in Vietnam from American GIs dying in each others arms to villages being napalmed and humans burnt. It is all done to a powerful hypnotic drumbeat. At the end of it I sit stunned, unable to move. WOW. It caught one complacent teenager totally by surprise.
If I had to pinpoint a moment that I began to awaken to the remarkable energy of the times and the immorality of the Viet Nam war, it would be that night in 1968. The Smothers Brothers, especially Tom, had ongoing conflicts with the CBS censors and the show was eventually cancelled. The other day I wanted to go to up to him and say thanks, thanks for having the courage to use your show to open at least one young man’s eyes to the truth.