Magazine article Newsweek

The Case for Censorship

Magazine article Newsweek

The Case for Censorship

Article excerpt

Byline: Joshua Alston

This will sound like crazy talk to anyone under 30, but the Smothers Brothers were the Jon Stewart of their day: edgy, daring, and willing to speak quips to power. Their late-'60s variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, was replete with sex and drug references, but it was the political rabble-rousing that got the boys into trouble with CBS. Two examples: inviting a blacklisted Pete Seeger to perform a song critical of LBJ and the Vietnam War, and having Harry Belafonte sing "Don't Stop the Carnival" in front of footage from the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention. The Smothers' relationship with CBS devolved from mild acrimony to naked hostility, with the network trimming, and sometimes cutting, segments it disagreed with. The war escalated until the show, an American Idol-size ratings colossus, was canceled in 1969.

The Smothers' losing battle is chronicled in the new book Dangerously Funny by David Bianculli, a meticulously researched account of how ideological divisions and skirmishes over creative control led to the show's demise. Bianculli's implicit argument is that CBS's censorship limited the show's potential. You could argue that's the opposite of what happened. Americans are conditioned to value free speech, and when we see things such as a media blackout in Iran, we're reminded how good we have it. But censorship is more of a creative asset to television than it is a curse. The complete freedom to create and distribute that is possible in music, film, and the visual arts doesn't exist in television, which is why hipsters go crazy for the latest indie band or indie movie, but no one ever talks about the hot indie TV show--because there's no such thing. …

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