Even as it was happening, 1968 seemed to be the Ride of the Century. It zoomed along Time’s highway, blindly changing lanes and bouncing off guard rails in dented, drunken determination to find its way home. That it had absolutely no idea where that destination was didn’t even seem important at the time, but it got there eventually – all sweaty and exhausted within the souls of its passengers and the pages of history books.
I had been transplanted from San Diego to a strange new town a few miles outside of Washington D.C. during the Summer of Love, where I was to do grades nine through 12 and return after graduation. It might just as well have been in another country. I was just overcoming a powerful dose of culture shock when 1968 kicked into gear.
So many things happened then in our country and in the world that the enormity of it all can seem unreal to those who weren’t on the ride. In my case, it was also a furious, awesome setting for the torments of adolescence to come screaming into life. The longings were intense, the joys immense, and the fear was always near. Never before or since were weekends so anxiously anticipated. Friday afternoons would signal two and one-half days pursuing pleasure in a world that was losing its marbles. There was some sort of instinctive drive to make every moment memorable. I’m happy to have recognized that drive and grateful that I never resisted it.
But the fear and dread would begin to come back every Sunday night around 10pm, right after “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” had ended. The theme song during the closing credits became to me a tower bell proclaiming the imminent, compulsory return to the Real World. The magical weekend was essentially over; time to get some sleep before having to face the mysterious dangers of the upcoming week. That song’s evocative power was somehow blocked from my memory for well over four decades, until the Truth paid me a surprise visit and damn near set me free.
It was in an issue of Filmfax (a sublimely entertaining, overpriced quarterly) where I learned about the availability of a Smothers Brothers DVD boxed set, one that had me scurrying over to Frye’s within minutes of noticing the title. As it turns out, this set had been self-absorbedly sitting on the shelves and waiting for me for quite a long time. “You would have known about me if you only had a computer and Internet access, you retarded freak,” it chuckled to me from its bag as I drove us home. I was far too retarded to respond.
Very soon, I was watching all four discs of this arrogant bitch. It was 1968 again; the awe and fear began to return, and I began turning into jelly.
I haven’t been so affected by any session of television viewing since I first saw King of Kings one Easter afternoon back East a long time ago. When was it? Ah, yes. 1968. Channel five. Unmistakable. Quite a year.
I gave up cable ages ago and was unaware that these shows have had many subsequent runs on (I think) the E! channel. Maybe others as well. But I hadn’t seen even one second of any of them since they were first broadcast in late ’68 and early ’69. Hadn’t even heard that theme song since Damon and Keenan Ivory Wayans used it on their first “Brothers Brothers” sketch on “In Living Color” in 1990.
But I was hearing it now. Big time.
This wonderful collection is the real thing, boys and girls. Or at least most of it. Unfortunately, the set’s single defect turns out to be a real pisser: the episodes are the cable versions, which were severely shortened in order to accommodate some new intros and a lot more commercials. A fabulous stand-up spot by the greatest Nixon impersonator of all time, David Frye, is over in about 20 seconds. Several announced guests have simply disappeared. Lovely Leigh French, whose appearances would hauntingly engorge my loins, is barely present. But as maddening as the abridgements are (did someone think I wouldn’t notice and warn the world?), anger is soothed, nursed, burped, and bathed by the passion and power of what remains.
For me, the crown jewel is an outstanding performance/medley from the musical Hair, which features the co-authors Gerry Ragni and Jim Rado singing and springing their hearts out in their original Broadway roles. We all became friends two years later; Rado came with me to my high school graduation and Ragni would have fun showing me the seamier sides of New York City. Gerry has since died, but seeing both of them now, so happy and vital and superb and right in front of me grabs my heart and squeezes it like the joy of a high, triple-digit Draft Lottery number.
There’s plenty more music in these discs, from Tom and Dick, the Doors, Harry Belafonte, Ike and Tina, Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Donovan . . . all suddenly transcending the decades to provide the musical score to a magical return to one’s past.
I’m used to (and thankful for) frequently reuniting with departed loved ones in dreams, for all sorts of conversations and adventures. The most curious aspect of these reunions is a very natural acceptance that these departed branches of my life thrive again as if they’d never fallen. No “God I’ve missed you; how did you come back?!”, just precious business as usual until I wake up and once again begin to feel like the victim of some tragic robbery.
The deal with these Smothers Brothers shows is that, to me, they become like a waking dream. Those dead with whom I watched the programs four decades ago or those who were my dearest friends during their pre-mortem years are suddenly alive all around me, watching the shows with me, only now I can’t see or hear them and I start shaking and sobbing in frustration. I’m back in 1968, I’m merely feeling them; I’m wanting them more than I’ll ever want anything again and I’m frightened beyond belief.
The Smothers Brothers theme arrives, the credits roll, the reverie has ended again. Only some more sleep is left before the next cautious steps into a dangerous year. Sure, it’s happened before; it’s just that there’s so much less of me now. Somehow I’ve got to find more. In the meantime, The Smothers Comedy Hour – The Best of Season 3 (Time/Life) is a comfort, a memorial, a high watermark of feeling that has left me stunned and in awe.