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BARNHART

Steve Martin Made His Incredibly Polished TV Debut 53 Years Ago

Before The Jerk and Roxanne, even before SNL, the 23-year-old brown-haired comedy writer cast a magic spell over millions on CBS.
  • Photo: CBS
    Photo: CBS
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    You think times are bad now? Roll back 53 years with me to 1969. Thousands of U.S. troops were dying in Vietnam. MLK and RFK had both been assassinated, with Dr. King’s killing sparking off widespread and destructive rioting in cities across America. And a year earlier, CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite — fresh off a fact-finding tour of Vietnam — delivered a grim on-air commentary that would prove decisive in convincing Lyndon Johnson not to run for a second term as president.

    Bear that in mind when you play the clip below. It comes from that same network — top-rated CBS — and a show called The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It was there, during the show’s third season, that a brown-haired comic from the Smothers Brothers writers’ room made his on-camera debut before an audience of 20 million people.

    His name was Steve Martin of Garden Grove, California, and on February 2, 1969 he gave the Smothers Brothers' huge national viewership a magic routine and its first taste of his Dada-esque comedy stylings. The four-minute clip is still hilarious — but there's much more to it than that.

    The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour aired 9:00 PM Sundays, right after The Ed Sullivan Show. Although it didn't win its time slot against Bonanza, NBC's most popular program, crucially to the advertisers who bought commercial time on CBS, the show's hip hosts were drawing a younger audience than almost any other top-rated show on TV.

    It was this appeal to youth that no doubt explains how Martin, a 23-year-old college dropout and aspiring standup comic, got himself hired as a writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. In introducing Martin to the CBS audience, Tom Smothers joked that he only knew Martin from walking past the writers' room, and that putting him on the air was in lieu of paying him. There was a kernel of truth to that; Martin was hired by the show's head writer, Mason Williams, who initially paid the young comedian out of his own pocket.

    Mason Williams was a kindred spirit to Martin: a bard with a banjo, someone who understood how to make the masses laugh and the elites chuckle. Williams co-wrote the theme song for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and in 1968, debuted on the show a three-minute tune he had written for guitar and orchestra.

    "Classical Gas" was released as a single and rose to No. 2 on the Billboard charts; according to music licenser BMI, it is the most-played instrumental song in the history of radio. "Classical Gas" won three Grammys, including one for the arranger, Mike Post, who would go on to revolutionize the TV theme song (Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, etc.). Here is Williams performing it on the Smothers Brothers 20th Anniversary Special in 1988:

    An acoustic version of "Classical Gas" was featured in the 2003 remake of Cheaper by the Dozen, a film that just happened to star Steve Martin.

    Another writer on the show was Bob Einstein, who was also getting his big break thanks to the Brothers Smothers. Martin hit it off immediately with the future Super Dave Osborne. "We were as close as two people could be," Martin says in the documentary that if you haven't seen it — please, just stop reading this and watch it now: The Super Bob Einstein Movie.

    All of this talent had been assembled on the CBS Television City stage to provide light entertainment to a stressed-out nation, helping Americans forget the hard news of the day. But being of the same age as the generation being sent to war — and protesting the war — the writers and on-screen stars of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had no intention of doing just another song-and-dance show like Jackie Gleason or Red Skelton. That was risky. If you saw the recent Norm Macdonald comedy special and heard him joking about comics like Red Skelton not having political views … well, Red Skelton had one of the most popular shows on TV in 1968.

    To reach for an analogy, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was to the variety show what Late Night with David Letterman was to the late-night talk show. Over the course of three tumultuous seasons, the show kept kicking down the flimsy prop wall separating its airless, laugh track-sweetened pleasure room from the world outside. And just as they thought would happen, America tuned in.

    There was the satirical presidential campaign of one of its regular performers, Pat Paulsen. CBS kept one Paulsen bit from airing, and famously censored Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte for singing protest songs. The censors also yanked a gag about the Ku Klux Klan and objected to this amazing sketch on TV censorship that ends with Simon and Garfunkel being shot.

    As David Bianculli noted in his terrific book on the Smothers Brothers, the show's running battles with CBS prompted George Harrison to show up unannounced one night and tell the boys on national TV, "Whether you can say it or not … keep trying to say it."

    If CBS execs were turned off by the show’s politics, they were certainly happy with the ratings: Dick and Tommy held onto 90 percent or more of Ed Sullivan's lead-in audience despite airing opposite Bonanza. And while most of what aired on the show seems pretty innocuous today, Bianculli asserts that it was daring for its time.

    There was no shortage of talent wanting to appear on their show. Americans heard "Hey Jude" for the first time on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour because the Beatles gifted the show with a film of themselves performing the song.

    Which brings us back to Steve Martin. Watch this short debut performance of his and witness one of the very first expressions, on a national stage, of what comedy would look like in the future. The Seventies were just around the corner, and Martin’s brassy, ironic comedy stylings would be perfect for a generation burned out by upheaval.

    By the time the National Lampoon-Second City-SNL generation arrived, Martin was already building a brand around his comedy persona. It’s all on display here, already so well-formed, the script tight, the voice strong, the silliness done to straight-faced perfection.

    There's even a risqué moment during the toilet-float trick that calls to mind his later appearance as "The Great Flydini" on the Johnny Carson show.

    After his brief appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin would retreat backstage, sharing the Emmy for best writing on a variety series in 1969 with Mason Williams, Bob Einstein and others.

    That same year, CBS executives came to the end of their short rope and pulled the plug on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

    Martin went on to write for other variety shows. But by then he knew he could make America laugh, and soon he would turn his dorky-sophisticate shtick into an unbelievably popular stadium act, sell millions of comedy LPs, and leverage his fame into an extraordinary career across the pop culture landscape.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Steve Martin, CBS, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour