The Smothers Brothers aren't breaking any new ground these days. But if you were a fan (as we were) during their glory years on TV, you will readily forgive them their current lack of envelope pushing. The brothers did more than their share by opening the envelope of sharp political/social satire on mainstream television. They lost their show rather than kowtow to censorship, and their courage continues to give a glow to their joint career. And what a career: Celebrating their 43rd year in show business, The Smothers Brothers are the longest-running comedy team in entertainment history.
The best news is that, all these decades later, they're as uproariously funny as ever. Appearing through June 9 at Feinstein's at the Regency as part of the Toyota Comedy Festival, Tom and Dickie Smothers are playing a New York nightclub for the first time in 36 years. Still surprisingly youthful, The Smothers Brothers haven't changed very much. Their comedy is so well crafted and delivered with such exquisite timing that the effect is as funny as it is nostalgic.
The quarreling brother routine has not grown stale with time. Tommy still plays dumb, gets reprimanded by his strait-laced sibling, and still manages to get the last laugh (literally). "Dumb as a fox," Tommy's eyes sparkle with mischief. He's the half of the act that everyone loves. But give Dickie his due: He consistently walks a comic tightrope by being mean enough to Tommy to be his nemesis while making sure he doesn't alienate the audience. The crux of their act consists of Tommy making outrageous claims or giving ridiculous explanations that Dickie refuses to accept, forcing Tommy to comically recant. Early on, Tommy launches into a wild story about his exploits as a pilot. Under Dickie's relentless barrage, Tommy is forced, like a loser in a game of strip poker, to shed one extravagant claim after another. But even the naked truth (he does have a lot of frequent flier miles on American Airlines) does not stop him from eventually one-upping his brother and bringing the house down.
The Smothers Brothers always had the added dimension of music in their act. They make a fine, folk-like sound together. Dickie's sweet tenor was always the anchor in their harmonies. His voice, while still quite lovely, isn't what it used to be. Nonetheless, the musical interludes continue to be welcome, if too brief. On the other hand, the video portion of the show is too long. It begins as a bit of personal history: We see photos of Tommy and Dickie as children, growing up, and getting started in show business. By the time the video gets to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it starts to become too self-congratulatory. In a one-hour cabaret show, the audience rightfully expects to see the brothers perform live, not watch them on TV.
Despite that flaw, the act offers a wonderful variety of material, including an amusing visit from the Yo-Yo Man (Tommy) and enough of the brothers' classic routines to please their true fans. This show might be an excursion into nostalgia, but the old bits are timeless, and the laughter they evoke is brand new every time.