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Television, famously dubbed the “cool medium” by Marshall McLuhan, would seem an unlikely stage for political satirists. Yet variety shows, featuring a playbill of acts designed for diverse audiences, allowed stand-up comics, sketch comedians, and folk singers an outlet for topical material. Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and other variety and late-night hosts provided a venue for comedians of the 1950s and early 1960s, though they had to dilute or eliminate material offensive to some members of the national audience. From the mid-1960s to the present, shows like That Was the Week That Was (1964–1965), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967–1969), Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968–1973), and Saturday Night Live (1975– ) courted controversy when they commented on current events. Political and social satire entered the sitcom when All in the Family (1971–1979) situated the liberal-conservative culture clash within a working-class household in Queens, New York.

I honestly think that the secret of TV is being relaxed, casual and easy. . . . The truth is that when you’re right in the room with those who watch you and listen to you, as you are in TV, practically sitting in their laps and muttering into their ears, your personality is more important than anything you can say.—Bob Hope, 1954

The Smothers Brothers

Tom (b. 1937) and Dick (b. 1939) Smothers attained national success as a folksong and comedy duo during the folk revival of the early 1960s. Their innovative variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, debuted in February 1967, mixing old and new acts and styles of comedy. Their political satires on war, religion, guns, drugs, and racism, during increasingly polarized times, antagonized CBS officials and affiliates. The series was censored and eventually cancelled in 1969.

Photograph of the Smothers Brothers, June 9, 1964. Copyprint. Courtesy of the District of Columbia Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post (051.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0051]

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Bob Hope and the Return of the Smothers Brothers

Less than six months after CBS fired the Smothers Brothers, Bob Hope invited them to appear on his NBC comedy special that satirized television censorship. “I'm revolting against NBC on this show,” Hope quipped. A few months later, when the brothers hosted their own NBC special on censorship and freedom of speech, Hope's appearance on the show provoked letters of outrage from fans. Tom Smothers sent Hope a respectful note of gratitude for his appearance.

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Pat Paulsen for President

Comedian Pat Paulsen (1927–1997) won an Emmy for his appearances on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour as an editorialist commenting nonsensically on political issues. To satirize the political process, in 1968 Paulsen ran a faux campaign for president on the show in the tradition of earlier comedians, including Will Rogers (1879–1935). At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Paulsen addressed California delegates before other candidates spoke to them.

Archie Lieberman, photographer. Pat Paulsen at the Democratic National Convention, August 1968. Copyprint. Look Magazine Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (056.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-24774] Courtesy of Archie Lieberman,

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David Frye

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, David Frye (1934–2011) frequented variety and late-night talk shows, creating some of the most acclaimed impersonations of politicians. Frye aimed “to get not just a few characteristics, but the whole presence” of his subjects. “Comedy,” he believed, “lies in the fact that all politicians pretend to be statesmen when they’re really politicians.” Frye’s career suffered after the downfall of Richard Nixon, of whom Frye did his most celebrated impersonation.

Geoffrey Gilbert, photographer. David Frye performing at the Shoreham, Washington, D.C., March 8, 1973. Copyprint. Courtesy of the District of Columbia Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post (055.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0055]

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Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In

In Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, with its “Laugh-In Looks at the News” segment, light-heartedly interwove satiric political barbs into a mélange of silly and absurd one-liners, sight gags, and blackouts. It became television’s top-rated show during its first two seasons. Producer George Schlatter (b. 1932) noted that although the show presented “very barbed references to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex,” it lacked anger and tried not “to change political views, but to comment humorously on all political views.”

Guest Sammy Davis, Jr., (1925–1990, left) and cast member Judy Carne (b. 1939, right), with hosts Dan Rowan (1922–1987) and Dick Martin (1922–2008), from the first season of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, 1968. Copyprint. Courtesy of the NBC Universal Photo Bank (053.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0053]

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Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live took advantage of the immediacy of live television to offer satiric commentary on the news. Shortly after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of the end of the Nixon presidency, The Final Days, was released, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi lampooned its depiction of the night before Nixon’s resignation when the president summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the Lincoln Room and kneeled with him to pray.

Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon and John Belushi as Henry Kissinger in “Final Days” skit on Saturday Night Live, May 8, 1976. Copyprint. Courtesy of the NBC Universal Photo Bank (054.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0054]

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The Tonight Show

For thirty years as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962–1992), Johnny Carson (1925–2005) delivered topical monologues that lightly skewered those in power. “Carson’s comedic take on the events of the day,” critic Richard Zoglin judged, “has been the most reliable barometer of the public’s mood.” However, some viewers were at times offended by Carson’s topical humor, as the letter displayed here demonstrates. Carson provided late-night national exposure for leading comedians, including George Carlin (1937–2008) and Richard Pryor (1940–2005), shown here, and those hoping to break into the big time.

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  • Paul Drinkwater, photographer. George Carlin and Richard Pryor with host Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, May 20, 1981. Copyprint. Courtesy of the NBC Universal Photo Bank (052.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0052]

  • Letter from John Krusack to NBC, January 19, 1970. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (048.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0048_01]

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Sections: Political Humor | Causes and Controversies | Blurring of the Lines