Monday, September 22, 2008

Tommy Smothers' Emmy

My wife and I don’t normally watch the annual Emmy Awards presentation – or the Oscars or Golden Globes, for that matter. Since we watch little television outside of the news, weather and analysis, there is little point in taking time to watch actors and actresses who we do not know receive awards for portraying characters whose identities are equally obtuse but who are meant to represent real people. We, like deities everywhere, are “privileged” to watch television honor those who entertain us in Prime Time.

I must say I had not realized that the 28 televised awards covered only Prime Time programs. I did know that the more technical Emmys (e.g., for stage set, wardrobe, lighting, sound mixing) were distributed at a dinner held the week before the televised awards presentation.

Those who watched the program know that the producers decided to highlight comedy. In large measure, they did this by bringing back performers from some of the very best comic variety and comic sketch shows of an earlier era. Among these was Tom Smothers who shared the spotlight with his brother Dick in “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and who made significant contributions to writing the shows. But Tom was such a lightning rod because of his anti-Vietnam War stance that, when the show’s writers learned they were among the writing teams nominated for an Emmy, Tom refused to be listed lest he damage the chances of the others.

Well, last night Tommy Smothers final received his Emmy. Ever the contrarian (usually with good reason), Tom made two statements that may have been overlooked in the telling the story of the writers’ Emmy.

Truth, he reminded his audience, is the comedian’s stock in trade. What makes a sketch humorous – a pinprick that deflates an expanded ego – and, at the same time, saves it from descending into the worst ad hominem excess, is the art of finding and emphasizing that bit of truth.

The other point Tom made was that the freedom to speak one’s mind and the freedom to assemble – attacked as they were during the latter 1960s and the first half of the 1970s – are incomplete (and indeed may be useless) without the freedom to hear.

In terms of the physics of speech comprehension, this is immediately recognized as true. But I also think Tom Smothers had something else in mind: only when each of us approaches the challenges of living with others with a commitment to keep our minds open – ready to hear both that something is being said and to try to comprehend the intellectual and emotional content of what is said – will the human race have a real chance to move beyond war and peace.

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