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Wes Britton <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 17 Feb 2010 09:31:05 -0800
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In honor of Hal Holbrook's birthday, below is an excerpt from David
Bianculli's great new bio of the Smothers Brothers, Dangerously Funny.
Discussing the contexts of network censorship of the time, Bianculli
called attention to one example of network nervousness:

The case in point was Mark Twain Tonight!, the one-man Broadway show
written and performed by actor Hal Holbrook, based on the books,
letters, and speeches of Mark Twain. Mike Dann had seen and loved
Holbrook's stage show, and, to his credit, wanted to present it in prime
time on CBS. With David Susskind as producer, the prograni was scheduled
and promoted to be televised as a ninety- minute special on Monday,
March 6, 1967. Holbrook, who reshaped the show and substituted material
constantly, agreed to a one-week preparation schedule: rehearsals Monday
through Wednesday, camera blocking Thursday and Friday, filming on
Saturday and Sunday, and televising the final cut on Monday. All went
well into Wednesday, when Susskind showed up and said CBS objected to
certain material Holbrook was performing. One objection was to the
antiwar tone of some of Twain's remarks. The other objection was to the
repeated usage, in passages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of
the word nigger. Though the word is used, in context, either to expose
racism as ugly or to dramatize Huck's eventual rejection of bigotry, its
use by Twain is a hot-button issue even today. In 1967, with civil
rights an inflamed battle, it couldn't have been hotter.

"In some places in the South, racism was really out of control,"
Holbrook says now, "and we were watching it all over the television
screen. And the other thing was this war we'd gotten ourselves tangled
up in, and we were beginning to realize, at that point, that we got our
foot in a bear trap." Holbrook had chosen those passages precisely
because of the Vietnam War and the racial divide, and what he saw as
Twain's applicable, universal truths about war and equality. When he got
news of the network's objections, his reaction was simple but
unyielding: Tell CBS, he told Susskind, that we can stop rehearsals and
not have a show-or that the show will go on as planned, with absolutely
no cuts.

"They were trapped, really," Holbrook says, "and of course I knew that.
I knew they were committed, and trapped, so it wasn't like I was
cavalier. I just knew I had a tremendous amount of influence there, and
if I was able to stand my ground, that probably I'd win . . . And I did.
He came back in a couple hours and said, 'Okay, Hal. They've agreed to
it.' And we went and did it." The result: one of the best television
programs of the 1960s-and a kindred spirit, with The Smothers Brothers
Comedy Hour, of making serious points through humor.

"You can make statements, political statements, with what we generally
call humor," Holbrook says. "But humor is often interpreted as something
soft. Well, it isn't always soft at all. And if you can use a sense of
humor, you can use the 'ignition' function of comedy-using something
funny to explode an idea that is serious and political."

In the first Comedy Hour taped after Mark Twain Tonight! was televised,
the Smothers Brothers did just that . . .