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The Smothers Brothers Show Wasn't 'Canceled,' They Were Fired - That's Important

The death of Tom Smothers, 86, on December 26 has put the Smothers Brothers back in the spotlight. The comedy duo that consisted of him and his brother, Dick, starred on CBS' "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" from 1967 to 1969. The trendy show soon became known for skits and content that actively made fun of the powers that be, including criticizing the Vietnam War. "We were moderate. We were never out there," Dick Smothers told the Associated Press. "But we were the first people through that door. It just sort of crept in as the '60s crept in. We were part of that generation." 

This approach earned the show a pair of Primetime Emmys, but it also painted a target on its back ... and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the controversial show came to a sudden end in 1969. However, the Smothers Brothers made it known that their show never actually got canceled — instead, they insisted that they were fired. They were pretty clear about this in a 1982 interview on "Late Night with David Letterman" when Letterman brought up the subject. "We were fired. We left under duress," Tom told the host in no uncertain terms. This wasn't a throw-off line, either — he used the same term onstage when he received an honorary award at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards.

The determined distinction between being canceled and getting fired is understandable considering the way the show ended. Instead of officially canceling the show, CBS alleged that its censors hadn't received an episode of the show on time and used this to unexpectedly pull the plug on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." The Smothers Brothers weren't happy — and the law eventually sided with them, as they won $775,000 in the ensuing court case.

They may have been fired, but the Smothers Brothers' legacy lives on

Tom and Dick Smothers could never quite replicate the success of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," but they nevertheless went on to enjoy long, storied careers, both together and separately. From tours and documentaries to successful Broadway shows and multiple movie and TV appearances, they may not have been the kind of A-list household names some of their old show's alumni became, but they've certainly been around.

Even if the Smothers Brothers had completely disappeared from the limelight after "Comedy Hour," their legacy would have been secure. Not only was the show's subject matter groundbreaking for its day, but it inspired others to find their voices on social issues and helped several amazing up-and-coming talents on their way to fame — from "Only Murders in the Building" star Steve Martin to Rob Reiner. The prestige their pioneering TV work and struggles with censorship attempts earned them wasn't lost on the brothers. 

"In retrospect, it's been a blessing in disguise because it was a major point in our lives and other people's lives, and 10 years later, we get this residual respect from it," Tom Smothers reflected on the show's end in the 1982 David Letterman interview.