Comedian, raconteur Dick Smothers as politically savvy as ever

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Dickie Smothers is ready to tell some stories. And he has plenty of them. As one-half of the comedy duo The Smothers Brothers, he and his brother Tommy made their mark on the early folk music scene as a musical-comedy duo before starring in a groundbreaking television show — “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

Smothers and his stories are making a rare local appearance at the Chicago Musical Improv Festival running at the iO Theater. Now in its third year, the four-day event (Aug. 17-20) features more than 40 groups that will fill the iO Theater with a unique blend of music and comedy.

Chicago Musical Improv Festival
The Musical Armando featuring Dickie Smothers
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 18
Tickets: $20
Here: The Improvised Musical followed by Q&A with Dickie Smothers
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 19
Tickets: $14
iO Theater, 1501 N. Kingsbury

Smothers will appear at two events at the festival. First he’ll join the cast of The Musical Armando (Aug. 18) as the guest monologist around whose story an improvised musical will be created. Then on Aug. 19 (after a performance by Here, a Columbus, Ohio, duo), he’ll sit down for a Q&A with iO artistic director Charna Halpern and festival creator Stacey Smith.

Smothers, who lives in Sarasota, Fl., has in recent years been taking improv and stand-up classes and says he’s familiar with how musical improv works.

“For the Armando, I’m going to tell a story about the improbability of my brother and I becoming a hit,” Smothers says. “Chicago has such a rich improv scene so it’s very exciting to be a part of this festival.”

Smith, who first met Smothers when she taught him in a musical improv class at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, feels he’s a “perfect fit” for the festival. “The bottom line is Dickie’s a legend. So it’s very fitting to have him at iO.”

Talking to Smothers is akin to taking a trip back in time. Suddenly you’re a teenager again watching a new Sunday night television show and as it unfolds you realize you’re witnessing something very different and very revolutionary.

Many a baby boomer experiences this déjà vu with mention of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” which aired on CBS from 1967-69, and opened the door for biting political satire on mainstream television. The brothers’ shtick was a subversive take on folk songs, which instantly appealed to the ‘60s counterculture.

In this 1974 file photo, The Smothers Brothers (Tommy, left and Dick) were about to open for a week of songs and satire at the legendary Mister Kelly’s nightclub in Chicago. | SUN-TIMES FILE PHOTO

“I figure Tommy and I did improv our whole lives,” Smothers says. “Our act was an improv thing sort of like Nichols and May in that you have a germ of an idea and you go with it. We didn’t know how to write; we just made things up. Tom and I did that our entire careers.”

The duo became famous overnight after a 1961 appearance on Jack Paar’s late-night talk show. Folk music was becoming popular and they were the first to mix it with comedy.

“If it wasn’t for the Kingston Trios’ big success there wouldn’t have been music for Tommy and I to sing,” Smothers says. “All those story songs woke up the youth of America to folk music.”

The brothers’ act developed in “college beer halls and basement bistros. That’s how we got our chops.” After the Jack Paar gig, the first major club they performed in was in Chicago at the iconic Rush Street nightclub Mister Kelly’s. “[Broadway singer] Dorothy Loudon was the headliner and people were coming to see us,” Smothers recalls, with a laugh. “She wasn’t happy about that.”

Tommy Smothers (left) and Dick Smothers are photographed at 2008 event in Beverly Hills, California. | Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In a lengthy phone conversation, Smothers, 77, comes across as politically savvy as he was in the ‘60s when he and his brother took on, among other things, the escalation of the war in Vietnam and President Lyndon Johnson. “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” opened the door for shows such as “Laugh In, “All in the Family” and “Saturday Night Live.”

Smothers says he follows today’s political satirists and feels they’re doing “a great job.” He admires the cutting satirical commentary of John Oliver (“He’s hilarious and just so good) and Samantha Bee (“During the recent presidential campaign, she made me feel better”).

“We have a madman in the White House,” Smothers says bluntly. “His people say you can’t take him seriously. That he’s just telling a joke. If there’s one man who cannot tell a joke it’s Trump. He’s not a comedian; he’s not funny.

“We need the current roster of political satirists to bring out the hypocrisy and lies and omissions that have always been in politics, no matter the party. Their cutting-edge humor gives us heart and inspiration to not just give up and accept things that are not right. My brother and I did our job; there are quicker, better minds than ours out there now. The struggle is never over.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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