Tommy The Commie

Me and Tommy Smothers, Hilton Palm Springs 2009
Me and Tommy Smothers, Hilton Palm Springs 2009

Tommy Smothers, aka “Tommy The Commie,” made my day.

He said I was funny.

Before I get into that, I need to explain why I call him “Tommy The Commie.” When he and his brother, Dick, had a very popular variety show on CBS in the sixties, they often skewered the Vietnam war, the president and a lot of other “sensitive” targets. In 1969 their show was abruptly canceled by the network, for things that Lorne Michaels would be doing on NBC less than ten years later with SNL.

I met him at an event in 2009 hosted by Hilton Palm Springs when I worked there as a manager-on-duty, and one of my co-workers, Billy, was a tough-as-nails Vietnam vet who’d met Tommy before. They had a great love/hate relationship, and it was Billy who called him “Tommy The Commie,” but he wasn’t the first. That nick-name came straight out of the late sixties for Mr. Smothers.

So anyway, during this event, Tommy Smothers looked right at me and said, “Hey, you’re a funny guy!” I’ll tell you what I did to get that response in a bit.

It’s one thing to get validation like that from friends — who are always a bit biased — and it’s another thing to get it from an audience of regular folk, but to get it from a showbiz comedy legend, well, I was tickled pink.

This event was a celebrity golf tournament sponsored by a huge food conglomerate. They’re so well known, you probably have some of their products in your fridge and pantry, and possibly even your tummy right now.

A lot of food industry big shots along with TV and sports celebrities were there, including Tommy Smothers, Patrick Duffy, Dennis Haysbert, Greg Itzin, Norm Crosby, Alice Cooper, Mary Hart, Cheech Marin, Craig T. Nelson, Kevin Sorbo, Brooks Robinson, Ben Roethlisberger, Super Dave Osborne, a couple of actresses from daytime soaps, some lady from “The Apprentice,” and so on.

They all stayed through the week and I got to meet and converse with most of them. I was talking with Dennis Haysbert — who’d played a president in a season of 24 — and telling him about the time I was booked on an episode of 24 as an extra, which I’m sure impressed the hell out of him, when Greg Itzin — who’d played a president in a different season of 24 —  walked up and said “HI,” which made for a very surreal experience.

I expected Jack Bauer to come bursting in at any second and send me head first into the wall before pulling a gun and ordering everyone to “stay calm.”

A very distinctive man who you’d know by his face and longish jet black hair, but not by his ball cap, pink T-shirt, slacks and golfing shoes, was perusing the morning brunch set-up in the lobby, so I thought I’d introduce myself and make conversation.

“Hi, I’m DAVE,” I said. “Hi DAVE, I’m ALICE,” he said, and then we talked about fruit and crackers.

Alice Cooper is an avid golfer who’d been to this event and others like it time and again, and I can honestly say that when I was in high school, rocking out to “Schools out…” with a doobie in one hand and a beer in the other, I never thought I’d someday be having a conversation with a pink-shirted Alice Cooper about fruit and crackers at a brunch proceeding a golf tournament.

I have something in common with Patrick Duffy, which is that I lived for most of the nineties in Ashland, Oregon which is near his ranch just outside of Medford. I told him that I saw him around town on occasion; at the mall, a restaurant here and there, and The Blacksheep Pub in downtown Ashland, which he’s been to quite a bit. It’s English food, but it’s really good, so it’s not true English food. Patrick agreed.

A man unknown to you, but beloved by millions of light beer drinkers, would be the Miller Brewing Company big shot who was at the event. When I told him that I’d wanted to try the new “Chelada-style” beer that has a hint of lime infused into it, but couldn’t find it at my local supermarket, he got very concerned.

He asked what supermarket it was and, as I told him, he whipped out a mobile device and proceeded to email someone. This was at about eight in the morning, and he told me to check the store when I went home that night. I did and found an entire corner in the beer section devoted to Miller’s new “‘Chill,’ Chelada-style” beer.

I knew someone who worked at the store, so I asked him when that display had come in. “Earlier this afternoon,” he said. “The delivery guy had finished his rounds and was really pissed that he was on his way home but then got orders to come set this thing up. It was really weird.”

Oops, my bad.

On top of being a fantastic comic and musician, Tommy Smothers is known for his masterful command of… the yo-yo. No kidding, he’s really good at it.

On the final evening of the event, several of us were in the hotel valet area when Smothers came out to smoke a cigarette and find a fresh audience for his yo-yo bits. He whipped out his little round tool of mirth and proceeded to dazzle us with delightful tricks, most of which I’d never seen before, and a few of which he had some trouble pulling off correctly because the yo-yo apparently had been drinking.

He’s a jester in the truest sense; one who commands an audience of strangers who bind together in the moment, as he makes a show out of his mere presence. A lady asked him if his career was still going strong, and I interjected, “Sure, he’s playing hotel lobbies all across the nation.”

This earned me a grin from the jester. When I told him that I watched his show as a kid, he pointed out that I must have been about eight years old. I said, “Yeah, but my parents explained it all to me as it went along.”

Later, after having finished his last cigarette, he asked me if I had one he could bum from me. I told him I didn’t smoke but I’d be happy to fetch one for him.

I knew the front desk girl, Sara, was a smoker so I approached her and said, “Quick, give me that stapler and a cigarette.” She looked at me as you’d expect so I said, “I’ll explain later, they’re for Tommy Smothers.” She obliged.

I returned to Mr. Smothers and handed him the stapler. “What’s this?” He asked, walking right into my set-up. “What can I say Mr. Smothers, I’m dyslexic.”

It was then he told me I was a funny guy, so I gave him the cigarette. I’m not sure I would have if he hadn’t. I folded that compliment up and put in my wallet, right next to the conversation about fruit and crackers with Alice Cooper.

They all left the next morning, and after about 15 hours of make-up sleep, I returned to the hotel with a semblance of normalcy and business-as-usual. I directed ladies to the spa, rescued a tiny dog that had been abandoned in its owner’s room, and talked at length with a lesbian writer from New York who was waiting in the valet area for her partner to arrive.

But I’ll never forget the greatest compliment I ever received.


THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS, doing what they did best:

1. With The Boston Pops

2. When Tommy first discovered rock music

3. On Letterman in 1992

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