"Comedians all have a pattern," says Tommy Smothers, who is sitting with his brother, Dick, in the lounge at a hotel in downtown Baltimore. Tommy's theory is that most comedians have a certain physical tic that comes up every time they get to a punch line.
He mentions Pat Paulsen, the famously deadpan comic who was a staple of the old "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in the 1960s. Paulsen would deliver a joke - "I got my wife a birth control device. It's called a Slinky" - and a half second after the last word, he'd casually swing his right fist up into his left hand, punctuating the gag with a muffled clap.
"He'd do that even when he was doing a play," says Smothers. "I noticed that mine was, I'd come to a punch line and I'd shift my weight." He demonstrates, shifting his stance by sliding his left foot slightly forward. "It's an unconscious move."
It's also entirely unnecessary. Seated on a couch, he and his brother are typically funny as they talk about the comedians they admire and their own life in show biz. At times, they turn the interview into a rambling cross-talk act.
Then again, the Smothers - who perform at the Baltimore Symphony's SuperPops season opener this afternoon - came to their act naturally. As Dick explains, they fell naturally into their formula, with Tommy as the goofy, excitable gag man and Dick as the patient, relentlessly logical straight man.
"It's because he's funny, and I'm not," says Dick, in typical deadpan. "It was a pretty natural selection."
Funny thing is, the Smothers didn't start out as a comedy act, but a folk duo. "Without the music, there would have never been a Smothers Brothers," says Dick. "There would have been no vehicle for us to learn comedy."
At first, the two just sang. "Tommy could say a funny, convoluted introduction, but that was about it," he says. "Then we got this third guy in. That gave us some more music, and things grew."
"Then he quit, after nine months," Tommy says. "After that, we could do comedy easily."
"We have no idea what we learned," Dick says, laughing.
The Smothers landed the BSO pops gig at the last minute, after the series' scheduled opener, the pianist and comedian Victor Borge, cancelled due to his wife's illness. Although Dick jokes that they didn't pack for a symphony show - "What we have is not clothes-appropriate," he says - the two are honored to be filling in for Borge.
"He's such a hero to us," Tommy says.
"We listened to him in high school," Dick says.
"And there are a lot of similarities between us," says Tommy. "Not in style, so much, but in the fact that, when the show's over, people will come up and say, 'Why don't you ever finish a song?'"
Moving from music to comedy may not seem the most logical leap, but it makes sense in the case of the Smothers Brothers because both depend heavily on timing.
"Timing is everything," says Dick. "You know how comedians steal material? The closest thing Tommy did, early on, was steal Professor Irwin Corey's timing."
Corey, in case you can't recall, was a frizzle-haired comedian who did a wacky scientist routine relying heavily on long, confused pauses - one of Tommy's specialties. But not every comic can play for laughs that way.
Dick recalls a time, back in the late '50s, when they two appeared on a show called "P.M. East," which was hosted by Mike Wallace. "He was probably only about 40 at that time," Dick says dryly. "We followed actress June Valle one night with 'Down in the Valley.' Of course, they read everything into it ..."
Another guest that night was Abe Brooks, who had earned a reputation on Broadway as a "show doctor," breathing comedic life into bad scripts. Brooks watched the Smothers do their "Boatmen Dance" routine, in which Tommy turned his guitar upside down to show what the flatboats of old looked like.
"Wait a minute. If this is a flatboat, and this is the back, what's that long skinny thing sticking out the front?" Dick would say, pointing to the guitar's neck. To which Tommy would reply, "The rudder."
"No, no. You called that the front," Dick would counter. "The rudder's in the back." Then Tommy would stare at the guitar, pause to think, then stare at the guitar again, dragging out the moment before he'd finally blurt, "I lied!"
"So Abe Brooks says, 'You know, I have never seen anybody take so long,'" recalls Dick. "'That is so brave!'" He laughs, and adds, "But it worked."
Still does, in fact.
'Baltimore Symphony SuperPops'
When: Today 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday 3 p.m.
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall