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From the Archives: One-Half of the Smothers Brothers Discusses The Duo's Past and Present.

Tommy Smothers of the comedy duo The Smothers Brothers. In 1967, their show The Smothers Brothers Comedy hour first went on the air. The show has been credited with helping pave the way for a new generation of TV comedy shows including Saturday Night Live. (REBROADCAST from 8/11/97)

20:30

Other segments from the episode on March 19, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 19, 1999: Interview with Matt Groening; Interview with Tommy Smothers; Review of the film "True Crime."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 19, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031901np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Tommy Smothers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

Next month, it will be 30 years since CBS fired Tom and Dick Smothers and yanked their hit variety series off the air. "The Smothers Bothers Comedy Hour" was pulled not for low ratings, but because the network considered so much of their material too controversial.

Here's a typical taste from the final season, with Tom Smothers playing a character about to marry a woman played by black singer Nancy Wilson.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

TOMMY SMOTHERS, COMEDIAN: But Celeste, aren't you forgetting about one thing that people are sure to talk about? And something that they will try to destroy our relationship? And which will cause immeasurable damage to our children?

NANCY WILSON, SINGER: Thomas, what are you talking about?

SMOTHERS: The fact that I'm white and you're black.

WILSON: I'm what?

LAUGHTER

BIANCULLI: Tom, who plays guitar and Dick, who plays bass are still out on tour and they've done plenty of other television over the years. Their classic comedy hour shows were rerun for the first and only time by the E! cable network in the early '90s.

I talked with Tom in 1997 and asked him how he felt those old comedy hours held up after so many years. He was a bit ambivalent.

TOMMY SMOTHERS, COMEDIAN: I felt that the success of the "Smothers" show and its impact was based on the venue -- the actual time and place and the emotions and there was the middle of the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy being assassinated, and there was right-wing, left-wing, hawks and doves -- and it seemed to, to me -- and it -- it bore out, for me anyway.

When I saw my -- I kind of cringed -- I still wanted to edit them a little bit and make them a little bit better, and I thought that playing a daily, out of sequence, lost the impact. I was afraid that maybe people who remembered the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" so fondly would have been disappointed to see them out of context, and say, well, that wasn't like I remembered it. Like going back to your high school or your junior high school and saying the school isn't as big as I remember -- the old house.

BIANCULLI: But people got to go back to it when they were rebroadcast on E! in the early '90s, and even at those things, you and your brother Dick did these wrap-around tapings, putting everything into context. And you, even there, looked to be on most shows having less of a good time than your brother did.

I mean, was I reading too much into that? Or were you...

SMOTHERS: That was very astute. Yes, I was having a miserable time. I started off looking at the -- looking at each tape, but there was 72 of them. Finally, I just went brain dead on it. And there was things I wanted to tighten up for the showing because I had to take some time out to put the wrap-around.

And over those 20 years, before they were shown again, I'd watched them, but I always felt there was a little too much applause and then I would -- I'd think that maybe we could have said -- spoken better; could have expressed some of the ideas better.

But I seem to be an exception to that. A lot of people liked them.

BIANCULLI: Well yeah, I was going to try and find a nice polite way to say that I think you're nuts.

LAUGHTER

SMOTHERS: That's what my brother said.

BIANCULLI: 'Cause, I mean, when it comes to the '60s, you really can't find anything on television that boiled it all down into one lump, than the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." I mean, the sexual revolution, the drugs, the rock and roll, the peace movement, the generation gap, anti-authority -- it's all right there. And yet you did it without losing the core audience that you started with.

SMOTHERS: Well, that was -- that was an exceptional thing. Mason Williams was a great contributor. The process was really fun. We never quite had a chance to, I always thought that, to do the craft better. And that's probably what I'm thinking about.

Someone told me Bob Newhart was looking at -- they did an interview with him and they were playing some of his old albums back. And, in fact, his first album -- "The Button-Down Mind" -- he says, "God, I can't stand it. Don't play it. Don't play it." And they said, "why? This is great."

"Well they took some of the pauses out to tighten it up, and that's not my timing."

So I don't think anybody's who's ever been a writer or a performer or a musician whose recorded -- published something -- hasn't looked back at their earlier work with a more critical eye.

BIANCULLI: When you got the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," didn't you get the opportunity of creative control because you were basically going into a no-lose time slot, like someone would today going in opposite "Seinfeld?"

SMOTHERS: Pretty much. We did a half-hour situation comedy just before that -- the season before; 32 shows. And I was very unhappy with the writing and they wrote for Tommy Smothers; I did most of the lines. Dickie was basically ignored. And I was working too hard.

So when we got this new show, they said we'll give you a variety show. I said, "well, I want creative control." They said, "you got it." I said that means the content and writer approval and all those -- cast and people. And they said, "yeah." Because there was no chance the show was going to make it anyways against "Bonanza," so all the shows had been failing.

So they were very cavalier and very flip about it. Also, there was no reason not to grant us creative control because we had shown no inclination. We were short-hairs. We were clean-cut. They didn't expect anything that happened happen.

I don't think anybody at that time in the mid-'60s expected the expression of dismay over the war and voter registration -- all these things that were just taking place; the sexual revolution -- all those things.

So...

BIANCULLI: ...well, were you just laying in the weeds? I mean, did you have this grand plan?

SMOTHERS: No, I had no plan. I think most people don't have plans and sometimes do something extraordinary. I got censored, so I started saying things that -- not even knowing that there was anything wrong with them. Then I started becoming a little more involved and then pretty soon it became a -- someone says "you can't say that," I would say, "oh, we can too."

LAUGHTER

BIANCULLI: Well, you were basically the only young guy with a platform at that time on prime time television.

SMOTHERS: We were kind -- in hindsight, I can see that we were -- the Smothers Brothers were pretty much -- had no choice. We were young. The whole staff was basically young, with some seasoned writers in there. But primarily, it was under 30. Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Mason Williams, Bob Einstein (ph) -- they were all -- and they all felt the same way as youth did.

It was a great cultural clash, and we were there with a show and we had to reflect that. It was just -- I think it was a responsibility, even though I didn't think it then. But I perceive it now as we had no choice.

BIANCULLI: But I still don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. To say that you had no choice and were sort of dragged along, or you were at the -- you know, the fringes of this movement that were carrying around anyway, is one thing. But you were, in terms of the rock and roll acts that you presented; the things that you brought on; the stuff that you discussed -- going against the war -- you basically were the center.

And there's actually a clip that I'd like to play for you...

SMOTHERS: OK.

BIANCULLI: That goes back from the old show, and this is basically November of '68, I think, and this is two weeks after you had had the Beatles on to premier "Hey Jude" and "Revolution," which is not a shabby musical booking.

LAUGHTER

And then...

SMOTHERS: ...it was...

BIANCULLI: ...and then you're lining up the acts for that week's show, and then this happens.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR")

APPLAUSE

DICK SMOTHERS: Tommy also has a special guest, too, and he'd like to introduce him right now, wouldn't you?

TOMMY SMOTHERS: That's right. I have a Beatle.

APPLAUSE/SHRIEKS

TOMMY SMOTHERS: Yeah, but it's not the kind of "Beatle" you would expect it to be. It's the kind of Beatle that you, I think, you hoped it would be. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. George Harrison.

APPLAUSE/SHRIEKS

TOMMY SMOTHERS: Hey, George? Do you have something important?

GEORGE HARRISON, BEATLE: Something very important to say on American television.

TOMMY SMOTHERS: You know, we don't -- we -- a lot of times we can't -- we don't have opportunity to say anything important because it's American television. Every time you say something...

LAUGHTER

...and try to say something important, they...

APPLAUSE

...dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot.

HARRISON: Cue the lines. Well, whether you can say it or not, keep trying to say it.

TOM SMOTHERS: That's what's important.

HARRISON: You get that? Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, see, now -- what do you think about when you hear that?

SMOTHERS: I forget. It takes me back. Yeah. Well, that was very nice. We were, and there was work -- I'm not trying to diminish -- there was just a lot of serendipity in the Smothers Brothers. A young -- had a -- number one -- had a big show -- happened to be during these very culturally kind of -- shake -- earthquake -- cultural earthquake -- and social.

And we were young enough, and all those things happened. I always used to say we were at the scene of the accident and made the best of it we could, sorting stuff out. And we were very dedicated to putting out as much as we could possibly say; expressing as much as we could through the sketches and everything.

My God, it's -- I -- I just -- you know, you can't take credit for being at the -- being born in America or being born somewhere else or wherever. So we were there.

We did not shirk our duty to bring to television as intelligent and as interesting a show as we could. But I think circumstances really made a big difference because if we'd have had that show in the '50s or we had it in the '80s, it would have never had the impact. Even if we'd have been diligently trying to do the most intelligent, thoughtful observations about life.

BIANCULLI: Well, we're going to move further up in the decades, but I've got a couple more things I want to ask you about that time, one of which is perhaps your most famous act of defiance on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." Which is breaking the back -- the black list on Pete Seeger.

SMOTHERS: Mmm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: And booking him. And was that a calculated effort on your part to sort of rail against the CBS censors?

SMOTHERS: I believe that was in '68 -- one of the last two seasons, and I did get more stubborn, more resolute in my need -- and our crew and our writers wanted to express things and it was more calculated. Matter of fact, I said to all our guests that were ever guests on it, whether the new groups or old groups or actors -- comedians always say -- you're -- our guests on our show, was there anything you'd like to do? And we'd like to present what you'd like to do. And Pete Seeger said, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." And we sang it at rehearsal and I said, that's right on and be my guest.

And then the censors looked at it and said it's a veiled reflection on our policy in Vietnam. It wasn't very veiled. But I did purposely say yes, that's good. They cut it out. We brought him back the next year and I said, what would you like to sing?

He says, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." I said, well, be my guest this time because it got so much publicity and the word -- ugly word "censorship" was coming up but they let it go.

And those -- it was the only show, I guess, that had a topical view point about our involvement in Vietnam. It was a bad idea and it was morally bankrupt, I thought -- ethically wrong. But that consciousness came all -- over all of us in the process of doing the show.

BIANCULLI: Now is it true -- I don't know whether to believe you when I read this in print or not -- but that you and Dick have actually attended brothers' therapy sessions?

SMOTHERS: When we were getting very near the end of our five-year -- "our five-year plan" -- which was last year, he called me and he said he's been going to a lot of these -- these group meetings, you know, like "Life Spring" and other names for them. And he said it -- there -- I met -- there are two people that -- I want to have a session with us. I think we'll work out some plans, he said. They're counselors.

And I go, oh no, not a -- like a marriage counselor? He says, yeah, well, but not -- they work with big corporations. They make personal and corporate breakthroughs allowing people to function. We'll just talk about the Smothers Brothers.

And I go, oh, man -- I've never seen this work, you know, so I went with it and these people came up and we had the -- a very productive time. It cleared out a whole lot of things. And both Dick and I looked at each other and said, why didn't we do this 10 years ago? 15 years ago? Or on a every two or three year basis just to kind of clear the air -- a third party who had no vested interest and could listen to us.

Because we had legendary -- legendary fights. Our fights were over timing and over material. And we are exact opposites, which is our little edge on stage because we don't have to assume too much of a persona difference.

BIANCULLI: Mmm-hmm.

SMOTHERS: So this was a 12-hour session and people seemed to pick up on it. We said, we went to see a counselor to help our relationship get stronger. One time, Dick said, how -- isn't it difficult working with your brother, like, 35, 40 years like this? And he says, "well, it's like an old marriage -- a lot of fighting, no sex."

I thought, that's a funny line coming from the straight man.

BIANCULLI: Tom Smothers, recorded in 1997. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

BIANCULLI: Back with Tom Smothers, the driving force behind the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." Which was yanked off CBS 30 years ago. I spoke with him in 1997.

OK. Now, at a risk of asking so many questions about the '60s, I want to go back even further, just for a minute, and just ask how you and your brother came to pick up the instruments that you did?

SMOTHERS: Well, my mother -- our mother -- Ruth Smothers was always a -- when we were going back and forth to grandma's house in the old Packard we always sang songs. You know, we'd sing "Down in the Valley," "Home on the Range," all these songs we'd be singing. And when I was about seven years old, I just said, mom, I wish I had a guitar. I want a guitar, guitar, guitar.

And she got me a guitar, and I couldn't believe it. And I started learning to play it. Burl Ives was my first influence as far as music about the guitar, and then I wanted to be a bandleader. Dick never played the instrument -- was not interested.

Then I saw -- who was the guy? Little guy with the crewcut?

BIANCULLI: George Gobel?

SMOTHERS: George Gobel was my first comedic influence.

BIANCULLI: Hey, give me credit. That was a good one. Go ahead.

SMOTHERS: That was good.

LAUGHTER

BIANCULLI: OK. Go ahead.

SMOTHERS: You did draw that right out there. As you get older, you know, the proper names go. But George Gobel was...

BIANCULLI: ...it was either him or Eisenhower. I just went for it. Go for it.

SMOTHERS: And I saw him on Ed Sullivan's show talking about losing a bowling ball, and I remember I was about 16-years-old. I said, wow, that's funny. Didn't tell a single joke, but I was laughing. And I said, boy, I'd like to do that.

I thought it was being a monologist -- giving a monologue. So I started doing stuff in high school and I was playing in a band -- a little dance combo. And I'd also MC things, and I had this kind of funny delivery that had some funny spaces in it.

And I was dreadfully serious and I'd get laughs all the time. So the instruments came in, and when we got to be seniors in high school we were singing in quartets and choirs, and Dick was the best tenor in the South Bay area of Redondo Beach where we went to finish up high school. And so he was in our trio -- our quartet.

And the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte started singing calypsos and folk songs, and we started singing those kind of songs, and the comedy just took over. And I kind of got way-laid musically because the comedy became our central focus.

And the most unique thing that we did -- it was a unique relationship, and didn't have to be the best, but had to be in the -- I always said the Wright Brothers plane wasn't that good, actually -- sure original, but not that good.

BIANCULLI: Well, I don't mean to get into another brother's therapy session, but if Dick hadn't been the best tenor at Redondo Beach would you have wanted your little brother in your band? Isn't there -- isn't that the age where it's kind of geeky to...

SMOTHERS: You're absolutely -- you know, that's a great -- I think when we -- I think when we were in high school, the only reason we started singing was because he was the best tenor. He was really good. He sang really in tune, and we always argued during rehearsals. I always wanted to rehearse a lot, and we'd get in our car and we'd drive up and -- three of us in the car. Dick would drive and I'd be playing the guitar in the front seat and rehearsing harmonies and things.

But I think the musical side of it -- I got to know my brother very well. Without that, we'd have been kind of strangers, like, sometimes it happens.

BIANCULLI: I gotta -- I have to ask you one last question, because TV critics carry around these bizarre factoids and if I don't ask at these sorts of times I'll never get to use them.

SMOTHERS: OK.

BIANCULLI: There has not been a top 10 variety show on television in more than 20 years. Last one was the "Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour" in '73-'74. Do you think people would still watch one? When the idea that you can get your music off of MTV or VH-1, or you can get your, you know, your comedy off of Comedy Central. Would today's audiences stay put for an Ed Sullivan-style or Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour-style variety show in the late '90s?

SMOTHERS: Well, I think definitely they would. I mean, that's -- that's -- I think that in this TV act, they were switching -- I think if we had something on Sunday nights -- America On Stage, and it'd be a swift show. I think they would. But I think a variety show would go. But obviously, no one else thinks that except you and me.

LAUGHTER

BIANCULLI: Well, I...

SMOTHERS: For the whole family to sit down and watch some very good stuff, and juggling and tumbling and, you know, cutting-edge comics and stuff -- that'd be great.

BIANCULLI: Well, in the meantime if you guys want to, like, call me every Sunday night I'll keep my line open.

Well, listen, I want to thank you -- I want to thank you for being part of the show here and giving us the hour. And for all the television you gave me and my generation. I mean, I'm not real super geeky here, but I'm definitely a fan and I feel like you helped form my personality a little bit and my musical tastes and my politics.

So thanks.

SMOTHERS: Well, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Tom Smothers, recorded in 1997. Tom and Dick Smothers continue to perform in concert and on TV.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: David Bianculli, Washington, DC
Guest: Tommy Smothers
High: Tommy Smothers of the comedy duo the Smothers Brothers. In 1967, their show, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy," hour first went on the air. The show has been credited with helping pave the way for a new generation of TV comedy shows including "Saturday Night Live."
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Lifestyle; Culture; Tommy Smothers

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tommy Smothers

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 19, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031902NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Powers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: Clint Eastwood directs and stars in the new death row thriller "True Crime." Our film critic John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Clint Eastwood made his name playing laconic loners who mistrusted authority, practiced rough justice and never let anyone inside their heads. He was an icon of monolithic masculinity.

But unlike most movie stars who cling to their personas, Eastwood has spent the last 25 years questioning the ideas of manhood he's famed for embodying. He spoofed his image by co-starring with orangutans, let us gaze on his wrinkles and sagging flesh and exposed how the Eastwood hero has unnerving similarities to the villains he's battling.

He continues this process in "True Crime," an enjoyable, implausibly plotted new thriller which has no bad guy. Unless it's the hero played by Eastwood. He stars as Steve Everett, known as "Ev," a fading reporter for the "Oakland Tribune."

A tireless philanderer, Ev cheats on his wife played by Diane Venora, with the wife of the Metro editor. That's Denis Leary. The selfish Ev doesn't even have time for his young daughter, played by Eastwood's own real-life daughter Francesca.

But Ev catches a glimpse of redemption when he's assigned to do a simple human interest sidebar on Frank Beachum, an African-American man sentenced to be executed for the murder of a white shop girl. But Ev's nose tells him there's something with this conviction.

Unfortunately, he has less than a day before Beachum will receive his lethal injection. Although "True Crime" builds to this deadline, the movie itself is loose and playful. Eastwood cares less about making his thriller thrilling than in revealing nuances of character.

The way Ev slips his wedding ring back on after a night of adultery or the way the prison guards roll their eyes at the self-promoting chaplain. Eastwood lets even the minor characters come to life. In fact, many of the most enjoyable moments are human interest sidebars rather than necessary for the dramatic plot line.

The funniest bits are too obscene for radio, but you can get there flavor when Ev goes to tell his editor in chief, played by James Woods, that he thinks Beachum may be innocent.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM THE CLINT EASTWOOD FILM "TRUE CRIME")

JAMES WOODS, ACTOR: What do you got on Frank Beachum? Oh, Ev. Ev. No, Ev. Ev.

CLINT EASTWOOD, ACTOR: I'm telling you. Allen, listen to me.

WOODS: I don't have to listen to you. I'm looking at you. I'm looking, and I can see a reporter who's about to tell he had a hunch!

EASTWOOD: I've been checking on some things.

WOODS: Do you know my opinion of reporters who have hunches?

EASTWOOD: I interviewed this witness who said he saw a gun. I don't think he saw a gun.

WOODS: I can't fart loud enough to express my opinion.

EASTWOOD: Even Michelle thought the whole thing stunk. She thought there were discrepancies.

WOODS: Discrepancies?

EASTWOOD: Yeah.

WOODS: After a police investigation. A trial. What? Six years of appeals? And you found discrepancies? How long did it take you, Ev? What, all of half an hour? Huh?

EASTWOOD: You know how the court system goes. His first attorney was probably some 12-year-old legal aid guy. He couldn't object enough for the appellate court to even make an intelligent decision. That's if they could make one.

WOODS: Ev, come on. I got your appeal. Come on.

EASTWOOD: Allen, they're going to kill the guy tonight.

WOODS: All right. I must be on acid. So you're trying to tell me that you want to turn a routine execution piece into some big fight for justice story, and what? That will give an excuse to stand up for you when Bob asks me to transfer you to the toilet. Is that it? Huh?

POWERS: This story matters because of what it reveals about the classic Eastwood persona. A persona quoted by presidents, "make my day." But Eastwood knows that manhood isn't so simple as mouthing macho one liners.

Steve Everett may see himself as a heroic loner but what that means in real life is that he treats his family shabbily, casually betrays his co-workers and flips from story to story with no concern for the human beings involved.

Just as "Unforgiven" brought a new depth to Eastwood's work, showing what a terrible thing it is to take a life, so "True Crime" finds the Eastwood figure exploring the cost of being an island unto yourself. Ev begins to grasp the consequences of his personal failings, and he gains a new respect for how precious and precarious life can be.

There's no need to teach this lesson to the condemned man, who's movingly played by Isaiah Washington. "True Crime" spends a lot of time with Frank Beachum and his family because their story is the mirror image of Ev's.

Although once a young tough, Frank has grown into a decent man who tries to protect and small daughter from the worst truths of his execution. In every way, he seems a better man than Ev: warmer, more loving, more responsible. But he's also been convicted of murder.

Without belaboring the point, "True Crime" suggests that the reasons for this are racial. Because he's white, Ev can mess up his life over and over and still be an accepted part of society. Because he's black, Frank's always on thin ice. His youthful mistakes make it easy for him to wind up on death row for a murder that nobody bothered to investigate properly.

Because it's a Hollywood movie with a need for a satisfying finish, the last 20 minutes are filled with ticking clocks and racing cars -- untrue crime. But there is so much going on earlier in the film that I forgave this phony finale. This is Eastwood's most interesting and self-revealing movie since "Unforgiven." One that shows how much his social awareness has changed.

The conservative movie actor, whose character once coolly gunned down every crook in sight, has now directed a film that shows the horror and bigotry of capital punishment in America.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: David Bianculli, Washington, DC
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers reviews the new Clint Eastwood film "True Crime."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Clint Eastwood; John Powers

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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