Brigitte Berman’s doc explores the Playboy founder’s short but politically progressive television career.
Hugh Hefner’s posthumous reputation gets a boost in Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America, a comprehensive, if a bit windy, appreciation of the late Playboy founder’s brief but culturally significant television career. As few people under 60 will be aware of the two politically progressive talk-and-music syndicated shows Hef produced and hosted at the beginning and end of the 1960s, Brigitte Berman’s documentary will be a bit of an eye-opener, primarily due to the shows’ then-unheard-of racial mix and political talk but also as a curious cultural artifact of the Swinging Sixties.
Having in 2009 made the Netflix documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Berman knows her Hefner and here focuses exclusively upon the publisher’s brief forays into television, both of which were notable for their unusual mix of guests. Like Playboy itself, but in a milder way, the TV shows pivoted on the blatant dichotomy between the bachelor pad lifestyle adorned by sexy young women who (on both shows) dance and hang on the guests’ words without saying a thing, and eminent public figures of both sexes who entertain and address pressing issues of the day.
Hefner’s initial foray into the broadcast realm, Playboy’s Penthouse, began production in late 1959 in Chicago, where Playboy was birthed. Encouraging the viewer to feel that, “You’re a guest at a party in my apartment,” the tuxedo-clad host circulated through a groovy crowd on the luxuriously appointed set with the intent of fostering “good conversation and music” among the equally formally dressed crowd. Everyone’s cool, mellow, well-groomed and “sophisticated,” walking and talking advertisements for the Playboy lifestyle.
That said, the guest lists for the shows were pretty phenomenal, full of faces the public was not generally accustomed to seeing on the tube in those days, beginning with the just-out-of-jail Lenny Bruce. Most notably, however, a great many of the guests were black, entertainers not normally seen on The Ed Sullivan Show: Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Geoffrey Holder, Sammy Davis Jr. and many others.
In this regard, as Whoopi Goldberg points out, Hefner “was a pioneer. There was nothing like it in television. And there was nothing like it because he made sure everybody was welcome.” This was true of the host’s musical tastes as well, specifically with his promotion of jazz, something not then widely seen or heard on TV.
The syndicated show proved popular enough, at least in the major markets. But not south of the Mason/Dixon line, where stations shunned the show due to its inter-racial makeup. Hefner managed to secure financing to tape another season, but Playboy’s Penthouse folded its tent after the summer of 1960.
The counter-culture, politics and rock music were the keynotes of Hefner’s second syndicated tube venture, Playboy After Dark, launched in Hollywood in the summer of 1968 after Playboy‘s operations moved to California. Although the host still wore a tux (albeit a more dandified one than before) and the setting was a rather tacky-looking nightclub rather than an apartment, it remained his domain, with then-girlfriend Barbi Benton smilingly on his arm and a mellow counter-culture, summer-of-love vibe being shot through by songs like “Born to Be Wild” and serious, concise commentary on censorship (a major Hefner preoccupation), the Democratic convention in Chicago, Vietnam (guest Joey Bishop, of all people, had just returned from there), ecology and race. Stating that Hefner “lets me say all the things I wanted to say,” football and film star Jim Brown states that the two things America’s black population needed to concentrate on over the next 20 years were “expertise and finance.”
Once again, the young females filter through it all looking groovy and saying nothing, while the guest list startles in its variety: Gore Vidal, Don Rickles, Bill Russell, Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh, Moms Mabley, Jerry Garcia. The show was also musically very up-to-date. John Kay of Steppenwolf stresses that, at a time when most musical performances on TV were still lip-synched, Playboy After Dark delivered them live. Noting that by now everyone seemed to have “emancipated hair,” Bill Maher remembers liking the show because “people just seemed to drop by.” And Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish recalls having had a booking on The Ed Sullivan Show yanked due to fear the band would perform their trademark anti-Vietnam war song “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” which was exactly what Hefner wanted them to sing.
In its final stretch, however, the documentary slides from providing insight into the show’s status as an innovative forum for important of-the-moment entertainers to serving as an unnecessary platform for some of these celebrities’ past-their-expiration-date social critiques. Hearing Joan Baez perform some of her political songs in context is one thing, but listening to her and others, notably Pete Seeger, expound at length on the same old subjects a half-century later injects immediate final-innings tedium into this heretofore spry documentary. A few judicious trims — do we really need to hear “We Shall Overcome” for the ten thousandth time? — in the last 15-20 minutes would be a decided help.
Whatever one might feel about the legacy of Playboy and Hefner’s cultural influence, it can be said of his shows that the host was a stalwart, forward-thinking, race-relations-sensitive liberal without any television charisma. So often fussing with his pipe, he was a polite, informed and welcoming party-giver always ready with a friendly leading question, but he exhibited no sense of humor, spontaneity or warmth; he was an excellent, culturally aware producer but at best only a passable onscreen ringmaster.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
With: Bruce Belland, Kitty Bruce, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Maher, Ron Simon, Tony Bennett, Dick Gregory, Smokey Robinson, Leon Isaac Kennedy, John Burk, Annie Ross, Tim Hauser, Pete Seeger, Taj Mahal, Barry Melton, Dick Rosenzweig, Barbara Dane, Robert Clary, Roger
McGuinn, Sivi Aberg, John Kay, Joan Baez, Michael Wadleigh, Gene Simmons, Jim Brown, Charles Strouse
Director: Brigitte Berman
Producers: Victor Solnick, Brigitte Berman, Dan Peel
Writers: Victor Solnick, Brigitte Berman
Director of photography: Simon Ennis
Editors: Victor Solnick, Lee Cochran