“We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex..."
- excerpt from the first issue of Playboy Magazine’s introduction, 1953
Hugh Hefner’s attempts to use Playboy Magazine’s popularity to capitalize in the realm of television never did result in a “hit” (Playboy After Dark ran two seasons as did its predecessor, Playboy’s Penthouse, nearly ten years prior), but watching Playboy After Dark does now fulfill a nostalgic appetite as a novel, eye and ear candy-coated view into the swinging, late 60’s high life as it swung into the darkening 1970’s.
Playboy After Dark was taped at CBS Television City the first season before relocating to KTLA in the second (to reduce costs) and was syndicated via Screen Gems, having just enjoyed the tremendous rise and fall of The Monkees. The set itself is lovely and ridiculous all at the same time. Hefner had a lot of ideas- expensive ones, of course. The final result is interesting to the point of distraction: the live “rumpus room” has psychedelic lights and had what is been said to had been- I shit you not- computer panels from NASA which would be replaced after each space launch. The “den”, “library” and other such areas all share a look that would become synonymous with Playboy Mansion imagery (as Hefner would acquire and move to the new mansion in California in the early 1970’s).
The set and persons populating it are an assault of colors and 60’s-to-70’s transitional fashion and decor.
For all of Hefner’s strengths as a businessman, his hosting is dull and might be the culprit in the show’s failure. Whatever excitement is generated is rarely a result of his charisma or instigation. It is no secret that Hugh Hefner is Hugh Hefner’s number one fan and he likely believed that everybody else should be as excited by his presence as master of ceremonies just as much as they are with the spectacles and talents he was (and is) able to corral into print or in front of the television cameras. Not to say he does anything that challenges the energy or interest of a guest or their conversations; he just doesn’t have IT as a host. He’s not a catalyst for taking anything to another level. The most interesting interviews occur when there is more than one guest in a small group and the conversation is either led and/or punctuated by various guests.
Journalists, artists, actors and actresses- people of all creative walks were interviewed and made seemingly random appearances. The musicians featured on Playboy After Dark really were top-notch and a diverse representation of styles going on at the time (Ike and Tina Turner, Doug Kershaw, Deep Purple, The Byrds, Iron Butterfly, The Grateful Dead, etc.). The production level pays off with good sound and energy levels during the live performances which is often not the case with television. This could be due to the simple fact that guests didn’t feel the tight-ass pressure often associated with the television medium,
Watching the show is very much like viewing a film such as Boogie Nights where you are beat over the head with the personalities, sights, and sounds of the era in a condensed fashion so that you never forget what era you have found yourself in.
It makes contemporary society very uncomfortable to think that - not a very long time ago- a room inhabited by the most liberal and progressive people of that recent past may have had very different thoughts and practices on issues such as race, sexuality, and gender equality- even at what they felt was their very best. It’s a safe assumption to believe that a majority of Hefner and his guests were of the most enlightened of their era and likely very involved or at least consistent with the pop culture zeitgeist in regards to these issues. He himself always tried to rationalize the seriousness of Playboy as not being a completely male sex-driven enterprise, considering and vocalizing himself on the right side of history in the fights against sexism and racism. Yet, watching he and his guests cavort, laugh, and discuss, a few things don’t sit well with a viewer in 2014.
Looming large and obvious would be the steady dispatching of “Playmates” (potentially a mix of actual Playmates and extras that possess the...ahem…”credentials”) as little more than window-dressing. Girls cling to interviewees but are never acknowledged or addressed. They are THE definition of arm candy and nothing more.
However, even with the omnipresent sexism of the day, we can enjoy a television show by Hugh Hefner under the Playboy banner for precisely what it is, was, and the only thing it could be at that point in history: a pop culture caricature during what is often considered THE cataclysmic transitional chapter of American history, captured with lively conversations, dress, and music.