A report by Hank Stuever for The Washington Post.
Griping about the political nature of today’s late-night talk shows involves, as usual, a lot of pining for yesteryear and the way things used to be. When making that argument, some folks lean on a clip from an interview NBC’s “Tonight Show” legend Johnny Carson gave to“60 Minutes” in 1979, at the height of his late-night reign. Mike Wallace asked Carson why he doesn’t tackle serious issues on his show.
“Why do [people] think that just because you have a ‘Tonight Show,’ you must deal in serious issues?” Carson replied. “That’s a danger, it’s a real danger. Once you start that, you start to get that self-important feeling that what you say has great import. And you know, strangely enough, you could use that show as a forum. You could sway people, and I don’t think you should as an entertainer.”
That response is often used as an attempted mic-drop on the current late-night landscape, with hosts and their high-profile guests relentlessly hammering away at the Trump administration’s foibles. But it neglects an overlooked and even vital part of the “Tonight Show’s” long history — a remarkable week in February 1968 when Carson, sensing a national mood of swelling anger and division over race, the Vietnam War and everything else, turned his show over for five nights to guest host Harry Belafonte.
As recounted in director Yoruba Richen’s revelatory documentary “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show” (available Thursday on NBC’s Peacock streaming service), Carson wanted to open his viewers’ eyes and ears to what was happening around them and also had the prescience to know he wasn’t the host for the job.
Belafonte — a superstar singer, actor and civil rights activist — took the opportunity to bring on an extraordinary range of Black artists and newsmakers and their White allies, from Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The guest list for that week, from Feb. 5 to 9, goes on: Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, Indigenous folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, ventriloquist Aaron Williams and singer Freda Payne, among others.
Richen’s film is executive produced by MSNBC anchor Joy Reid and co-produced by Nation journalist Joan Walsh, who wrote a 2017 story for the Nation about the shows. The documentary interviews Belafonte, now 93, and several of the entertainers who appeared on the “Tonight Show” with him that week (Warwick confesses that she can’t remember what happened to her yesterday, much less in 1968, but seems delighted to hear she was a part of it), as well as present-day celebrities and culture writers about the impact Belafonte’s week had on American TV.
Although largely forgotten, it was an astonishing moment in which Black culture burst forth on a show and time slot that was typically treated as a lighthearted prelude to bedtime. Whoopi Goldberg considers those episodes to have been a necessary wake-up call: “We’re here, we’re Americans — we’re part of this, we’re not going anywhere,” she says. “Y’all brought us, now we’re here, so get in your bed. Let [Belafonte] be the last thing you see before you go to sleep.”
Fifteen of that week’s 25 guests were Black, according to Walsh’s story. Besides Kennedy, other White guests included Paul Newman, Petula Clark and the Smothers Brothers.
Belafonte was given a lot of freedom in booking guests, but when he got King (who so rarely was given access to network TV shows), NBC executives nervously asked if the show would get too serious. Belafonte largely ignored their worries. “It was a silly question,” he recalls. “We’ve got [King] here, what do you want him to do, sing a song?”
That night (Feb. 8, 1968), Belafonte asked King, “What do we have in store for us this summer?”
King talked about his next effort, the Poor People’s Campaign against widespread poverty among all races. No one could know that King would be assassinated two months later in Memphis; Kennedy, who hadn’t yet announced his 1968 presidential bid, would be shot and killed in Los Angeles that June. Belafonte would be an instrumental presence in the nation’s mourning of both men, and in efforts to try to keep the peace. For his part, Carson assembled a roundtable of experts for a special episode that addressed the issues and a nation on the precipice of chaos.ADhttps://a23d90a10e7ff0dc31e1e7ee47913c89.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Sadly — and shockingly, with our 21st-century habit of assuming that everything is archived and accessible — “The Sit-In” has only limited footage and audio of the week Belafonte stood in for Carson. Even though they were the highest-rated shows the “Tonight Show” had ever seen, NBC technicians taped over them after they aired as a way to save tape, which was standard operating procedure at the time.
It’s a profound loss for television historians, and makes it difficult to express the scope of performances and conversations contained in each episode. Richen makes excellent use of what remains.
The demographic and diversity lessons from that week also seemed to fade, evident in the continued lack of diversity among late-night hosts, for decades on end, with few exceptions. If you’re looking to complain about today’s late-night shows, complain about that.
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show (77 minutes) available for streaming Thursday on Peacock.