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After Dark, Before MTV

Bill Maher, host of Politically Incorrect, is a big fan of Hugh Hefner and Playboy. How many men aren't? I'd say the few that think they aren't are merely in denial. Hef is off quietly creating a religion, and as soon as he dies he will be canonized and the churches will start sprouting like mushrooms after a spring rain across a meadow in which was filmed last year's Playboy Video Centerfold.

As an homage to Playboy, Bill Maher has a week of PI being filmed at the Playboy Mansion. This is not just a nod to Playboy, but also to the old, almost forgotten television show Playboy After Dark. And seeing Bill in a tuxedo rubbing shoulders with Bif Naked at a Playboy buffet table, I was reminded of After Dark, and my encounter with it, and how, even though Bill means well, all he's managing to do is underscore just how weak and silly his show is by comparison.

At some point my father wandered into the bedroom he shares with my mother and never came out. He put a TV in there, and a phone, and a clock radio, and a VCR, and a Craftmatic Adjustable Bed, and got Mom to bring him Cheez-Its, and now he just stays there, watching TV or sleeping, all the time. When I visit him I lie down in the bed next to him, on my mother's side, and we talk. Sometimes he's watching TV and we joke about whatever he's got on.

During one such visit he stopped at the Playboy channel. A small panic crept into my heart. I have no desire to look at bouncy funbags with my father in the room. He did his very best to look upon any and every of my adolescent excursions into sexual material with great disdain and scorn. He has therefore inculcated in me an intense desire to pretend that sex does not exist, in any form, anywhere, when he is around. Even if most of my early excursions were into his extensive Playboy collection.

There we were, watching the Playboy channel, me through my internal wince. But the show was not one of Playboy's sex shows. It was a rerun of Playboy After Dark.

I had never even heard of this show. What was it? My father explained it to me. After Dark was a TV show that ran in the late '60s. It ran on network TV, if you can imagine anything with the name "Playboy" in it running on a network. But it wasn't about naked women -- it was a show about class, and art, and good living, and elegance. It was, in short, a cool show, a hip show.

I sat back and watched. And was transported to another planet.

The show looked thoroughly modern. It did so, not because of the styles or hairdos, but because the film stock was in perfect condition. Children of my generation have become convinced that the '60s and '70s were grainy, drained of color, fuzzy-sounding decades, because our only media contact with them is through moldering magazines and TV show repeats and late-night movies which have been through the ringer so many times they look like they were filmed with Thomas Edison's personal camera. After Dark did not have a successful run in syndication, did not grace the airwaves on channel 11 every weeknight at midnight where it would be trimmed by fifteen minutes to fit in more commercials. It did not get copied and distributed to every two-bit broadcaster in the land looking for something cheap to run in the days before infomercials. No: Playboy After Dark sat in a can somewhere, on a shelf, in perfect, pristine, bright, clear, flawless condition. So what I was viewing was straight out of another time without the scratchy translation of poor, cheap, elderly film stock.

The camera moved lazily across a room where a party was going on. A party unlike any party I had ever seen, on film or otherwise. People chatted in small groups. Everyone had a drink in their hand. Blacks and whites mingled freely. Almost everyone was smoking. Quiet jazz filled the room. Everyone was dressed stylishly and with care. Everyone looked attractive in a comfortable way. No one looked like a model -- the guests all just looked like handsome, pleasant people. The light was soft, yellowish, and diffuse.

The camera wandered past the guests, stopping here and there and catching fragments of their conversation. The camera rolled along very slowly. Amazingly slowly. Eventually it made its way to a couch. At one end of the couch was Hugh Hefner, smoking. At the other end of the couch was George Carlin. A very, very young George Carlin.

"Hey, George," said Hef, "Would you do a bit for us?"

"Sure," said George, and he stood up and began one of his classic routines -- only, of course, at the time, the routine was new. The guests quieted down politely and turned to see what George was doing. They laughed when they were supposed to, nodded appreciatively, and otherwise enjoyed the performace.

When he was done, Hef thanked George, and everyone clapped, and George sat down to chat with Hef as the party continued.

Later in the show, the camera panned along and encountered a band. They were playing jazz. Gradually, as the camera didn't move, it became apparent that this was a featured band, performing for the show.

And all of After Dark was like this. Long, languorous camera shots, lingering on details, while an incredibly civilized party went on, with everyone drinking and smoking and grooving to the music. And occasionally one of the guests would turn out to be someone with a talent, who would graciously agree to share some of it with us.

These transmissions might as well have been from another planet as far as I was concerned. A planet without herky-jerk camera movement, without the need to cut to some new scene every fifteen seconds, without intrusive and loud commercials, without screaming, shouting, mugging, ugliness, dirt, stupidity, cupidity, or crudity. In short, a planet without MTV.

Then my father let me in on the secret: Playboy was never just about naked women. It was about a lifestyle. A certain philosophy. If I'd ever read the articles, I'd know that. Playboy was about being a cultured, sophisticated human being. The ideal Playboy man knew how to order drinks, mix drinks, drive a nice car, choose the right leather jacket, tie a real bow tie on his tuxedo, arrange his stereo equipment for optimal sound, pick out the right Wayne Shorter record for the occasion, enjoy a cigar, appreciate the weave of a fine wool suit, and please a woman, even as she might please him by being beautiful, and intelligent, and capable of discussing the politics of abortion or gun ownership or racism, all topics frequently covered in the magazine. The Playboy man read Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal and R. Buckminster Fuller. The Playboy philosophy was about living the Good Life, the Good Life including good food, good clothes, good music, and, of course, good sex. And also it was about allowing everyone else to lead their Good Life -- it was about tolerance.

Like I said, transmissions from another planet. Lying there in my parents' bed I thought about the world I lived in, with its complete and utter lack of elegance. I owned one tuxedo, a cheap polyester one, to wear onstage with the decidedly uncool Glee Club. Stereos weren't good, they were loud. Music wasn't cool, it was rockin'. People wore their clothes with holes in them, and grew their hair long, and listened to Metallica. And out in Seattle some guys were putting on flannel shirts and throwing out their Mel Bay Guitar Method books in favor of just flailing away at the strings -- and the radio was playing them.

And on TV elegance had vanished, too. Music performances were relegated to Saturday Night Live and occasional appearances on talk shows, where talking had been replaced by joke-telling and back-patting interspersed with low-brow comedy bits. The only place to find music with any regularity was MTV, where short attention spans and new digital editing consoles had led to a jump-cut, buzzed-out, hand-held universe of brain-battering montage.

There was no room on TV those days for a program like Playboy After Dark. Too many 18-24 year-old viewers would have gotten bored in the first ten seconds, or laughed themselves silly at the afros, and then changed the channel to see what Married... with Children -- the epitome of inelegance -- was up to.

I sat there on the bed that night and mourned the loss. My loss, your loss -- everyone's loss of a world where everything was neat and clean and pleasant and comfortable and hi-fi and stately.

So here is Bill Maher trying to recapture some of that essence. While I can applaud his attempt, I can also lament, because his efforts only show how far we've come from those bygone days when TV could show the same thing for more than a femtosecond before feeling the need to move lest the viewer grow restless. Bill and his guests -- who in terms of intelligent conversation not only cannot hold a candle to the guests of After Dark, but can't even get their candle lit with a road flare -- stand next to a buffet table while a party goes on, unnoticed and only barely visible, behind them. It is clear they're at a party, but also that they're hogging the food -- not that they eat. Bill's guests are dressed fairly shabbily -- well, what would you expect from a woman who calls herself Bif Naked? -- even though Bill himself is in a tuxedo. I get the feeling, though, that someone else tied his tie for him.

Clearly the director isn't sure of what to do to make this situation interesting. No one can move, so all the variety is provided by having the view switch back and forth between close-ups of the guest's faces. Rapidly. And nobody gets to say anything interesting, either, because someone else is always interrupting, or else it's time for a commercial; and, given that PI is a half-hour show, after commercials and Bill Maher's monologue there's only about two minutes each for the four guests to get a word in, said word being, "But," right before Bill interrupts them to throw to break.

This is all well and good because when the guests do get to say something, it is almost invariably stupid. They make Maher look smart, and, let's face it, in the knife drawer that is life, Bill Maher is the wire whisk.

It's sad, really. Bill Maher watched Playboy After Dark, and he wants to pay homage to it, but he knows the words and not the music. If he really lived the Playboy philosophy, he'd know both -- and how to tie his own tie, too.


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