In 1968, Johnny Carson had been hosting “The Tonight Show” for six years, bringing his nonconfrontational middle-American attitudes to television screens across the country for one hour a night. He didn’t delve into one side or another on political issues and stayed seemingly neutral on all matters of the day, leaning into the jokes and providing his audience of all ilks with a few chuckles before drifting off to bed.
For one week in February of that year, Carson took a break and invited crooner, actor and activist Harry Belafonte to take his seat behind the desk.
It was a piece of television history that over the years since had slipped in relative obscurity.
With Yoruba Richen’s new Peacock-exclusive documentary “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show,” audiences can now hear all about the man and the week he spent being the first African-American host of a late-night TV show.
Sprinkled with interviews from Belafonte himself as well as a few of his guests for that week, the documentary also includes commentary from other Black entertainers and TV hosts offering insight into how monumental it was for him to host.
Following Belafonte’s life as he began his activism and his relationships with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the film sews together the politics of the day with “The Tonight Show,” which up until then had remained as middle of the road as it could possibly be.
So when Belafonte took the reins for the week, it was going to ruffle feathers.
The network allowed Belafonte to compile his own guest list for that week, a list that was a who’s-who of activists from the Civil Rights movement and other Black performers, including Kennedy and King as well as Lena Horne, Bill Cosby, Paul Newman, Nipsey Russell, Leon Bibb, Wilt Chamberlain, Zero Mostel, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dionne Warwick and more.
The bulk of the film surrounds the activism Belafonte brought to the show, and while it dives a little bit into the reactions from the public (not surprisingly, they were mixed) it doesn’t delve far into the shows themselves. This can be partially forgiven because of the five episodes that were aired, only two survived NBC’s standard policy of rerecording over the tapes, and one more exists in audio form.
Still, it drives home the importance of that week and, though the knowledge of it had faded into what could have just been a fun trivia fact when discussing the Carson years of “The Tonight Show,” by including heavy background of the year in which it happened, it feels very prescient.
America of 1968 was one that saw racial tensions, uprisings and unrest coast to coast: Kennedy and King would be assassinated within six months of appearing on the show and thousands of people would march in solidarity for change. The documentary doesn’t shy from showing the juxtaposition of that with today’s unrest. But it always brings it back to Belafonte and what it meant to have him host “The Tonight Show.”
Thanks to extensive interviews with the man himself, Belafonte makes it clear that “Art without content is not art.” With the series of shows he hosted he allowed actors and singers to show their content and their activism. He allowed activists to show a softer, more relaxed side to themselves and, in the process, paved the way for the kind of content late -night shows thrive on today: not shying away from political stances or discussions and instead welcoming them. In fact, it was after the Robert Kennedy assassination that Carson took the cue to have a roundtable discussion in lieu of his regular format.
Harry Belafonte shook up the format of late-night long before the slew of late-night hosts would sit behind desks, tell jokes and maybe even spark some healthy conversations.