'The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show': How the historic week set the stage for talk shows today

A new documentary from Peacock examines that historical week when a Black legend not only hosted a late-night talk show but also did it unapologetically


                            'The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show': How the historic week set the stage for talk shows today
Harry Belafonte (Peacock)

Today, think of any late-night talk show and we immediately know how political they are. Whether it is Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Meyers, all these shows feature monologues and segments where President Donald Trump is often criticized. The shift was clear in 2016 when Trump was elected as the president and perhaps for many, it felt as if talk shows were doing what news networks weren't: voicing their concerns for equality and freedom while never letting a sitting president serve their term without accountability.

Rewind about 50 years, the United States is in the throng of a revolution. The Civil Rights movement was at its peak and public discontent had grown after it was clear that America's war in Vietnam was doing nothing expect killing many and wasting taxpayer dollars. Johnny Carson was the host of the 'Tonight Show' back then, having taken over the mantle in 1962. At the time, the sentiment was that people would not want to go into serious issues as they watched the show just before going to bed. But Carson knew that something different was needed for the time, in a year that was considered pivotal in American history.

It was in February 1968 that Carson invited actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte to guest-host the 'Tonight Show' for a week. Again, this is a regular thing today, something we see Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen DeGeneres do often. Back then, however, the White late-night host getting a Black man to partake in what was considered a monumental part of "White America" was unheard of. 

A new documentary from Peacock, NBC's streaming platform, examines that historical week when a Black man not only hosted a late-night talk show but also did it unapologetically, using it as a platform to show Black artists and activists alongside White artists who believed in the same principles. 

Belafonte came prepared and his list of guests is a testament to that. Where else would you find actor Paul Newman and Civil Rights icon Dr Martin Luther King Jr sitting side by side as they spoke of issues and laughed alongside each other? Where else could audiences have seen Newman being the only White guy on a stage filled with Black people? With guests such as Aretha Franklin, Petula Clark, Nipsey Russell and Diahann Carroll, Belafonte packed his five nights on the 'Tonight Show' with intersectional voices. Belafonte also brought on people who were actively against the then-president Lyndon B Johnson's campaign in Vietnam, like the Smothers Brothers.

Belafonte's stint hosting the 'Tonight Show' brought in the best numbers the show had ever seen. What Belafonte did — much before Jon Steward did in the 1990s — was show networks that Americans were interested in politics and how it affected their country, no matter at what time they were watching or where they were watching from. In fact, actress Whoopi Goldberg believes that Belafonte did so well, it scared networks in keeping Black people away from hosting talk shows.

'The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte hosts the Tonight Show' will be available to stream on Peacock on September 10.

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