Thursday, September 03, 2009

DVD: Playboy’s Penthouse

The first lesson learned from watching two episodes of Hugh Hefner’s 1959-60 variety show while waiting for the next Mad Men to air: hipsters actually talked like, you know, hipsters, man. Lenny Bruce even snaps his fingers during his patter, like he’s covering for the bongo player who’s busy chatting up some broad.

Playboy’s Penthouse is one strange program. The idea is we’re attending a party at Hef’s title pad. There are camera glitches galore – get that girl outta there! – compounded by the fact that the guests are downing actual cocktails. Hef tackles the dual roles of interviewer and master of ceremonies when he’s not qualified for either one. He clings to his pipe for dear life throughout. The pilot has the feel of a shakedown run, the show structured along the lines of an issue of the magazine. A truncated segment on a newfangled kitchen-in-a-cabinet comes off like a lifestyle piece that you’d page past.

I appreciate Lenny Bruce’s role in the history of comedy, but I’ve never found him funny. His appearance as the first guest did make the show feel like a party, in that I wanted to wander off, refill my glass and inspect the host’s medicine cabinet.

But the oddness of the conceit only adds to the fascination of these shows. Nat King Cole drops by and doesn’t sing. He just ... hangs out. Rona Jaffe talks about writing The Best of Everything and it manages to sound like a genuine conversation.

The musical segments are where the shows really lift off. Cy Coleman, who composed the now-famous “Playboy’s Theme,” performs “You Fascinate Me” with a centerfold at his side and it turns into a spry, sexy, little horn-rimmed number. Sammy Davis Junior does an electrifying set.

There’s talk about the Playboy philosophy, which apparently revolves around having a good hi-fi. To be fair, Hef does a fine job of explaining it in an accompanying 2006 interview. It boils down to figuring out who you want to be, then pretending to be that person until you are that person. Turns out I’ve been following Hef’s lead for years without knowing it. I’m here to say his approach works surprisingly well.

These shows are a time capsule of a moment when popular culture was broader. Jazz and theater were common currency, proven in a Teddi King novelty song that assumes a familiarity with Tennessee Williams and William Inge. I’m happy to meet someone who knows Brandon Inge. They also capture the last instants before hip became cool. Hip was adult. Cool is adolescent. Hip, as exclusionary as it was, at least rewarded effort. You had to work to find the cutting edge stuff, and then act as if you hadn’t tried. Cool only focuses on that last part.

The rest of the shows in this collection are from Playboy After Dark, Hef’s 1969 variety series. Only ten years had passed, but it was a completely different era. I’ll watch the later shows, but I doubt I’ll find them as interesting.

UPDATE: I dig up some clips from the show here.