Nineteen years. Thousands of jokes not told, hundreds of interviews not done. Nineteen times 365 times 24 times 60 times 60 ticks of a clock. Arsenio Hall has been away from the late-night talk-show wars for every one of those ticks. And now he wants to start a new clock.
The Cleveland native and Kent State alum begins a new late-night show on Sept. 9 — locally at 11 p.m. on WJW (Channel 8). Although he was a major figure in late-night TV in the early ’90s, in a recent telephone news conference Hall made clear he understands that there are many viewers who don’t know him. When he appeared on — and later won — Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump asked Hall what he had been doing since, well, 1994. While Trump is no avatar of culture, it was still a question that stung.
Hall was spending some of that time raising his son. But he was also pondering a return to the forum he still considers his best. There were times when he thought he was ready, then knew he wasn’t “as a father, as a man … because late-night is all-consuming.” When we talked last year, he flatly said a talk show was not in his future, that the entertainment business had changed too much. But he still kept looking at how to make it work.
“I love going out and doing standup,” he said. “I love acting. But nothing has ever made me happier and been more appropriate for what I do than the late-night vehicle.”
At the same time, even though the Apprentice win set the stage for Hall’s back-to-late-night announcement, he knows that, at 57, in most respects he’s the late-night newcomer. He is re-entering a business that has changed dramatically. The economics, for one, are very different; Hall picked up two former Tonight Show writers when Jay Leno had to cut staff — while being the No. 1 star of late-night. And Hall will be trying to find a niche that is not presently filled by Leno, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or Conan O’Brien.
One such niche may be providing an African-American voice in late night. But even there, he noted, the time period is not as white or culturally separate as it once was.
In the days when Hall was challenging Johnny Carson, he said, you knew which show you were watching just by seeing the guests: “That one has Alan King and this one has Busta Rhymes.” Now you can see the Roots on a regular basis — but on Fallon’s show. And Hall’s favorite moment in late-night during his long absence was seeing Jay Z with Eminem on Letterman’s show in 2010 since “that shows how the lines are blurred now.”
When Hall started his previous show in 1989, he was the alternative to the entrenched Carson in terms of race, age and attitude. Now, he said, “It’s much more crowded than when I left. And I know I’ve got to get in and work hard for mine. I’m not coming in complacent. I can’t do that. I can’t come in like a Laker. I’m coming in like a Clipper.”
While he expects that some people will remember him, he knows how many years have gone by — that his potential audience is not only former viewers but their 20-something children to whom the ’90s are ancient history.
“I don’t come back in the game being the Arsenio of the ’90s,” he said. “I come back into the game as the new, small guy and I’ll probably have to earn my way back into the game again — by maybe being the person who looks for the new or tries to get ahead of the curve. … I’ve got to go grind and get my hustle on.”
That hustle means embracing different forms of presentation and communication. Hall loves social media, speaking admiringly of what Fallon and Kimmel have done online, and is active on Twitter. He name-dropped the “Sittin on tha toilet” video (76 million YouTube views and counting) and wondered if, instead of spending a lot of time writing comedy, “maybe I just need to sit on the toilet.” He knows that some viewers aren’t watching TV shows live because “you can get everything on your iPad for the next seven days after it’s done.” At the same time, though, he wants to have a show that people want to watch in real time to “be in the water-cooler talk tomorrow.”
And Hall is no stranger to hustle, or to breaking through when, as he sees it, the big entertainers are going to be on Letterman or Leno (at least until Leno passes the torch to Fallon). He remembers bringing on then-fresh acts like Will Smith and Mariah Carey, and that “Dr. Dre would call me and say, ‘I want to introduce you to this guy named Calvin from Long Beach’ ” — who went on Hall’s show as newcomer Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Being an agent of change also included being someone who believed a talk show did not need to hew to the formalities of conversation at a desk. As Bill Carter said in his book The Late Shift, Hall “booked music acts whose names the Tonight staff probably couldn’t even pronounce correctly. … (His show) had a different sensibility for late night: It wasn’t a talk show as much as a big, fun party, geared expressly for the party crowd. Arsenio didn’t break the color barrier in late-night as much as he broke the hip barrier.” There’s no doubt that Hall’s late-night ascent hastened the departure of Carson. The hosting contrast was made brutally clear when Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey morphed Johnny into the attempted-hip Carsenio.
Hall expects that the first night of his new show will be “a fun party with nothing but surprises and kind of roll on a loose format that night.” (He has been holding back on guest announcements as part of the surprise.) He won’t be shocked if the audience breaks out in some Dawg Pound woofing like in the old days.
But Carter’s description underestimates Hall’s work. The day after Magic Johnson announced he had HIV in 1991, he chose Hall’s show to talk about it more. (Hall said he thought that was too serious but that Johnson insisted “it’s important.”) A pivotal moment in the pop-culturing of politicians was presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s saxophone-playing stop on Arsenio; not as well remembered is that Clinton talked with Hall for more than 11 minutes, making a pitch for inclusiveness that would still be valid today — and during which Hall spoke passionately about racism in society.
Maintaining that he is fundamentally a comedian, Hall nonetheless recalled other serious programs — and did not rule them out when they fit with his personality. “I just try to remain who I am,” he said, “through it all, no matter what it is, whether it’s, you know, sitting with [comedian] Amy Schumer or some enlightened politician.”
Is that enough? “Late night is about choosing the sensibilities of a man or a woman who is hosting the show,” he said. “Different guys have different sensibilities and, if you let that loose on the air, that’s what forms the show. It’s not the desk or the colors or the time it’s on or your race.”
But it may not work out. Other hosts have tried and failed to make a mark. Still, Hall feels happy with what he’s done, how far he has come from a neighborhood where the successful men were numbers runners and pimps.
“I remember growing up in Cleveland,” he said. “I remember seeing … Don King and Muhammad Ali, and they were getting out of a Rolls Royce in front of the Cleveland public auditorium, and I was downtown with my mom. And it was the only time I had ever seen someone famous. And it also is the only time I had seen a Rolls Royce in Cleveland. …
“I’ve sat and had personal conversations with Don King and Muhammad Ali. And I’ve been on the cover of Time magazine, and so many amazing things have happened to me. … My life has been laced with dreams, and quality results. It’s been incredible, you know.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.