In 1989, when Arsenio Hall broke into late-night television talk, the game was a lot simpler. There weren’t a gazillion cable networks making mincemeat out of the once-comprehensible ratings pie. There was no Facebook, no Twitter. The Internet itself wasn’t even a thing yet.
And Hall, with his flat top and his fly style, not to mention his insider way of relating with rappers and other fresh faces who were setting the MTV Generation on fire, turned his audiences into fist-pumping maniacs who woof-woof-woofed at every joke, every celeb appearance, every musical number.
Carson, Letterman and Leno couldn’t vibe with those guests in quite the same way, if they even thought to have them on. And it is said that presidential campaigning changed forever in 1992 when then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, in Risky Business shades, went on Hall’s show to blow a jazzy rendition of Heartbreak Hotel on his sax. The appearance was criticized for being not so presidential. But Hall’s young-skewing audiences ate it up, and they helped deliver Clinton to the White House.
The party lasted until 1994, when Hall’s ratings started slipping and he bowed out before he could be canceled. Now, almost two decades later, after virtually disappearing from the public eye, then about five years ago starting a slow bid for a comeback — it was starring on Celebrity Apprentice that took him over the top, he says — he’s getting ready to take on Fallon, Kimmel, Stewart and company. A new version of The Arsenio Hall Show, syndicated by CBS TV Distribution, is slated to launch wide on Sept. 9. Already, the publicity machine is in full-court press mode.
“The competition is much more intense now,” says Hall, hanging out poolside at the Fontainebleau, where he took part in the recent National Association of Television Program Executives conference. “We’re a 24-hour news society now. My son, who is 13, does three things at once. He’s watching TV, talking on the phone, and his iPad is going. I’m sitting here right now trying to talk to you without looking at Twitter.”
But Hall, 56, and still quick with the one-liners, says he’s up for the fight.
“The hosts on right now are all a little bit different. I’m hoping I will be able to assert my own thing, too, and that people will want to go to bed with me again at least a couple of nights a week. That’s all I need.”
Above all, he says, he remains a stand-up comic.
“I was always off the cards on the show. And I’m going to still be doing that. All those years I was home I would watch TV and I’d be dying, wishing I could be doing my routine again. O.J. would be driving on the freeway, or there would be another election and I’d be thinking about the jokes.”
So who will he be slamming this time around? And why don’t comedians really take on Barack Obama? They don’t mess with Michelle, either.
“In the world of comedy, no one is sacred. But what other good-looking American runs for president and no chick comes out of the woodwork during the process? All he left us to poke fun at is the size of his ears. Though jokes don’t have to be mean. I take pride in the fact that 80 percent of my jokes are not mean. I could make a bunch of jokes about you right now without you feeling hurt.”
Though he’ll admit he did go too far a few times back in the day.
“Once, Rosanne called to say, ‘That was a f----- up joke you made about me.’ And I had to agree. Another time I come home and somebody says, ‘Oprah just called.’ You know you’re in trouble when Oprah calls. She didn’t like one of my jokes. I tried to explain what I meant by it but all she said was, ‘I would have preferred if you had said nothing at all.’ ”
What was the joke?
“Oh, I forget,” Hall says and grins.
Who is he tight with these days? Part of the success of Hall’s old show was the sense audiences had that he was close to a much younger, much cooler crew of entertainers than his not-so-edgy competitors hung out with.
“I may have come across that way. But I’m just a hick from Cleveland. I didn’t know nobody. I mean, I was close with Magic [Johnson] and Eddie [Murphy], but that’s about it. It’s not real that all these people you hug and kiss on your show are your close friends. What you can do is get caught up in that illusion and find out when your movies don’t work that those were never your friends.”
Although he’s a dad now, and eligible for AARP membership, Hall isn’t worried about being able to deliver on the cool factor.
“I should probably just let my son do all the booking. But there’s a part of this that is just about personality. I can relate to the way Fallon works. It may be just an illusion, but you get the sense that Letterman is doing what he gets paid to do but that Fallon would show up every night even if they didn’t send him a check. It’s that kind of energy that audiences connect with. And that’s the kind of energy my show always had.”
Any guests in particular he’ll be gunning for when the new show hits the air?
“Anybody named Taylor I want. Taylor Lautner, Taylor Swift, Lawrence Taylor.”
Hall edged out singer Clay Aiken to win Celebrity Apprentice last year. But what was it like dealing with the clearly out-there Donald Trump?
“Yeah, Trump is a piece of work, but I would throw out quotes from his own book, The Art of the Deal. And he would pout that lip out and look at me. He knew what I was doing. From the chess match you have to play every day to the unnatural sequestering — it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
When Hall quit the talk show, all he wanted was to take a break from the limelight. He wound up sitting out longer than he intended. Any regrets along the way?
“I got a call once. ‘Do you want to do a movie called Bad Boys with Martin Lawrence?’ I had 24 hours to decide or they were going to call Will Smith. But that was around the time when I thought what I really needed was a break from it all. At the end of the day, I’m kind of a recluse. I’m a Baptist preacher’s son. But yeah, there were moments later when I wondered if I had made the wrong decision. But then I would be at a Little League game watching my son play and I’d think, ‘This is beautiful. You didn’t need Bad Boys.’ ”