COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
LOS ANGELES – The launch of “Arsenio” on Sept. 9 isn’t Arsenio Hall’s first foray into the talk show world. He turned the format on its ear in 1989 with a brash younger perspective on the chat world, a hipper approach to booking artists and a group of followers known as the Dog Pound.
“Arsenio” is one of the syndicated shows purchased by local television stations to fill in the time slots between their local and network programming. Hall joins a group of new talk shows launching this fall – including those hosted by Bethenny Frankel and Queen Latifah – to go along with a host of returning talkers.
Hall’s show was only sold into late-night hours, which puts him up against network and cable talk shows by Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien.
Because he’s going to face established competition, Hall knows the first week is important. But having been on the air before, Hall says, isn’t giving him an advantage in landing guests.
“I was really a big part of making Mariah’s (Carey) career but when we contacted her people about being on the show, they told us that they wanted to wait and see how things go,” Hall says.
Hall knows one of the big names he could try to land would be Hillary Clinton. During the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton made an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” where he chatted and played the saxophone. Political analysts credit that appearance with helping give Clinton a much larger profile with young voters.
Hall would love to see Hilary Clinton walk out, carrying a saxophone, as a way of launching her own White House campaign. That would be the boost he needs as he re-enters the talk show arena.
“What I have done in the past means nothing,” Hall says. “I am starting from the bottom.
Any success I have will have to be earned all over again.” And he will have to earn it differently.
Was ‘new kid’
When Hall started, he was the new kid on the block and young TV watchers responded. Hall’s approach then was to pick up those viewers who thought Johnny Carson was too old for their TV tastes. Now, its Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon who attract young viewers.
“One of the biggest challenges for all of us, as late-night hosts, is to get people to even make an appointment to watch TV and not say, ‘I’ll watch Fallon yodel tomorrow,’ because you have that ability to Google anything and find anything that’s been on,” Hall says. “The challenges are gigantic now.
“Your biggest fan doesn’t watch you every night. You hope for three nights. And two nights they’ll be watching other people. Sometimes you’ll get one night. But you hope you do a good, funny show and you assert a unique personality that’s not there so that you can just be in the game. I’m trying to be in the game. I just got to be better than one guy that’s there.”
Born in Cleveland 57 years ago, Hall early found an aptitude for magic, debate – and comedy. After graduating from Kent State University, he headed west – first to Chicago, then Los Angeles, in search of a stand-up career, and landed at West Hollywood’s Comedy Store, one of the premiere venues for budding and established comics.
That landed him gigs on TV – including a voice on the animated kid hit “The Real Ghostbusters” – and ultimately Fox’s “The Late Show,” where he was the show’s last host before it was canceled in 1988. While there, he established some of the late-night trademarks, notably the audience’s “woof woof” arm pump, that were to become signatures of his next late-night show. (The dog pound – comprising particularly enthusiastic woofers on the stage near the house band, the Posse – came later.)
Fox wanted him to stick around, but after “Late Show,” Hall signed a deal with Paramount to star in Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America.” After that, Paramount created his late-night syndicated vehicle, which Hall was prescient enough to secure an ownership stake in.
“The Arsenio Hall Show,” which launched Jan. 3, 1989, had brought an urban beat and party-every-night vibe to a moment of the TV day that been dominated by Carson for nearly three decades.
About 4 million tuned in every night, denting Carson’s “Tonight” ratings. Hall’s show didn’t feel like an alternative as much as a movement, to bring Black culture into an all-White club. Studio audiences loved it. So – for a time – did audiences at home.
Hall embraced Black culture, especially rap, which secured its most important TV venue, after “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand,” to date. Salt-N-Pepa, Arrested Development, Queen Latifah as well as Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, Tupac Shakur and Ice T were all frequent guests. For a brief moment, the show was believed to be Paramount’s most financially successful TV venture, a $40-million-a-year machine.
Then, things shifted. CBS, which launched Letterman’s show in ‘93, pulled “Arsenio Hall” off some of its own big stations for the new venture. (Fox did the same with many of its stations for “The Chevy Chase Show” in the fall of ‘93.) “Arsenio Hall” ratings, which already had been dropping, plummeted.
Relations with Paramount went from bad to worse, and hit bottom when Hall booked Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for a full hour in February 1994. Paramount execs were incensed, and Hall, as the relationship fell apart, was embittered.
Then, on May 27, 1994, the party ended. Hall now insists there was “never anything negative” in the split, but that he told Paramount, “I needed balance in my life. Not only personally, but professionally. I wanted to try other things.
“I’m from Cleveland. I grew up down the street from Jim Brown. He left while he still could play. That was cool to me as a kid. So leaving and not being canceled, yeah, that sounded good.”
Jay Leno will leave “Tonight” in February, while the future of “Late Show With David Letterman” – though certainly secure for now – is a question. Audiences tend to check around when hosts change; that was true in the early ‘90s, and it still holds true.
As Hall said recently, “Obviously, back in the day, I was trying to take anything that was left over on Carson’s plate. It’s a huge challenge this time to bring people to the television. But I know that everybody doesn’t have a late-night host.”
It’s been almost two decades since Hall was a regular part of nighttime TV, but he hasn’t fallen out of the public eye. Along with film, radio and TV appearances, Hall was the 2012 winner of the NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice 5.” By the time he was on the reality show, Hall had been thinking about a new talk show for years.
“Being in late night is very much like running for an office,” says Hall. “Basically, what I do is just assert my personality, and you hope people will hang with you a couple nights a week.”
Check your local TV listings to see when “Arsenio” airs in your area.
Rick Bentley of the Fresno Bee; Meredith Blake of the Los Angeles Times; and Verne Gay of Newsday (MCT) all contributed to this report.