Arsenio Hall made history in the early ’90s as the first national African American late night TV talk show host.
Aimed at a hip, young demographic, “The Arsenio Hall Show” was famous for its trademark “woof woof” audience chant and never-know-who-might-stop-by guest list. The show ran from 1989 to 1994 and boasted memorable moments, some of which have become a part of pop culture lore: Bill Clinton playing the saxophone during the ‘92 campaign; Magic Johnson’s first interview after being diagnosed with HIV; and Hall’s tense show the night the Los Angeles riots broke out.
On Monday, nearly 20 years after his original run, the 57-year-old entertainer heads back to TV with a new show, “Arsenio.” Where has he been? How will he carve out his own niche in a very crowed late night field that includes Leno, Fallon, Letterman, Kimmel and Stewart? To paraphrase a certain someone, “These are the things that make us go ‘hmm.’”
CNN caught up with Hall at Hollywood’s Sunset Bronson Studios on the set of the new show and got the inside scoop on his big return.
CNN: What have you been up to since we last saw you on late-night TV?
Arsenio Hall: I have been working hard in just a different element of life, trying to balance my own and do some things that are beyond show business and beyond rooms and (studio) lots like this.
I left this business for something I didn’t even know I was seeking. I just knew it wasn’t in my schedule from sun up to sun down in Hollywood. I left the show for probably balancing my life — I wanted my relationships to be different. I wanted to be with my family and my woman. It was a point where I felt I don’t want to leave this earth without a kid. There were a lot of things going on…
I want to do all those things that I wish my dad could have done with me. My mom and my dad worked very hard when I was young; I was a latch-key kid. I not only wanted to have a kid; I wanted to do it a certain way.
CNN: How will your new show be different from your late-night competitors?
Hall: The good thing about the second time around, there are people who know me, and those 35-year-olds can tell their children, but I’m about to jump back into the culture and I’m the same Arsenio and I just give a different persona to a late-night talk show.
Some will love it, some will hate it. But you look for people to choose you because of the questions you ask, because of the bookings you have, because of the comedy you do … You’re choosing what you want people to do with your public figures, your celebrities, your pop and hop stars. And everybody kind of knows what I do and how I do it, and I hope some people will join me for some nights.
CNN: Who’s on your wish list for guests?
Hall: First of all, it’s been very complicated booking the first show because I had to decide what I wanted it to be. On that show, I just want a fun return, a party. I just want laughter. No clips, no agendas, just friends and fun.
And then the second night on, I’ll start to decide whether I need to talk to Chris Brown and whether I can have that kind of interview. One of my dream guests, one of my dream shows, I don’t have to do this, it’s been done. When I was home, it was these kinds of things that drove me crazy and made me tell my son, is it time for daddy to go back to work yet, every week?
I was watching Letterman, and he took his whole show on the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater with Eminem and Jay-Z. Is that a show? Lord have mercy, that’s the kind of TV I like.
CNN: Will President Obama be stopping by?
Hall: I don’t want to be arrogant, so I’ll give you the right answer. I will invite him, but he’s done a lot in late night. I gotta get real creative to figure out what to do. He’s slow-jammed the news, his wife’s done the ‘Dougie.’ Maybe I’ll go back to basics, maybe I just do a straight interview. But the bottom line, yeah, he’ll be invited.
CNN: Any other dream guests?
Hall: I called (Bill Clinton) and I said, don’t get nervous, I’m not asking a favor from you. But would your wife come out with a saxophone? That would be a move. If I walk out and then say, ooh one minute, grab a hand, and it’s Hillary with a saxophone, it’s on. Because that’s also a special statement if she don’t say nothing … You know Hillary ain’t gonna walk out with no saxophone. She might, but I said Bill Clinton wouldn’t put on my sunglasses and play an Elvis tune and wear my tie and bring his wife and let her join him, and he said yes to all of that. So sometimes I’ve learned, ask.
CNN: On your old show, you weren’t afraid to tear up the script and get serious when the news of the day was serious — for instance, the night the 1992 L.A. riots broke out. Will that be the case on the new show?
Hall: I’m a stand-up comic doing a late-night talk show. But what I like to do in moments like that is bring in a person like Stevie Wonder as the musical guest, and you let Stevie do a number, but you know when we put Stevie on the couch, he’ll give us a respectable response to that kind of situation … I’m sure people, they want to be put to bed with a smile, but they also want me to touch on things that are going on. I’m not bright enough to handle it but there are plenty of guests who can.
CNN: You’ve been off the air for nearly 20 years. How do you introduce yourself to a young audience that’s never seen the original show?
Hall: After I knew I was coming back and Tribune and CBS syndication had said yes it’s a go, I immediately started going on everything. I even wrote an article for Newsweek on fatherhood.
I went on Tosh, I went on Chelsea (Handler), I went on Leno about 47 times, I went on Bill Maher’s HBO show and did a segment on the 20th anniversary of the riots by the way. I tried to get my face out there and doing everything. When (Access Hollywood host) Billy Bush would take a vacation, I would call (Access Hollywood host) Kit Hoover and say y’all mind if I sit in for Billy? And I’ll call Billy and say, if y’all cool with it. I was doing everything I could to get my face out and to show this town that I’m still a viable talking head in late night.
CNN: Why come back now?
Hall: It starts with your 13-year-old asking you to drop him off about five blocks from the movie theaters or the party he’s going to. There’s a certain point where you realize you can moonwalk away from fatherhood just a little bit. And I sat down and had a conversation with him. Because part of raising a kid — to be a man, you have to see a man — and part of raising a kid is to show him the other side of it too. I love fatherhood. I really love being a dad. But like last night, I fell asleep before he did with the remote in my hand. That’s what a young man needs to see too. Hard work, tired.
Douglas Hyde | CNN