Arsenio Hall returns to latenight TV tonight after almost two decades away. And, after all that time, he will still be one of only two African-American show hosts occupying that culturally influential space on a nightly basis.
The other, comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” launched last week in a Sunday-through-Thursday 11 p.m. time slot on the brand-new cable channel FXX.
The diversity that Hall brings to the time period — simply with his presence in a syndicated show airing in 85 percent of the country — would be reason enough for rooting him on.
But I have also long felt that Hall didn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserved for opening up late night to younger viewers and some new voices on his show that ran from 1989 to 1994. Everybody knows about “Sesame Street” and the road it helped pave to a multicultural America. Well, “The Arsenio Hall Show” did that too in its own smaller way.
Hall’s show, which was produced by Paramount in Los Angeles, helped change the culture in large part with music presented as entertainment. But the music he delivered was often packed with cultural and political messages, like the appearance by presidential candidate Bill Clinton wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1992.
But that’s only the most famous and widely remembered moment. There were lots of other ones with performers and producers such as Bobby Brown, Prince, Lil’ Bow Wow and Robin Thicke.
“Music was complicated for that show,” Hall said during an interview in a conference room at WBFF (Channel 45), the Sinclair station in Baltimore airing the new version of “The Arsenio Hall Show” weeknights at 11:35.
“It was complicated, because when you first come into the situation [as a new host], they tell you what the demographics say about music,” he explained. “And what they say is that it doesn’t hold numbers [viewers] as well as talk.”
Because of that, Hall said the brass at Paramount told him to put musical guests on only at the very end of a show just before you say good night — when tune-out wouldn’t hurt the ratings as much.
But Hall says he wasn’t buying it, and so, he started pushing back his first week on the air.
“I said, ‘You know what? I got young college students who can stay up late on Friday, so let’s start there.’ I was betting on having an audience that behaved a little different than the traditional late-night one. And, by the way, it wasn’t only a black-white audience thing, because don’t forget I broke Trisha Yearwood and Billy Ray Cyrus.”
His first Friday on the air, Hall decided to showcase Bobby Brown.
“I said, ‘He has two new singles, and I want to break them both tonight. I want to be greedy,’” the 57-year-old Kent State graduate recalled.
“So, he had this new song, ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ which I had gone to the studio and listened to, and it was on fire. And he had a song called ‘My Prerogative.’ And I put one at the beginning of the show and one at the end, and Lucy Salhany, who was running Paramount, was like, ‘We’re gonna die. We’re gonna die. You’re doing two R&B songs on a Friday night. And we’re dead.’”
But Salhany was wrong.
“We did music our way, and the numbers held really well,” Hall said. “In fact, on that first Friday, we kept Bobby Brown and the band vamping through the first commercial, so that when we came back he was still on. And I found out I had an a different audience, a younger one that would put up with more music and was open to new performers and voices.”
One very young member of that audience was Robin Thicke, son of actor and talk-show host Alan Thicke with whom Hall had worked before getting his own show.
“Robin was this little kid who came to the show the first time with his parents,” Hall said. “But when he got me alone he asked, ‘Mr. Hall, can I come back sometimes when you have singers here?’”
Hall said he asked the child, “Like who? Who do you like, son?”
“And this little kid in this little baseball cap, says, ‘Oh, I like, um, Gerald Levert and I like Johnny Gill,’ Hall said, mimicking the tiny boy’s voice. “And this little white child is throwing out the names of all these black R&B singers.”
Pausing for a moment and smiling at the memory, Hall said “Today, brothers call Robin the ‘white Marvin Gaye.’ And to know that little kid came to my show to watch these R&B guys. But even then, he knew who he wanted to be artistically.”
That hybrid of black and white culture and identity was at play with the appearance by Clinton on Hall’s show as well, a moment that most analysts believe changed presidential campaigning profoundly. Clinton took a great risk, but he gained a great reward symbolized by the iconic photo of Hall pointing sideways to the saxophone-playing candidate in a gesture of cultural affirmation.
“I love that he chose me,” Hall says of Clinton coming on his show. “But my biggest element of respect for him was the fact that they were ahead of the curve.”
Hall compared the experience of getting Clinton to come on his show to “a guy asking a girl out and you’re expecting a no, but you get a yes.”
“That’s what it was like for me with Clinton,” he said. “And you’re so pleasantly surprised, you start asking for more and more. ‘Will he wear my glasses? Will he wear my tie?’ I’m sure you know he had on my tie that night, right?”
Clinton playing sax was not part of the original invitation, according to Hall.
“Once he said yes, then we started wondering what we should do in the segment. Well, we know he plays sax, so we asked for that. And he says yes,” Hall recalled.
“Some things only happened when he got there,” Hall continued. “We said, ‘You know what would be funny is if you had on sunglasses.’ And so, we gave him a tie and sunglasses. And I think the secret is they didn’t have time to think about it for weeks.”
As for the music Clinton chose to play: “We knew it was about a rusty sax player deciding what he was going to attack,” Hall explained diplomatically.
“I have a picture of Bill Clinton and he’s on the balcony of the hotel we put him in the night before. He’s on the balcony playing his sax, and you can see the ocean out beyond. It’s one of my favorites. He practiced hard to get this done.”
By the time Hall’s show ended in 1994, I was troubled by the way many of the TV critics, who were mainly white, male baby boomers like myself, worshiped David Letterman and often seemed to ignore what was happening with pop culture on Hall’s show.
“I kind of understood it, because I‘m the same age as you and a certain generation of journalists, and I grew up on Dave,” Hall said when I asked him about it at WBFF.
“As a kid staying in a dorm, I was watching Dave. So, it was easy to understand. And you can’t expect people to all of sudden be different than what they are — or what I am myself. It was generational … and it’s not going to change overnight.”
It would be nice to think 20 years later, there might be a lasting place in late night for what Hall brings to the time period.
“The Arsenio Hall Show” will air at 11:35 on weeknights on WBFF (Channel 45). First week guests include: Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Mark Harmon, Lisa Kudrow and “Magic” Johnson. The musical lineup features: Mac Miller, Earth, Wind & Fire, Emblem3 and Nas.