Interview: Arsenio Hall Moves Back Into Late Night

After almost 20 years out of the spotlight, the talk show legend is gearing up to reclaim the late-night throne. Best get your “woofing” arm ready.

See Arsenio’s “Hall” of Fame, his five best guest interviews. 

McDowell’s is about to be demolished, and Arsenio Hall doesn’t care. Yes, the Wendy’s at 85-07 Queens Boulevard—which stood in for the fictional fast-food joint where Eddie Murphy as an African prince and Arsenio as his loyal sidekick worked in the blockbuster 1988 comedy Coming to America—is making way for a $105 million luxury apartment complex. And even though comedian Louie Anderson, who played a fellow McDowell’s employee, implored the once and future late-night host to help save the cinematic landmark, Arsenio simply wasn’t interested. “I don’t got time to save McDowell’s,” he says. “I gotta save my own ass!”

It’s two and a half months before the premiere of Arse­nio’s new talk show, and it’s obvious the comedian turned actor turned late-night icon turned reality star is attempting, with all his might, to do just that. We’re across the street from the Hollywood studio where The Arsenio Hall Show will be taped, sitting in a barebones office the size of, well, any old office. “There was another magazine here the other day,” he confides, “and I overheard them whispering, ‘I can’t believe his office is so small.’ But, see, I’ve been down this road before, and I learned a whole lot.” He flashes his signature smile. “It’s all about the show, man, no bullshit. It’s all about the show.” 

When Arsenio, who is now a shockingly youthful 57 (seriously, what kind of moisturizer does he use?), says he’s “been down this road before,” he’s not lying. The original Arsenio Hall Show premiered on January 3, 1989 and ran until May 27, 1994. It was the first late-night talk show to legitimately compete with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show—just ask also-rans like Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers, and Alan Thicke—mostly because Arsenio wasn’t trying to be like Johnny. Instead of guests like Tiny Tim and Liberace, he featured people like Tupac and the Wu-Tang Clan. Instead of sitting behind a big desk, he chatted with folks from a regular old chair. And most memorably, instead of an audience that clapped politely, he had the “Dog Pound,” a special section of the crowd that would stand up and howl, “Woof, woof, woof!” while busting out fist pumps that’d put the cast of Jersey Shore to shame. It was a talk show for a new generation. “My success became a study in demographics,” he tells me. “Kids didn’t want to go out to the party until after the show was over.”

As Arsenio navigates the studio—high-fiving interns, interrupting production meetings—it’s clear he brings the party wherever he goes. Considering his roots as a stand-up comic, his desire to keep everyone laughing makes sense. The Cleveland native moved to L.A. in the late ’70s looking to hit the big time. His stories from the era are epic, like the time in ’81 when he was opening for Bob Saget in Tempe, Arizona, and the club owner offered them a pile of blow instead of actual, you know, money. “I couldn’t take cocaine out of Arizona, and I wouldn’t know what to do with it at LAX anyway,” he laughs. “I’ve seen the movies!” 

He eventually scored roles in features like Amazon Women on the Moon, Harlem Nights, and, of course, Coming to America. After getting, then losing, his talk show—blame the one-two-three punch of Letter­man moving to CBS, the rise of cable, and an appearance by controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan—Arsenio pretty much lay low. His pal and Harlem Nights/Coming to America costar Eddie Murphy tells us, “I told him he should do another talk show a few months after he left in ’94,” but instead Arsenio tried starring in a sitcom, then hosting Star Search. Both proved unsuccessful. 

So why does Arsenio, who loves nothing more than spending time with his 13-year-old son, want to get back into the game now, in a late-night environment that’s more cutthroat and competitive than ever? You can credit, or blame, fellow comic George Lopez and the one-and-only Donald Trump.

George Lopez, who got his big break doing stand-up on the original show, has remained best buds with Arsenio. And a few years back, when Lopez had his own late-night show on TBS, Arsenio would often swing by the studio to hang out before the two headed to a Lakers game. One day, when Snoop Dogg was a guest, Lopez told Arsenio that the first time he’d seen the rapper was on his show. “George said I should bring him out,” Arsenio recalls. “I was like, ‘No, no, you see the way I’m dressed.’ He says, ‘Do it, man. I’ve got a suit!’ ” Arsenio wound up listening to his friend, doing the intro for Snoop…and falling in love with the feeling.

“Something happened that night,” he says. “There was just something the audience gave me, and I knew that I was going to do this motherfucking show again, even if I had to do it in my yard.” As for Lopez, whose own show went to that big TV network in the sky a couple of years ago, he couldn’t be happier that his friend is returning to the airwaves: “I’m thrilled. For the first time in two years, I can’t wait for it to get dark!”

Photographed by Ramona Rosales | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Still feeling the buzz from performing in front of a camera, and wanting to get some national TV exposure, Arsenio accepted Donald Trump’s invitation to appear on Celebrity Apprentice in 2012. Through a combination of humility, intelligence, and his sense of humor, he won the competition, beating out Clay Aiken, Penn Jillette, Debbie Gibson, and a host of other semifamous names. Not only did he win money for his charity, the Magic Johnson Foundation, but Arsenio also was able to get his name and face into living rooms across the country. Audiences too young to know what an “Arsenio” was finally got to meet the gregarious and hilarious “kid from Cleveland.”

Which brings us to today, and the new Arsenio Hall Show, premiering September 9. When the original began in 1989, people computed with an Apple IIe, not an iPad. Conservative George H. W. Bush was president, not hip-hop-loving Hawaiian Barack Obama. Mark Zuckerberg was in kindergarten, tweets were bird noises, and perhaps most worrisome for someone intending to launch a late-night talk show, he was up against just one fellow named Johnny, not a gaggle of guys named Conan, Jon, Stephen, Dave, Jay, Craig, Jimmy, and…Jimmy. “There were no cell phones when I started. I’m coming back to a whole other era,” he tells me over cheeseburgers in New York City. (We met up again on the East Coast, where he was glad-handing local affiliates who will be putting his syndicated show on the air.) He continues to put things in perspective: “I broke Billy Ray Cyrus and ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ and now Miley Cyrus is out there smoking weed!” So how does he plan to get with the times, exactly?

For starters, how about a Tweet Seat instead of a Dog Pound. “It’s not the Arsenio Hall Twitter account,” he ex­plains. “It’s a seat with a little bird on it that, every night, a fan can sit in during the show and tweet from. It will be a Twitter ghost on that stage that will manifest itself in different ways.” Hmmm. And what does that mean, Arsenio? 

“Say, for example, the studio audience just saw Ne-Yo open the show. The per­son in the Tweet Seat can tell people to check it out tonight. During rehearsals, maybe Mary J. Blige or Adam Levine will do their thing. Who knows, maybe the janitor will send a message!” 

Wisely, it seems Arsenio IS intent on keeping up, digital­ly, with the Jimmys. “The guys younger than me, that’s their world. The guys older than me, like Jay Leno, might not see concrete evidence of online popularity translating to hard numbers, so they’re not so into it.” Fallon, whose show embraced social media since before it even premiered, is clearly an inspiration. “It’s his lifeblood! Fallon is part of this futuristic world. It’s not just about numbers anymore; otherwise NBC is firing their number one guy,” he says, referring to the decision to replace ratings king Leno with Fallon as Tonight Show host this coming February.

Something else Arsenio is aware of is the demise of “appointment TV.” Watching a show at a specific time, rather than off the DVR or on the Internet, is a dying concept. “Kids want it when they want it. They’re like, ‘I can watch it tomorrow on Hulu.’ ” What’s his plan to get people to tune in to an actual TV set? “I’ll be a little more loose and spontaneous than the other guys. We got to make a person think, Why do I have to watch tonight? And part of what I used to do, that I want to do again, is things no one can predict.” 

Photographed by Ramona Rosales | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

I try to get some of those “things no one can predict” out of him, but nearly four decades in the entertainment biz gives a man a hell of a poker face. Is he looking for moments like the most famous one from his old show, then presidential candidate Bill Clinton jamming on sax? “I put the bar high with that, yeah. He actually tells me he became president because of what I did! But now we’ve seen presidents dance, we’ve seen them play bass, we’ve seen them slow-jam the news. I mean, you’d almost have to get a political figure to show you his Ray J video.”

Here’s an idea, Arsenio: Why not get another likely presidential candidate who also happens to be named Clinton to perform on your new show? “You know what,” he says, smiling. “I sure hope Hillary plays the harmonica or somethin’.” 

Photos by Ramona Rosales | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013