Arsenio Hall Returns to Late Night? Don’t Call it a Comeback aka “The Art of Trying to Catch Lightning in a Bottle Twice.”

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Arsenio on the cover of Time

As one of those feared, dreaded individuals referred to in the common langauge as an “80s baby”, I see the late ’80s and early 1990s that made up the time period of my childhood and adolescence as a special time. Mainly because I didn’t have responsibiblities, but also because of the cultural zeitgeist of the time. The late ’80s and early ’90s were a whole other world in image from the Jherri curled, racially ambigious, androgynous lite funk era represented most prominently by the great artists Prince and Michael Jackson. But that is not to set up another tired decade war; Prince and Michael and Whitney Houston and the Cosby Show’s success definitley paved the way for acceptance of other black artistic views and popular stars.

By the late ’80s, a spirit in black popular culture more reminiscent of the militant era of the late ’60s and early ’70s ensued, it was almost like Michael Jackson and Prince and the ’80s variant of Richard Pryor (The Toy) were the civil rights leaders who gave (paved)  way to a gang of militants who took over  the cutural scene. Of course, this was not about laws, but all about money, fame, and as they (regretably) say today, “swag.”

Ya’ll know the steez. I’m talking about Public Enemy, Jody Watley, New Jack Swing, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, late period Miles Davis, Eddie Murphy’s Coming to AmericaHarlem Nights, and Boomerang, Bill Cosby’s Cosby Show spin off, It’s a Different World, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Jacksons Bad, and Dangerous, Prince from Sign O’ the Times on, and a million other works.

The primary showcase for a lot of this, in a landscape that had several such as Rap City and Video Soul, on BET, Yo! MTV Raps on MTV, and a very much still in play, Soul Train, was the Arsenio Hall Show.

Arsenio brought that vibe to late night TV. He was of the school of Don Cornelius, if you check, you’ll find that Arsenio had been appearing on Soul Train since the early 1980s, and he’d be my personal pick to host that show if it ever reappeared. Of course, being a Cleveland Browns fan and the son of a preacher, his personality was more high octane than the mellow baritoned dulcet tones of the Don. Arsenio had that mix of showing his ass enough not to come off as Clareance Thomas and still retain enough dignity to avoid coming off as Stephin Fetchit.

Music was one of the areas where he really reigned. He had so many important artists, from young to old on his show during his run. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, TLC, Snoop Dogg, Parliament Funkadelic, the list really goes on and on. Arsenio’s position as a black host, of course, was unique and really, one of the drivers of his show. In Miles Davis autobiography penned with Quincy Troupe, he mentions that he rarely enjoyed doing late night television. He said that the hosts of his day knew extremely little about black music and also were very much different from him in personal taste and sensibility. He said that was the reason he’d appear on these shows but not speak. However, when Miles appeared on Arsenio in ’89 he gave a lengthy interview and seemed as amiable as a man called “The Prince of Darkness” could be.

Unbenknowenst to me Arsenio was not getting 100% love in the young, black and proud militant community at the time. Of course, I remember Ice Cube’s classic diss, “You ask me did I like Arsenio/about as much as the bicentennial”, from his amazing Bomb Squad produced first LP. Spike Lee, Chuck D, and many other black celebs who would eventually end up appearing on the show would make various criticisms. Of course, Spike Lee was also a critic of Arsenio’s close friend Eddie Murphy, which might have had some influence on the mostly black casts Eddie used at that stage in his career. In Living Color lampooned him with Keenan Ivory Wayans cooning it up with butt pads and a prosthetic finger ripped off a E.T doll. Tupac Shakur captured some of the animosity against Arsenio in black entertainment when he appeared on the show by saying most rappers had a problem with Arsenio because he was the only black game in town on late night, free TV (still dominant over cable in exposure at that time) and as such, they wanted to be on his show whether they had a hit or not.

Of course, in time even those who had problems had to appear on the show, the popularity of it was just too much to resist. Most commentators on it based Arsenio’s popularity on his ability to capture the youth of all ages, and I agree, that’s what the whole “Night Thing” party vibe did for sure, but for me, another part of his appeal was his status as a culturally aware black dude. Although his show was big with youngsters, I also remember it being big with my dad who was in his late 50s, and my mother who was in her 40s, as well as various middle aged and even senior citizen black people around my way in Oakland, California.

Arsenio’s show, in its original incarnation, is a time capsule that really can’t be recreated. And that’s what I’m afraid we won’t get with his new show, although I am eagerly awaiting it. Arsenio was a baby boomer who created a show that connected G.I’s, Silent,s and Generation Xers in one huge, 20th Century end of the century party vibe. His show encompassed Dizzy Gillespie, George Cllinton, Diana Ross, Prince, Michael Jackson, M.C Hammer, Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, Sammy Davis Jr. Snoop Doggy Dogg, 2Pac, Jim Henson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Big Daddy Kane, Rosie O’Donnell and so many others in a way that emphasized essential hipness. Of course this is what all late night variety shows aim to do, but Arsenio seemed to do it in a way that geniuinely related to all these different sensibilites and found a commonality between them.

The original run of the show had signal, earthshaking cultural moments, like Bill Clintons sax playing, Michael Jackson appearing to give Eddie an award, rehearsals with Janet Jackson for her Rhythm Nation tour, Quincy Jones bringing Tevin Campbell, Joe Zawinul, Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, and Melle Mel on to do Back on the Block, B.B King sitting in with the band, and many James Brown appearences, including a phone call when the Godfather was locked up, to a meeting on the show with Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, and Sugar Ray Leonard, Arsenio brought the heat!

It was this diversity and really, downright educational nature to Arsenio’s show that kept my middle aged parents up watching him and convinced them to let me stay up past my curfew to peep the show with them. My dad was always a big Quincy Jones fan, and in many ways, Arsenio’s show was like one of those Quincy Jones albums, The Dude, or Back on the Block, or Q’s Juke Joint come to life. A huge celebration of the currents of culture from way back to way in front. A cynic might say that’s just the effect of being in show business and having a lot of friends, but whatever it was, it sho’ was funky!

I think my real apprecieation of James Brown started  from the show. I remember staying up in the fourth grade to watch Mr. Brown make an appearence on the show after he was released from jail. I remember Mr. Brown having much vitality, dancing like a younger version of his bad self. And Arsenio captured the younger generations appreciation of James Brown as an icon, evident in the samples of hip hop and so much of the stage presentation and music of the two biggest icons of the day, Prince and Michael Jackson. I recall the enjoyment my parents got out of seeing him get down and no matter how much I’d heard him around the house, James Brown was no longer old to me at that point, he was a vital part of what was happening now, that I’d pay attention to, study and enjoy for the rest of my life.

Mr. Brown died in 2006, so he can not appear on the new Arsenio show. Neither can Sammy Davis Jr, Miles Davis, Red Foxx, or Jim Henson. But what is important is that Arsenio had them on the show when he did, for posterity.

So as many of the older generation has passed on and Arsenio tries to make like Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby and “do it again”, what does he take with him? Well, Arsenio, though not old, is defienitley a veteran, and many people who were young in the business at the time that he showcased are the icons of the day. I’d love to see him catch up with the Denzels, Snoops, Madonnas and so forth. In the late 1990s, several late night talk shows tried to fill Arsenio’s void, and none of them lasted very long, but sometimes I think what would have been if Arsenio had run uninterrupted from 1989 to now. There are probably some stars today who will be as thrilled to be on an Arsenio Hall talk show as he’ll be to have them, probably telling him, “I used to dream I’d be on your show.”

So Arsenio in this incarnation moves from being a late night chronicler of legends to a late night talk show legend himself. He still has his wit, his charisma, his rolodex (on a smart phone I’m sure), many favors to call in from entertainer friends, and a legacy of at one time being the freshest dude on the late night block. I know the old misinterpretation of F Scott Fitzgeralds, “There are no second acts in American lives”, but I’m eagerly awaiting the fall premier of the new Arsenio Hall show. My dad has passed on but I’m going to make it a point to check out that first episode with my mom. And I’ll be pulling for the dogg pound to get crackin one more time, full steam ahead into the unknown this time!!! Plus it’ll be cool to say as an adult, “Did you see Arsenio last night?”

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Arsenio Hall Returns to Late Night? Don’t Call it a Comeback aka “The Art of Trying to Catch Lightning in a Bottle Twice.”

  1. I congratulate the fact that you point out the vital generational connection Arsenio Hall made in regard to embracing the attitude of more socially and politically aware black community. Whoever I should point out that fashionably “dissing” the early to mid 1980’s only because it personally effected your own life has a somewhat egoist tone. I realize there are many,as you point out,that feel that way. However Aresnio,for example,really did bridge the world of the strong male black figure with the pretty faced,or as you refer to it “androgynous” attitude of the earlier part of the 80’s decade. So I am convinced he bridge more worlds than one might think.

  2. In my opinion, Hall’s late-night gig was the last true talk show. It sure got intense at times. How about his shows during the L.A riots or the Farrakhan interview?

    Also, I can’t think of another show that contributed as much to the mainstream acceptance of pro-wrestling as this one did. It even respected NBA superstars like very few chose to back then.

    One of my personally favorite Arsenio moments was his brief interview with the troubled star of “Jason Takes Manhattan”. I don’t think any other host could have pulled it off:

  3. Thanks for sharing the Jason interview! You’re right in that it displays Hall’s unique skills, he treats it almost as part of his comedy routine, as he needles a quiet Jason, he says those things to the “Jason” character that regular people would want to say, it is a sublime, post modern interview that’s quite a hoot!

    In terms of what you say about Arsenio’s friendship/showcasing of NBA stars, I think of the video he did for AIDs awareness with Earvin “Magic” Johnson, I remember him winning several awards for that and it being a big milestone in AIDS education!

    The Arsenio Hall show did have a unique mix of education and entertainment. I have to put some of those moments (such as the LA riots shows), up there with moments from ’60s talk shows like Mike Douglas (the John Lennon/Yoko Ono week, several appearences where James Brown talked social issues) in terms of an entertainment talk show with social relevance, and Arsenio did it in a night time format, which is usually even more entertainment based!

  4. And speaking of wrestling, I had to post this legendary interview with The Ultimate Warrior. Although I look back at my boyhood appreciation of the Ultimate Warrior with mild regret, seeing as how his career turned out, he was my favorite at the time, and it’s interesting this interview was right on the verge of his greatest moment, the defeat of Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI

    • I can’t believe we left out Arsenio’s shouting match against Queer Nation activists; feels like he made some good points but eventually let his temper get the best of him:

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