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A Look Back At 'The Arsenio Hall Show,' The Coolest And The Blackest Place To Be Every Late Night

By Brian Richards | TV | March 8, 2021 |

By Brian Richards | TV | March 8, 2021 |


Before Arsenio Hall became a household name … Before he became host of one of the coolest and most influential talk shows in all of late night … he was regular-degular stand-up comic Arsenio Hall trying his hardest to do what most stand-up comics do when they first start out: make people laugh and make sure that his bills are paid while doing so.

Arsenio started his career by making a few guest appearances on Soul Train, The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour, Solid Gold, and as Alan Thicke’s sidekick on the talk show Thicke Of The Night. He then provided the voice of Winston Zeddemore on the animated series The Real Ghostbusters and appeared in the film Amazon Women On The Moon.

It wasn’t until The Late Show starring Joan Rivers premiered on FOX in 1986 that Arsenio’s career began to take a turn for the better. When Joan Rivers ended up walking away from her show in 1987 due to disappointing ratings and clashes with executives behind the scenes, the show was soon retooled and had its name changed from The Late Show starring Joan Rivers to simply The Late Show, and had a rotating roster of guest hosts like Suzanne Somers, Richard Belzer, Robert Townsend, and Arsenio Hall, who ended up as permanent host of the show before its eventual cancellation. And Arsenio turned out to be so good and so funny as host (especially among the coveted 18-49 demographic, according to ratings), that it left executives stunned. So stunned that those same executives attempted to extend Arsenio’s contract past its original deal of hosting for thirteen weeks, but Arsenio turned it down, as he said that he was going to be unavailable because he was doing other things and working on other projects.

And one of those projects? Coming To America.

Arsenio’s success at hosting The Late Show caused some people at Paramount Television to sit up and take notice and he was soon offered his very own late-night talk show, which premiered in syndication on January 3, 1989.

It didn’t take long for The Arsenio Hall Show to become a ratings success, thanks to its announcer, Burton Richardson, who would stretch out the O in Arseniooooooooooooooo’s name when introducing him every night, his house band led by jazz pianist Michael Wolff (who would later to go on to describe his struggles with Tourette’s syndrome and who composed the score for the film The Tic Code, which was written by his wife, actress Polly Draper, about a jazz musician who lives with Tourette’s syndrome), and his incredibly lively audience known as “the Dog Pound,” who would join Arsenio in pumping their fists in a circular motion while yelling “Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” (a tradition that was started at Cleveland Browns games, but now became known as a signature move for Arsenio and his fans) while also being introduced and identified in unique ways by Arsenio himself when coming out to greet them. (“These are the people who say no to drugs, but yes to free T-shirts.”) And much of that ratings success was largely due to younger non-white viewers who weren’t getting the entertainment they needed or wanted from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Arsenio was able to tell the kind of jokes that Johnny Carson couldn’t, and invite the kind of guests who would probably never be allowed to set foot on Burbank Studios.

Guests like Snoop Dogg, for example. And not the “cool and family-friendly uncle who hangs out with Martha Stewart” version of Snoop Dogg. I mean, the “Snoop don’t love these hoes and Eazy-E can eat a big fat d-ck” version of Snoop Dogg whose career was still new, and young, scrappy, and hungry, and back when he just didn’t give a f—k.

Other celebrities who appeared as guests on The Arsenio Hall Show included Magic Johnson, who went on the show shortly after he first announced to the public that he was HIV-positive…

Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Muhammad Ali…

Sammy Davis, Jr….

Madonna, who took some time out of promoting her upcoming role in Dick Tracy to tease Arsenio about the rumors that he had hooked up with singer Paula Abdul…

Vanilla Ice, who was at the height of his popularity with his rap career, much to Arsenio’s dissatisfaction (which some people interpreted as Arsenio simply being upset at a White rapper breaking into hip-hop, and one that he saw as a gimmick and not someone to be taken seriously), and to say that this interview between the two of them is awkward and uncomfortable is putting it very mildly…

Tupac Shakur…

RuPaul, who made his late-night talk-show debut on Arsenio’s show…

“Macho Man” Randy Savage, as he promoted his upcoming championship match with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania V

Will Smith, who would appear on the show many times so the two could crack jokes about each other’s mamas…

Diana Ross, who was on the show to promote her upcoming tour and even though she had also discussed her newest relationship, that did not stop her from looking very flirtatiously at Arsenio and asking him to end the interview by kissing her, which is at the 8:30 mark…

And of course, his friend and colleague, Eddie Murphy (with a surprise appearance by Michael Jackson)…

Then there were the musical performances, some of them by artists at the beginning of their careers, some of them by established artists who got even greater exposure once they appeared on the show. Mariah Carey, who made her television debut when she appeared on the show…

M.C. Hammer, who made his television debut as well and introduced to the world to his classic, “U Can’t Touch This…”

New Kids On The Block, who wanted to perform on the show in order to silence any and all doubts that they were another Milli Vanilli who didn’t sing their own songs, and prove to everyone that they were the real deal.

Long before their career truly blew up with the release of their groundbreaking album OK Computer, Radiohead performed on the show to promote their debut album, Pablo Honey.

Wynonna Judd, who was one of several country-music artists who performed on the show and which let Arsenio’s viewers know that rappers and R&B singers weren’t the only musicians he was interested in having as his musical guests.

And Prince, who performed many of his songs during one entire episode that had Patti LaBelle hosting the show along with Arsenio for that one night…

Then there was the most memorable guest of all who decided to make an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show: Bill Clinton, who was a fan of the show and decided to not only go there for an interview during his Presidential campaign that he would eventually win, but he would also show off his skills on the saxophone by playing “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Granted, none of this saved Arsenio from becoming the butt of many jokes, particularly on In Living Color, where he was played by Keenen Ivory Wayans and he was teased about his incredibly long fingers, his big ass, and his friendship with Eddie Murphy.

Despite the fact that The Arsenio Hall Show was meant to be a party and a good time for everybody, there were those who weren’t entirely happy with how Arsenio did his job. In a recent interview on the popular morning radio show The Breakfast Club, Arsenio described how Ice Cube had approached him about beign able to perform their their classic, “Fuck Tha Police” on his show. But because Arsenio was the national ambassador for the D.A.R.E. program, he wasn’t able to do it, resulting in Ice Cube being pissed off at Arsenio for many years as a result.

And during one episode of his show, Arsenio was heckled by an audience member who accused him of being homophobic and demanded to know why he didn’t invite any gay celebrities to be his guests on the show. And he was not having it.

Then there was the interview that many people viewed then and still view now as the reason why The Arsenio Hall Show ended up being canceled after five years on the air. Arsenio had invited Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam to be a guest on his show, which bothered a lot of people, seeing as how Farrakhan was and still is known for making numerous anti-Semitic and homophobic statements. And with Arsenio being seen as a talk-show host who didn’t push his guests very hard when questioning them in interviews, there was concern that Farrakhan would express more of his anti-Semitic views and remain unchallenged when doing so. Farrakhan was greeted with a warm reception by the audience, though Arsenio (who had also invited Kirk Franklin and the Family to perform as a musical guest on that same episode, only to spend the entire hour talking to Farrakhan instead) was criticized afterwards for only having softball questions when interviewing him.

Despite the blowback Arsenio had received for interviewing Farrakhan, it was what he expectedfrom taking advantage of an opportunity that he refused to pass up. And after ratings for The Arsenio Hall Show had begun to decline thanks to increasing competition from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (and Arsenio was not shy in letting people know that he was not the biggest fan of Jay Leno) and Late Show with David Letterman and even The Chevy Chase Show (which was only on the air for less than two months), Arsenio began to see the writing on the wall and announced that he was bringing his talk show to an end, though he stated that months before the interview with Louis Farrakhan, he had already informed his bosses at Paramount that he was planning to end the show. That still hasn’t stopped people from assuming that his interview with Farrakhan was the nail in the coffin for his late-night career, an assumption that Hall doesn’t agree with, as he stated in a recent interview with The Guardian

“If you go in a barbershop now and you ask why The Arsenio Hall Show in the 90s got taken off the air, most people will not tell you: ‘He wrote a resignation letter because he wanted to do other things,’” says Hall, who sounds genuinely annoyed about the rumors. “‘He actually wanted to have a kid, and he wanted to act, and late night occupies every moment of your time.’ [Instead] if you go into a barbershop, they’ll tell you: ‘Y’know, white man took them off there because he interviewed that Farrakhan.’”

I try to move off the subject, but he comes back for another bite. “I’m probably not working today — in somebody’s mind — because of that interview, but, y’know, it just raises the wall for me and I’ve been jumping over walls all my life, so I’m good,” he adds, while not actually sounding that good. Still, Hall remains proud of his show’s legacy.

And there were many celebrities who were willing to show their appreciation to Arsenio for all that he had done through his show. Whoopi Goldberg, Luther Vandross, Queen Latifah, and James Brown were just some of the artists who came through to say thank you and farewell to The Arsenio Hall Show.

Since the end of his talk show, Arsenio found ways to remain busy in front of the camera. He appeared in the CBS action series Martial Law opposite Sammo Hung, had his own sitcom opposite Vivica A. Fox called Arsenio, which was cancelled after just seven episodes, hosted a revival of Star Search as well as The World’s Funniest Moments and 100 Greatest Black Power Moves. He was also a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice, which he won against the other finalist, Clay Aiken. A year later after winning The Celebrity Apprentice, Arsenio attempted a revival of his talk show. Though the ratings and reviews weren’t as impressive as they were for the original version, the show was still renewed for a second season. Or so we all thought, as shortly after the announcement was made that The Arsenio Hall Show 2.0 would return for a second season, CBS Television Distribution and Tribune Broadcasting, the show’s production companies, reversed their decision and canceled the show.

As if that wasn’t enough, Arsenio filed a $5 million lawsuit against singer Sinead O’Connor in May of 2016 after Sinead had written a Facebook post in which she accused Arsenio of providing drugs to Prince that contributed to his death a month earlier. The lawsuit was dismissed in February of 2017 after Sinead apologized to Arsenio and retracted her previous statement.

And Arsenio reunited with Eddie Murphy and numerous others for the highly anticipated Coming To America sequel, Coming 2 America, which debuted on Amazon Prime this past weekend.

It also didn’t take very long for others to try and follow in Arsenio Hall’s footsteps when it came to hosting late-night talk shows aimed at a young, hip, and urban audience. There was The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show

The Magic Hour, hosted by Magic Johnson…

And Vibe, which was hosted by Chris Spencer before he was replaced by Sinbad in order to boost the show’s ratings…

None of those shows lasted longer than a year, and the one late-night talk show that ended up becoming a long-running success that actually made an impact like Arsenio Hall once did? It was The Chris Rock Show.

Twenty-seven years after its final episode, The Arsenio Hall Show deserves to be appreciated and remembered not just because of the fact that it felt like a nightly block party where everyone wanted to be and where a good time was guaranteed to be had by all, but also because it was a place where so many Black and brown artists could go to promote their work, to perform for an audience, especially an audience who rarely saw artists onscreen who look and sound like they do, and to actually be seen and heard when few other talk shows would be willing to give them that opportunity. There still isn’t nearly enough diversity as there should be in the late-night talk show arena (the notable exceptions being Amber Ruffin, Desus & Mero, Larry Wilmore, and Lily Singh, and three of those four shows are on cable or streaming services), but we can continue to hope that there will be more hosts who will come along to shake things up, change the game, and make us all laugh while doing so.

Just like Arseniooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo Hall.

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Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.

Header Image Source: Paramount Television