Although the 2013 reboot to his iconic talk show was canceled on 30 May 2014, Arsenio Hall is the architect of the post-mod/post-mil late night gabfest. The two Jimmy’s—both Fallon and Kimmel—owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Dave Chappelle, too. Arsenio’s hip hop driven journey from the hood to the heartland of America’s shifting racial consciousness, was the very first of its kind. This feature story from the 23 May 1989 issue of the Village Voice sparked the national coverage of Arsenio and the groundswell of his metamorphic cultural movement. Here is a link to my March 2014 Esquire.com interview with late-night pioneer, Arsenio Hall.
-Barry Michael Cooper/31 May 2014
“I know I should tell you that I’m the happiest man in show business so people can say, ‘He’s such a wonderful guy,’ but the deal is, alhtough I entertain you every night, I’m also a real person, and life’s a bitch. I live to put a smile on your face and make your life a little bit better. This is a very tough world we live in. This is a world where our great leaders like Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy try to help us, and we kill them.”
“I had the sophisticated bullies on my block, 79th and Kinsman in Cleveland,” grins Arsenio Hall over an Ahmad Jamal cut in the chic raspberry decor of L.A.’s swank Nucleus Nuance. “One time this crew of older guys put some dirt in a jar. They came up to me, and one guy took out some with a spoon. He said, ‘Try this.’ I said, ‘That’s dirt, motherfucker.’ Then they held me, and jammed it in my mouth.” Arsenio takes a bite of kiwi and strawberries before continuing. “When you broke a window in my neighborhood,” he remembers, “it was never replaced with another window; always masking tape and dry cleaners’ plastic bags. I lived in the house on the corner of a block of projects, the last house they didn’t tear down. Sometimes, I think the most painful elements of my life have created my talkshow.”
Arsenio Hall, 30, has bumrushed latenight TV: though you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream press, he clocked into second place among the nighttime during the all-important February sweeps period. And if you think that’s an easy place for an African-American comic to be, consider this: the reigning king is from Nebraska, the huckleberry in third is from Indiana, and the one in last place is whiter than Minute Rice. But is Hall ready to gloat over his Nielsens? No. Dressed in burgundy and black Gucci warm-ups, siping Evain, he’s talking about Cleveland again. “I was a very lonely kid. I was an only child but I slept in the top bunk of a bunk bed. All-night radio and Johnny Carson where my friends. They were always there with people, having conversations, discussing stuff. I kept Johnny on till my mother saw the blue light under my door and made me turn him off.”
THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW cold-rocks the house. Every night there’s something funky for party people to tune in to: you’ll get Tone Loc talking about the recent rape in Central Park, Angela Davis talking about being a Communist in the ‘80s, a multiple-count drug offender Ike Turner complaining he was arrested for carrying baking soda, or Jesse Jackson eating southern fried chicken wings and discussing Third World debt.
Not only is this an ultra-hip African-American show, but it is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream gone Hollywood: “All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join jhands and sing…LeVert’s “Just Coolin’.” Or watch Arsenio house Woody Harrelson from Cheers like a landlord in a one-on one game of basketball, right on the stage. Or listen to him ask Married…With Children’s Katey Sagal why her bra is in the Frederick’s of Hollywood Hall of Fame. Or watch him sit cross-legged on the floor with a four-year-old white child star, mimicking her Shirley Temple voice without condescension, engaging her to talk about her favorite “dolly.”
The dream is not fully realized, even though it’s shot in Hollywood: we’re also forced to feel embarrassed for Arsenio as he sucks up to second-rung white stars like Brooke Shields and Eric Roberts: “I wanted to be in one of your movies so bad,” he tells Roberts, “that I told your casting director I’d be a lawn jockey.” Or listen to him order a raving Morton Downey Jr. to “Sit down man, you need the publicity.” Or watch in horror as a pitiful Joan Rivers snaps, “I gave you a break and you never called to thank me, you son of a bitch.”
But black and white isn’t the only line Arsenio’s tiptoeing along. One moment he’s affecting the impeccable elocution of a millionaire’s son; the next he’s rolling his shoulders, doing a new jack begging for an autograph: “Hey boy-ee, you large, you large, you so large, Money, you Gigantor. My girlee wants an autograph, knowwhatI’msayin’. but I told her, ‘That’s MacGyver, baby, he’s too dope for that.’” Arsenio leans toward thirtysomething’s Melanie Mayron with his delicate, elongated face—ripe for a Hirschfeld caricature, with its pixie eyebrows and sparkling, hypnotic doe eyes—and confides, “If you’re a juppie, then I’m a buppie.” The audience hoots. “What?” Arsenio shoots back, offended. “I am a buppie.” But the crowd won’t budge. They don’t care about the side of Hall that claims a nouveau African-American aristocracy. Despite his vented Ron Rinker suits with the draped ‘30s lapels and the slick TV table manners, they want Arsenio to remain street forever. And everytime you see him point to the band and say, “My Posse, let’s get busy,” or mimic a money-making homeboy talkin’ street so dead-on you’re waiting for hip hop speakologist Big Daddy Kane to come out and translate, you know he will.
So what kind of black guy goes out every night, and—in front of a few million witnesses—walks the awesome, frightening tightrope between mainstream white American and the self-contained. ethno-centric splendor of black America, between the Bed-Stuy B-Boys and the Bel Aire Billionaire Boys Club? Is Arsenio Hall the coolest guy in America or does his compulsion to step to the shaka-zulu twist in the chandeliered ballroom make him the country’s most public schizophrenic? As if they’re watching a potential suicide victim catwalking along the edge fo the roof, the millions want to know: Arsenio, when are you going to jump?
“IT HAPPENED while I was in school,” says Arsenio in his soft, fast voice, remembering the divorce between his Baptist preacher father, Reverend Fred Hall, and his mother, Annie. “I came home, my mother took me straight to my grandmother’s house, and we never went back.” As all divorced parents do, consciously or unconsciously, the Halls used their child in an emotional tug-of-war. “There was a time when I wanted a pair of sneakers, and it was like, ‘Your dad don’t do nothing for you,’ or ‘Why should I do something for you? She got boyfriends.’ I was going back and forth, over a pair of Coach Converse. I hated it. What did her boyfriend have to do with a pair of Coach Cons?” Today, Arsenio owns 26 pairs of sneakers, 20 of which he has never worn. “I’m a tennis shoe wearin’ motherfucker,” he smiles. “I do wish I could find some Coach Cons though.”
Although Arsenio grew up on diet of James Brown and Martin Luther King Jr., the local role model he remembers was a black lawyer named Linden Childs. “I was a just a kid at the time my mom worked for him,” he recalls, “but it really impressed me to see this black lawyer, this black man, in a position of prominence and power.” He continued to see his father, but they didn’t spend much time together. “My fahter was either reading the Bible or in his Elizabeth Baptist Church. I would’ve like a father that took me to a Cavalier game and things like that. I could remember playing catch with my mother and the ball hit her in the head because she couldn’t catch. I needed a dad for that.”
School was the cure for troubles at home—which is not to say that Arsenio threw himself into his studies. “A lot of people think you get into the class clown thing because you’re the funniest guy in the class, or whatever,” he says. “I was who I was because at home there was no one to laugh at me, there was no one to play with me. For me it was like, fuck this learning’. I come here to party, ‘cause ain’t nobody at my house.’ My mother would be like, ‘Well, you’re in school to learn,’ and I’d be thinking to myself, ‘Later for that, Ma. You want me to learn, have some kids.’ When I got to school, I was ready to play.”
Despite there divorce, the Halls, especially Arsenio’s father, were very protective of their only child. “My dad, being a Baptist preacher,” Arsenio remembers, was real strict. I couldn’t have company because my friends had to be approved. It was weird.” When Arsenio remembers his father, his eyes expand wider than usual, but his voice tightens a notch. “My father used to tape his sermons, and afterwards, he would put my voice on the recorder. I was three or four years old, and it was the first time I heard myself on tape. I have a library of his sermons I still listen to. When I walk out at the beginning of the show and touch fingerswith my bandleader, Michael Wolff, that comes from something my dad instilled in me; he wanted me to be a preacher. Then one day, right before he died, he told me, ‘I don’t care what you do’—he’d just seen me perform as a magician on local TV—’just stay close to God. Being a man of God as an entertainer, you’ll probably be able to reach more people than I will, and that means something. Whatever you do, strive to be number one at it.’ And that’s what the pointed index finger symbolizes.”
After Arsenio made peace with his ailing father and graduated with a B.A. in communications from Kent State, he and his mother moved to Rosemont, a Chicago suburb. “I used to do stand-up at this place called the Comedy Cottage,” he remembers. “I used to write down my act in notebooks. I thought I was pretty good back then, but looking back through those notebooks today, I was terrible.” Arsenio’s break came on Christmas night, 1979, when he was MC’ing a show featuring the fabled Nancy Wilson. She was late, so he had to stall. The audience ate him up; the next week he was on the road with Nancy. He stated popping up on telethons and benefits, wearing a snazzy white-double breasted suit and and red carnation, tossing out a smooth, perfectly timed act that was raceless and clean. Nancy recommended Arsenio to Aretha; from Aretha he went on to open for, among others, jazz keyboardist Patrice Rushen, Graham Central Station’s Larry Graham, Neil Sedaka, and Linda Carter.
And then there was Tina Turner. “Tina Turner was a nightmare,” he says with a bitter smile. “I opened for her at Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City, 1983. She was not a nice lady. She was the only artist I opened for that I never met. Dionne Warwick had warned me about her. Dionne had asked Tina would she do Solid Gold, and at that time, Tina had that movie Mad Max out and she said, ‘Dionne, I’m a movie star now.’ That broke Dionne’s face, chumped her.
But she did the ultimate to me. She sent somebody in to tell me she needed my dressing room, to use as a place to receive her guests. I asked, ‘Where am I going to change?’ and they said, ‘Sorry.’” Hall dressed under the Atlantic City boardwalk on a frigid winter night. “Last year, I finally met Tina face-to-face in an L.A. restaurant. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’” Arsenio says, imitating Turner’s wannabe regal voice. “’My name is Tina Turner.’ I said, ‘I know,’” he intones slowly, as if to a dull-witted person, “ ‘I opened for you at Caesar’s Palace.’ She said, ‘Oh—pleasure to meet you.’ And she walked away.” Arsenio lets this sink in for a moment and then finishes: “I think Ike whipped her ass so much that all black men have come to represent him.”
After his encounter with La Turner, Arsenio went on to survive Solid Gold, the debacle of Thicke of the Night and Levis commercials. Until this year, he did the voiceover for the African-American character in the Ghostbusters Saturday morning cartoon, from which he collects some fat residuals (“I gave some homeboy depth to the character. I had him say stuff like, ‘Chill, Egon.’) In 1987, Arsenio’s career caught fire with he opened for Patti LaBelle. “Patti turned me loose. As much as I love Nancy, she kept me conservative. She used to tell, me, ‘Please, don’t ever be nasty. You’re so wonderful.’ I kept telling her, ‘Nancy, I’m not so wonderful.’ Patti told me to be myself because that’s the only thing that’ll ever work for you. My career changed because Patti is so wild; she let me go. Her words became my personal philosophy that year: this is the year to be yourself. When I lost sight of that, I got depressed. I remember one night that happened, and Patti went onstage and dedicated a song called “Winner In You” to me. I was sitting in my dressing room crying, listening to that woman sing. I put the song on my license plate. Later that year, I got the Late Show.”
From the time he took over Fox’s failed Late Show from Joan Rivers in 1987, Arsenio Hall has steadily become a cultural force to be reckoned with. Dope boys from Harlem, D.C., and Detroit and their young, rich, white customers started breaking from the narcotics merchandising to tune in to the show because you didn’t know what to expect next. One night, Arsenio and Eddie Murphy talked about penis sizes and the strange women they’ve dated, another night, Mike Tyson turned into a teen groupie as Little Richard banged out boogie-woogie on the piano; another night Arsenio gazed into the eyes of Dynasty’s Emma Samms and they blurted out enough clues for the audience to figure out they’d had an affair.
THE CROWD WAS HYPED.
Daley Pike, the chubby Southwesterner who warms up the audience for the Arsenio Hall Show, is known in the wings—behind his back, or course—as the corniest man in show business (“You guys are the best crowd we’ve ever had here, no I mean it”), but the mostly white, mostly female crowd is screaming at his shtick all the same. Anyway, this scene isn’t about Daley Pike, or the Posse—Arsenio’s jazzed-up house band, wailing the theme song Arsenio wrote, Hall or Nothing—or the subdued blue and grape metallic tint of the mondo vogue talkshow set, formerly the studio for Solid Gold (The other late-night talkers work in sets approximating the living rooms they beam into, but Arsenio puts out on a soundstage that is part Caesars’s Palace-part Blade Runner).
Scanning the sea of anxious tourists holding up banners proclaiming their hometowns (Boston-Tacoma-Bismarck-Detroit), I realized this was all about hanging out; about being in a place you shouldn’t be. I had the same feeling when I was 15 and went to a party at a community center in my neighborhood. My father told me to be home no later than 11pm. I left the party at 1:15 a.m. I knew I would get my butt kicked into next week, but the fulfillment of grinding with a big hipped 18-year-old girl, up against the wall to “Spell” by Blue Magic under the red light, made it all worthwhile. Danger is a narcotic for some people.
After Arsenio made his entrance—unfolding from a bowed head stance, running out and touching fingers with Michael Wolff E.T.-style, twirling a clenched fist around and pumping up the crowd with the African-American dance-club doggie chants of “woof-woof”—I knew this show was going to be dope. It’s amazing how women react to him, both white and black. African-American teenyboppers screech, and their eyes glaze as they take in his angular, athletic build. Their grandmothers nod their heads with pride at his natty attire: the GQ suits with the slanted cuffs that fall right on the vamp of his $900 croc loafers. Makes them think of Duke Ellington and the Renaissance Ballroom again. Young African-American women in the twenties, thirties, and forties just straight up and down lust after the guy. So do their white counterparts, but with them, I wonder how much is lust, and how much is sexual curiosity. Two young and drop-dead gorgeous Santa Monica tanned brunets behind me half-whisper, “Look at how long his fingers are. And his feet…” I’ve even seen shows where stars like Ali MacGraw and Marlee Matlin seemed to stare at him so passionately, I thought my TV would short-circuit.
But all of the female ogling don’t mean a thing to Arsenio because, according to homeboys and homegirls in the know, “he’s a homo, right?” Arsenio pushes the limits of his public persona, flipping back and forth between a hard-rock gangster swagger and a campy, finger-snapping parody of the swishing, bandanna-wearin’, don’t-try-it-girl black gay man. His sexual energy allows him to play both the transvestite in Coming to America, looking like a mako shark in mascara, and s slimy, skirt-chasing preacher. Arsenio stands on top of the fence, always ready to lean in either direction to set up the next punchline, always catching himself at the last second before he falls.
When the applause subsides, Arsenio motors through a monologue that veers wildly from gentle school-kid musings (“Why do people wait to get in their car on the freeway to pick their noses? Hmmm”) to knife lines on Wade Boggs’s mistress, Margo Adams (“We shouldn’t be surprised she was picked up for shoplifting. She never knew what to put in her pants”). Nearing the commercial break, he starts riffing on “the lawyer who sits in the control room” shaking with fear every time Arsenio walks on stage. “Can you say the word ass on television?” he asks innocently. “Can you say the word ass for me?” The audience responds like an obscene choir. “Better yet, say it like the black folks do: ay-ass.”
During the commercials, the band slips into a jazz-fusion version of Bobby Brown’s “Don’t be Cruel,” and two white, former Solid Gold makeup women race out to touch up Arsenio’s pancake. The stage manager calls out the countdown to air, and Daley Pike gets the audience clapping with five seconds left. When the band comes to an orchestral stop and the cameras start rolling, Arsenio clears his throat and rubs his hands together, a nervous tic like Johnny’s pencil-tapping. Arsenio’s perverted Easter theme has Playboy bunnies modeling lingerie, but when the first blonde comes out he’s giggling too much to make a joke of it. Arsenio askes her to announce Tracey Gold from Growing Pains, but the bunny says she doesn’t have her contacts. Arsenio calls for the cue card and holds it for her. She stumbles through the introduction and he cuts a goofy side glance at the audience that drawls howls.
“A lot of people want to know ‘Why are all those black people barking and screaming on his shows? Are they giving out big hats or gold rings or chitlins and collard greens at the gate or what?’ And when the white people start going crazy in the audience, bringing in the big homemade signs as if they are at a Raiders or a Lakers game, they say, ‘Well he’s using applause signs.’ Wrong: I won’t allow my crew to use them. What critics don’t understand is that I am the talkshow host for the people who don’t have a talkshow host. I am the talkshow host for the urban contemporary crowd, for the MTV crowd.”
A sad fact about talkshows is that you have to play genial host to a parade of minor celebrities, but Arsenio customarily sails through them without condescension, trolling hard for a redeeming punchline. (“When my eyelids get heavy and I say, ‘Yeah, yeah, so, um, what are you doing now?” Arsenio told me later, “that’s when you know the interview is going nowhere.”) While he fights to stay awake through Tracey Gold’s platitudes about an anti-drunk driving campaign, I think of Arsenio’s dead-on approach to the drug problem: he has taped several startling black-and-white public service ads (that often air during NBA halftimes) where he interviews recovering young abusers. On a recent show, he talked with a 16-year-old black girl and two preteen white boys who appeared in the spots. As he guided them through accounts of their personal horror stories, Arsenio’s voice was gentle, his questions careful. The segment was edgy and affecting and real in a way that TV almost never is.
The next guest is Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, who slinks out in a fly, midnight-blue silk suit, with crazy, Matsuda-like, sloped shoulders. He gives Arsenio a watch with an image of Hearns and his five title belts, rambles on about how he’s going to crash Sugar Ray Leonard’s boyish grille in their June fight, and thanks Arsenio for the basket of fruit in his dressing room. I’m thinking, too many punches to the head, Money. After a commercial, Arsenio says he heard a rumor that Hearns can step off into a funky slide and camel walk just as smoothly as the Godfather of Soul. Hearns’s embarrassment stokes the troublemaker in Arsenio. Kicking the plush tweed ottoman out of the way, Arsenio motions Michal Wolff and the Posse—they drop the quick beat of “I Feel Good”—and proceeds to good foot. Arsenio’s move is not only entertaining to the audience, but it speaks sotto voce to Hearns: Don’t be ashamed my brother. James is our Nijinksky and this is our Bolshoi. Hearns stands, slips, dips, and slides, as the audience screams its approval. For a few minutes afterwards, audience members are looking at each other with Did-We-Really-See-That? expressions. This was a serious bug-out, an African-American Twilight Zone episode: Tommy Hearns, boxing’s stone-faced killer, doin’ the James as if he’s getting loose in some smoky dive instead of dancing solo in the bright glare of several million vieweres. After Hearns sits, straightens his suit, and catches his breath, he says to Arsenio sheepishly, “I’m not trying to disrespect my father, but I think my mother knew James Brown before I was born, or something.”
But Arsenio Hall is more than just exotica and erotica. He is an agent provocateur and an investigative reporter rolled into one. Sure, he gets warm and gooey with white peon TV stars and the like: that’s the meat of the talkshow business (the only one who escapes it to any extent is Letterman, with his tiresome, patronizing persona). But even when he’s fronting, Arsenio is always real, and his schmoozing often buys moments of strange revelation and pure funk. A Harlem guy who leaves his buddha-bless (marijuana) spot exactly at midnight, just to get home and watch the show, says, “A lot of people say he’s an Uncle Tom but that’s just jealousy. The man is funny and a lot of the time he asks hard questions. And if the person don’t answer him, or whatever, he asks the same question, but in a different way. He’s not scared to find out things.”
It was on Arsenio”s show that the nation learned that the infamous Margo Adams also dated Steve Garvey. A few days after the show aired, the revelation was picked up by Geraldo, and even the press. It was on Arsenio that teen-movie heartthrob Corey Haim revealed that he was addicted to drugs. When he explained how he looked in the mirror after taking a shower one day and couldn’t recognize the skin and bones staring back at him, the audience sat in shocked silence. It was more than just confession—the young actor’s eyes and voice seemed to hold onto Arsenio for dear life. When Haim was about to leave, Arsenio bear-hugged him, saying how proud he was of him. I realized I’d never seen anything like that on a talk show.
Despite his ability to create such dangerous moments, all his balancing acts seemed to have left Arsenio with an underlying anxiety about his footing. When he did Comic Relief II, he said, “The other performers were nice to me but I pretty much stayed to myself. I didn’t come up through the same comedy ranks that they did.” He also went on and on about his pal Eddie Murphy: how brilliant Eddie is, how generous Eddie is, how memorable the women he and Eddie have dated, and how close he and Eddie are. Arsenio, whose words slowed reverentially, seemed to be invoking the name Eddie Murphy as a touchstone, a security blanket.
“Eddie Murphy is great,” I finally had to say, “but this story is about Arsenio Hall.” He gave a startled smile, as if he suddenly realized what he had been doing. I asked if he was second-guessing his own talent. Arsenio’s rat-a-tat speech picked up again. “No,” he replied. “Second-guessing represents fear to me. I don’t have time to be scared. If I allow myself to become frightened, “I’ll wind up in a McDonald’s in Cleveland with two large cokes in my hand talkin’ about, ‘Dy’all need lids on these?’”
WITH THE EXCEPTION of the brown, aluminum-sides star-trailers, the Paramount lot—placed smack dab in the middle of a crumbling Hollywood neighborhood—is all done up in a hyper-real, iridescent white. (“Hollywood is unreal,” says Arsenio. “This is a town where everyone working in a McDonald’s has done a movie.”) You pick your way through the metallic Eurojungle—Mercedes, BMW’s, Bentleys, and Jaguars—and find the Ernst Lubitsch Building, which houses Arsenio Hall Communications. You are assisted by Rashon, a compact and muscular man with a haute kufi-skullcap. Rashon is a cousin of Flip Wilson, and the assistant to Richard Pryor. “Follow me, my brother,” he tells you. “Everybody gets lost their first time here.” Rashon has a diddy-bop that would kill a hurricane.
The interior of Arsenio Hall Communications is a rush of constant activity that is kept to a whisper by a phalanx of beautiful African-American, white, and Latino women answering phones, sorting through huge potato-sacks of fan mail, and monitoring schedules, personal appearances, Nielsen ratings. The walls of the office, however, scream out Arsenio’s celebrity: framed pictures, newspaper articles, cardboard cutout Arsenios, Arsenio dolls, and Arsenio posters.
After waiting in the outer office for about 15 minutes, the door to Arsenio’s private conference room opens, and Eddie Murphy emerges. You blank out. Mad Money Murph is more than the baddest buppie around, the monster megastar who is Paramount. Murphy—and, now, Arsenio Hall—are cultural decision-makers, African-American Zeitgeist Councilmen, who have not only adapted the rhythm of New Jack City for a global audience, but have also changed its tempo. If Arsenio needed to play Murphy’s second banana to come off, his nightly electronic jam session has elevated him to peer status. He may never equal Murphy, but Arsenio is spreading out into areas Murphy isn’t even interested in exploring. Together, they have their followers and social posse (Damon and Keenan Ivory Wayans, Spike Lee, Robert Townsend), but these two have formed a new class by themselves: they are World-Beat Metropoliticians.
But there is no doubt that while Arsenio is the kind of guy you can shake hands and take pictures with, Murphy is a life-sized, walking movie poster you leaves you gasping. In person, he’s taller than he is on screen, and muscular. He’s dressed like a multimillionaire new jack: white Adidas baseball cap turned backward, Adidas T-shirt and shorts, white Nike Air Jordans. “What’s up?” you screech faintly. “Whaddup, man,” he throws over his shoulder as he hurried out of the office. You give Arsenio a what’s-wrong-with-him look. “Yo man,” Arsenio assures you with smile, “it’s nothing personal. Eddie doesn’t like any reporters.” You shrug and walk into Arsenio’s inner sanctum as Rashon departs; all three are in the planning stages for Eddie’s directorial debut with his childhood idol Richard Pryor in a period gangster comedy, Harlem Nights.
Arsenio’s sizeable office is done in lean, linear high-tech: glinting glass-and-chrome desk, a Big Brother black Proton monitor hanging overhead, low-slung black leather chairs. Like Eddie, Arsenio is kicked back like a new jack swinger in Guess jeans, black L.A. Raiders cap, white T-shirt, and unlaced, three-quarter-high Reeboks. He looks different without makeup; his face is rougher, weathered, no-nonsense. He glances up at the monitor to watch the Delfonics rehearsing “La-La-Means I Love You” for their surprise entrance during that night’s show. Arsenio’s interest is not merely musical; as the executive producer of the show, he brainstorms guests like the Delfonics and plans their appearances—often right up to airtime. When Fox wanted to renegotiate with Arsenio last year, he opted to go with Paramount, who gave him his title and power. He brought Late Show producer Marla Kell Brown along with him, a petite woman who organizes Arsenio’s chaotic, continuous flow of ideas. Sandy Fullerton, his director, juggles multiple camera angles for area rock excitement (she worked on Michael Jackson’s Victory tour and David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour), and writers Phil Walsh, Paul Clay, and African-American J. Anthony Brown are responsible for the basic framework of the monologues, but, as with every other aspect of this show, Arsenio fine-tunes the parts till they swing like a funky mobile. It is Arsenio’s show.
Ask Arsenio about the seductive qualities of his show, about the semiotics of his racially mixed audience, and he leans forward, elbows on his glass desktop, with ecclesiastical passion not unlike his father’s Sunday mornings in Elizabeth Baptist Church. “I know I should tell you that I’m the happiest man in show business so people can say, ‘He’s such a wonderful guy,’ ” he smiles. “But the deal is, alhtough I entertain you every night, I’m also a real person, and life’s a bitch. I live to put a smile on your face and make your life a little bit better. This is a very tough world we live in. This is a world where our great leaders like Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy try to help us, and we kill them. We shoot at our pope and try to kill him and all he says is ‘God bless you.’ Pope ain’t never said kiss my ass, suck my dick, take this hat and shove it up yo’ ass.’ These are peaceful men and we try to kill them. What I do every night is important to bring a smile to your face, because it’s a motherfucker of a world we live in. I know some of the people sitting at home laughing have to go out and look for a job the next day. I’ll give them this hour, because we need laughter. Laughter heals.”
Despite the crowds Arsenio’s televangelical comedy caravan is attracting, there are still those who refuse to be converted. You mention this and Arsenio goes off, doing what he’s always doing when he’s not just breathing: talking with a speed that makes you giddy:
“A lot of people want to know ‘Why are all those black people barking and screaming on his shows?’ “ Arsenio says with some irritation. “ ‘Are they giving out big hats or gold rings or chitlins and collard greens at the gate or what?’ And when the white people start going crazy in the audience, bringing in the big homemade signs as if they are at a Raiders or a Lakers game, they say, ‘Well he’s using applause signs.’ Wrong: I won’t allow my crew to use them. What critics and comic peers like Dennis Miller don’t understand is that I am the talkshow host for the people who don’t have a talkshow host. I am the talkshow host for the urban contemporary crowd, for the MTV crowd.
“I don’t want to compete with Johnny. Johnny paved the way; I’m doing something different. And as intelligent as Dennis Miller is—he has that look on his segment on Weekend Update that rings with the air of, ‘You know I’m smarter than you, right?”—he can’t understand what it’s all about. One night the Saturday Night Live audience showered him with applause—and the guy is funny—but then he says something like, ‘Oh stop it, you’re gonna make me think I’m Arsenio Hall or something.’ What’s that supposed to mean? Eddie can’t be talented, Townsend and Keenan can’t be talented, because we’re black? We helped build this country, helped build the roads that lead into the theaters. We don’t want to take over. We just want to share the fuckin’ stages.
“My manager used to handle a female impersonator named Jim Bailey who I used to open for. He’d be dressing up as Judy Garland and I’d be going offstage and I’d knock on his door and say, ‘Jim, I’ll talk to you after the show.’ He’d say, ‘Jim’s not here. Judy’s here.’ And I’d say, ‘Get the fuck outta here, man. If somebody wanted to whip Judy’s ass I’ll bet Jim’d be here.’ So I would say stuff like that, and Jay Leno said you should do that in your act. I said I can’t do that because my manager handles Jim and he thinks Jim would be mad. So Jay called to tell me he did the joke on the Letterman show because I couldn’t do it, and that’s cool, we’re friends, I give him jokes and he gives me jokes. So I did the joke once at the Comedy Store and after I leave a white guy comes up to me and says, ‘You’re a fucking asshole to do Jay Leno’s joke.’ And that’s when it dawned on me that in his mind, this joke coiuld not have originated in the mind of a black man. He had to have stolen it.”
IN MANY WAYS, The Arsenio Hall Show is a realization of the dangerous, brilliant comedy Richard Pryor tried on his short-lived but groundbreaking TV show: like Pryor, Arsenio simultaneously defines African-American culture for the next decade and underlines what’s right and wrong with white pop culture Here and Now.
During his career, Pryor opened himself with a scapel to show the shadow that was perpetually devouring his soul: in painfully funny routines, he talked about this grandmother’s whorehouse, his mother’s johns, her funeral when his father wanted to “hurry up and bury the bitch” because it was getting cold in the cemetery, shooting his wife’s car (“I killed the tires”), and his talking freebase pipe (“C’mere Richards, I’m your friend’). You only need to look at old tapes of Barbara Walkers interviews or back issues of Jet to catalogue the scars: ex-wives, mistresses, children. And I bet you enyoyed his walk on the dark side as much as I did.
Arsenio Hall also works off of some serious emotional wounds from an inner-city childhood and a sweet-and-sour relationship with his father. He is a street guy who is rich. The definition of street is like the scent of musk; it changes from person to person. For some the street is the station of trashy destitution, drugs, despair, and death. For others, street represents bravado, rites of passage, cunning, and strength. If this definition sounds macho, it is, but it has less to do with sexuality that it does with survival of the fittest, as in, “Yo, hops, don’t try to play me out,’cause I’m from the street.” While Murphy grew up middle-class and likes to play street, Arsenio dresses upper class but he’s street through and through. Pryor was a brilliant social commentator—but there was only on thing wrong. Richard wanted to dance on the edge of the roof. So we said jump; he did, only to crash and burn in the bowl of a base pipe. The winds of contradiction in Arsenio’s life surround him like a chilling draft, threatening to blow him off of the roof; but his footwork is a lot better than Pryor’s. Arsenio has been able to pull back from the edge…so far.