Where has he been? Arsenio Hall joked about that when he returned to late-night TV Monday night on the debut episode of his new show.
It’s even called “The Arsenio Hall Show,” which was the name of the first show he hosted from 1989 to 1994.
“And now, back from a very long weekend — here’s Arsenio Hall!” declared an announcer’s voice to herald the start of the new Arsenio Era (or, to fabricate a term not in use back in 1994 — “Arsenio 2.0”).
“I am Arsenio Hall!” Arsenio said as he came on-stage to thunderous applause. “Yes, I’m back — and back is beautiful!”
He then began a monologue with a self-deprecating line or two pertaining to race. “Leave it to the first black late-night host to take 19 years off work, and come back here and expect my job to still be waiting for me!” he said, reminding the audience that he does hold a historic place in the television timeline as TV’s first black late-night host.
“A lot has changed since my original show was on the air,” Hall said. “Back then, the only doctor that prescribed marijuana was Dr. Dre!”
Hall, 57, eventually addressed the “where have I been” question with a pre-produced (and very well-done) comedy bit that showed him in “guest” roles on various touchstone TV series over the years — including “Downton Abbey” and “Storage Wars.”
The then-and-now references continued later in a bit in which Hall rolled out a huge time capsule that he said he buried 19 years ago. Within were various “artifacts” of the early ’90s, but the bit, which seemed overlong, didn’t seem to go over as Hall’s studio audience reacted indifferently. It also didn’t help when Paula Abdul suddenly appeared — as one of the night’s two “surprise” guests — to welcome Arsenio back to TV with a speech delivered in a quavering voice that sounded as if Paula was about to burst into tears.
More welcome was a very charismatic performance by the night’s other surprise guest, Snoop Lion, who went back to using his old name Snoop Doggy Dogg for the evening in another nod to Arsenio’s past history on late-night.
Comedian/actor Chris Tucker was Arsenio’s main (non-surprise) guest for the evening, and Snoop Dogg also came on-stage for a brief interview with Arsenio. Snoop also closed the show with another song.
Our take: We were pleasantly surprised — Arsenio’s a real polished TV personality and he seems to have lost none of his professionalism in his 19 years away from late-night. The writing and creativity that went into some of his bits, however, seemed to lack the kind of quality they’ll need to maintain if the show is to succeed in a late-night environment that’s a lot more crowded than the one that was in place 20 years ago.
Of the bits produced for the “Arsenio” opener, we liked the show’s “cold open” the best — a bit in which Arsenio was seen, seemingly, on a psychiatrist’s couch expressing his uneasiness over returning to late-night TV. Then, the camera pulled back to reveal the identity of the shrink: Jay Leno.
Leno, 63, happens to be one of only two late-night hosts older than Arsenio (the other one is David Letterman, who’s 66). With so many up-and-comers in late-night TV — all in their 30s, 40s or early 50s, and all fighting for a share of the late-night audience — Arsenio Hall has his work cut out for him.