Arsenio Hall On How His Show Helped Define The Black Experience

Arsenio Hall. (Photo: The Arsenio Hall Show / CBS Television Distribution)

Editor’s Note: To help celebrate Black History Month XFINITY has scheduled a series of celebrity guest editors who will discuss a variety of topics related to black culture and entertainment news. They also will curate TV and movie collections and answer your questions.

Arsenio Hall may have been gone from late night TV for 20 years but one thing’s for sure: he still has a great sense of humor.

During the 45th NAACP Image Awards Hall had the crowd cracking up on and off the stage. When one journalists asked Hall who he’s excited to see that night, Hall replied: “Oprah’s behind you. They’re screaming. They’re screaming like the Jackson’s back there.”

And people were clamoring for his attention, too. Hall became a pop culture phenomenon when the first manifestation of “The Arsenio Hall Show” launched 25 years ago. There was nothing like it on TV. Not only because he was the first black host of a major late night TV show but also because he spoke to a younger audience hungry for a voice reflective of their interests. It worked for the show, which lasted five seasons, and it’s a recipe he’s repeating this time around.

“The people on my show, they’re the people you don’t here from much. They are people who are very, very famous but there they get the opportunity to stretch out and reach out their core demo,” Hall told Xfinity during the 45th NAACP Image Awards on Saturday. “And the thing that I love most about the show is that I have the youngest, most diverse audience in late night. And so I offer artists from Kevin Hart to Tyler Perry that audience that didn’t exist for the other shows.”

It seems to be working. On Wednesday, former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno made a surprise appearance to announce some good news: Hall’s show was renewed for a second season.

Hall, one of XFINITY’s guest editors, shares how the first incarnation of his show helped define the black experience, how he’s adjusting to being back on television, whether he’ll act again and which guest’s appearance caused him to receive death threats.

“The Arsenio Hall Show” airs weeknights. Check your local listings for time and channel.

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You were basically a baby when your first show debuted in 1989. You were the first African American to have a major late night talk show. Does the fact that you were able to accomplish that still boggle your mind?

Yes, when you’re a kid and you say, “I love Johnny Carson,” you never expect to grow up and have him actually say, “Good luck with your new talk show.” I was the kid who wrote Johnny Carson a letter asking if I could appear on his show as a magician. My life is proof that dreaming is an absolute must, and I’m proud to say that Johnny Carson was the last show I appeared on before announcing my original late night talk show.

What milestone moments from the first incarnation of “The Arsenio Hall Show” do you think helped to define the black experience? Please explain.

To me, it was moments like Stevie Wonder fighting for a holiday to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. or a show called “Same Gang” night when Tupac, MC Hammer and ODB all sang we’re “All in the Same Gang” to stop gang violence. We were bringing politics to an entertainment show and tying them to the Nubian struggle on the street.

You had a lot of great guests and your show served as a platform for people who much of the world may have never heard of. Who was your favorite guest? 

I loved having Dan Rather on my show. I’m a news junkie, and this was a guy who could talk about everything, with the exception of hip hop, maybe. It was a nice change from hanging out with New Edition.

How are you recreating that sort of impact with your current show? Is it something that can be recreated?

I’m the same guy just re-creating my show for a new generation. For example, I recently saw a tweet from Jaden Smith saying he wants to drop a new music on my show before Will.

Of all of your guests from your first show, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is probably noted as the most controversial. Did you ever get any death threats after his appearance?

There was a lot of chatter after we booked Farrakhan, but we never had death threats. I have to admit that the majority of death threats came after I booked Lea DeLaria, who was the first openly gay comic to do standup on late night.

For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, featured Dr. Maya Angelou calling in talking about her dear friendship with Dr. King. Why did you decide to feature her? What other people inspired you that you had on your show? Who else would you like to have on?

Dr. Maya Angelou is one of the very important figures from my first show that I couldn’t imagine coming back to late night and not booking as a guest. It’s hard for her to just jump on a plane, so we were happy to have her call in. For a guy who loves hip-hop, it is important for people to understand its origins. Angelou and Langston Hughes were doing it long before we set poetry to music.

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How are you adjusting to being back on TV? What hurdles have you overcome so far?

I believe I was born to do this. Not even sex makes me happier. Making it to 2014 was my goal and on the first day of January this year, I set 2015 as my new goal. The fact that the landscape is so much more crowded these days is my biggest challenge, but it’s nothing that changing my name to “Jimmy” won’t help.

What are the biggest challenges that you continue to face and how do you plan to overcome them?

Booking Will Smith. I might try to sneak onto his compound as a FedEx guy for starters.

I’ve read some reviews and while many are thrilled to have you back in the late night game, many people feel some of your jokes targeting African Americans are outdated and unfairly stereotypical. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Critics Smitics! My barometer for humor is the laughter of the crowd, a comic only makes adjustments when the laughter stops.

What are your favorite TV shows and why?

I love “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” and “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.” Not sure why but I did just set my DVR to record them on a season pass.

You’re a huge reality TV show fan. Thoughts on the brawls that have been happening on a few of them like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”?

No thoughts.

What movies do you enjoy and why?

I’m a talk show host so I have to watch all movies. It is part of my job.

Are we going to see you on the big screen again? 

Wow, you know wast, I love acting but you i know how much I love late night and if I take my eyes off the ball to try to get extra paper and extra guap without just focusing on making this thing happen because this is important to the black Hollywood community and the American viewing community They aren’t other shows that do what I do. And that’s not  me patting myself on the back; I’m talking as a demographer.

Read XFINITY’s interview with Guest Editor Melissa Harris-Perry, host of MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry,” here

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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