That would be foolish, he says, but he is sticking to his tried-and-true formula.
His new set looks a lot like his old one. There’s no desk, just some comfy furniture. He even demonstrated the “Arsenio stance,” leaning in close on his guests. “Like when Bill Clinton’s talking to me about inhaling and Jennifer Flowers!” Hall laughed.
It’s all he ever wanted. Growing up a latch-key kid in Cleveland, Arsenio’s escape was TV, especially talk shows. Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson, even Dinah Shore were all his heroes. “I was watching anybody that talked. I knew what I wanted to do,” he said.
But entertainment wasn’t the family business. His father was a Baptist preacher, and so was just about everyone around him.
“Everybody was a preacher! My cousin Brian is a preacher. My uncle Frasier is a preacher. My other uncle was a preacher, my dad was a preacher, his best friend was a preacher. It’s like, EVERYBODY in my family preaches!
“I remember my dad saying, ‘Do you want to sit in the pulpit with me today?’ That Sunday I sat behind him, which is a whole different point of view.
“I was hooked that day.”
“You liked the eyeballs on you?” asked Cowan.
“Yeah. And I liked my dad doing what he did, with just a glass of water and a handkerchief.”
By the time he started doing standup, he, too, could work a room with nothing but a glass of water.
But soon he was working with much more.
He starred with best friend Eddie Murphy in “Coming to America” and “Harlem Nights.”
But his goal was still “The Tonight Show” — not just to be ON with Johnny, but to BE Johnny.
One day, while working on the NBC lot in Burbank, he snuck onto a dark “Tonight Show” set, just for a taste.
“I looked around and I didn’t see anybody,” Hall said. “So I went in and sat at Johnny’s desk. I pulled the canvas off the whole desk! It was a big old, beige canvas and I pulled it all off, threw it in front of the desk.”
“And you sat in his chair?”
“This is true psycho time!” Hall said. “Man, this is like, you know, this is a kid who’s dreaming a little too hard!”
A dream, indeed. No African American had ever been given a late night talk show.
In 1989 when he was tapped to be the first, the expectations, he says, were almost too much to bear.
“A white person successful in this town can focus in white culture, in white life, in white things, and never even care about the riots in South Central or what’s on the Jay-Z CD, and succeed,” Hall said. “I HAVE to know what Jay knows. Jay don’t have to give a damn about what I do and who I do it with.”
“You said once, ‘The luckiest thing that ever happened to me is the fact that there was nobody who thought that I would succeed,’ ” Cowan said.
“Absolutely. It forced me to work harder. It forced me to figure some things out. But it made me creative.”
He booked guests who weren’t on the other shows. He gave Magic Johnson his first platform to talk about AIDS. He gave Mariah Carey her late night debut. He even brought on Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan.
While critics complained that he fawned over his guests, young viewers found him approachable — and the ratings were hard to ignore.
He knows the TV landscape is decidedly different these days. It’s a lot more crowded, and he’s a lot older. But he’s willing to try anything.
“You know what’s feeling really good? The tall Caucasian co-host standing next to me!” Hall laughed with Cowan, who he said evinced “an Andy Richter mood!”
After all these years, Arsenio Hall knows how to spin even his admitted nervousness into a few good one-liners.
“Here’s the deal: If it don’t work, I’ll say it was a special!”
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