On this day in comedy on February 12, 1956 Comedian, Talk Show Host, Arsenio Hall was born in Cleveland, Ohio.
Starting off in entertainment as a child magician, Hall developed the disciplines required to navigate the unchartered waters that would make him a household name. He was the first Black late night talk show host; having grown up watching legends in the field such as Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson and knowing that’s what he wanted to do. However, having no idea that once he did it Hall would put such an indelible stamp on what it meant to be a Black late night host that not only he could surpass it. Nobody could.
Hall’s journey began when he moved to Los Angeles to refine his standup comedy chops. He did the requisite club circuit and even popped up a few times on Soul Train. Then in 1984 he got a break as the on camera sidekick of talk show host, Alan Thicke on Thicke of the Night. It was an instructive opportunity, but unfortunately one that didn’t last long. Didn’t matter, another break for Hall came in the form of Fox network’s failed The Late Show starring Joan Rivers. This project was developed specifically to challenge late night king, Johnny Carson and the venerable Tonight Show on NBC. The upstart entry couldn’t topple the institution and that along with bad blood between Rivers and the show’s producers gave an early exit to its title star. The show was renamed The Late Show and a series of interim hosts were tried. Nobody hit the right chord, but Hall’s brief tenure was the most resonate and he soon got the call to host his own show.
The Arsenio Hall Show was nothing short of a television revolution. Unlike previous late night talk shows that were designed to lull its viewers to sleep with safe monologues, an orchestra playing standards, banal conversations and advertising targeting the older demographic, Hall threw a party. His band was a hard driving combo that he called his posse. His audience was hyped, not drowsy. Their barking and fist pumping got them labeled “The Dog Pound” and their signature gestures infiltrated pop culture in films (Pretty Woman, Passenger 57, The Hard Way, Aladdin, Robin Hood: Men in Tights) countless TV sitcoms and commercials. His guests were not the kind that graced the covers of magazines you’d find at your dentist. He introduced Bobby Brown to late night TV. That alone could’ve got him cancelled. Hall made a president when then Governor Bill Clinton slapped on some shades and played his saxophone. No amount of church visits could’ve bonded a white candidate better to a potential black constituency. That appearance branded Clinton as cool and won him a close election. Whereas, Hall himself was all swagger. His monologues were edgy; interviews probing and fearless. Who else would’ve booked Louis Farrakhan on their show? Hall was a powerful force; perhaps too powerful. Shaping public opinion is fine as long as the powers that be tell you how to shape it. You got the feeling Hall had cut the strings as soon as the puppeteers weren’t looking. Thus, The Arsenio Hall Show was cancelled after five years.
The void left by The Arsenio Hall Show was gaping. Popular figures were brought in to fill it. Keenen Ivory Wayans and Magic Johnson mounted shows. Both failed – quickly. Music titan, Quincy Jones, spun off from his successful magazine, Vibe and envisioned its essence as broadcast entertainment. It tanked with two hosts (Chris Spencer, Sinbad) and it became evident that it was not the amiable personalities presented as substitutes, but that the bar had been raised so high there was no substitution. It was Hall or back to the white guys; white guys who’d gotten increasingly younger and hipper over the years. Once the era of Jay Leno and David Letterman (the last vestiges of the Johnny Carson age) came to an end they were replaced by the grittier Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. The landscape changed thanks to Hall. It had altered itself so much that Hall felt it would be a natural fit. He’d resisted a much requested return due to the fact his friend George Lopez had a late night show. Could the public really keep track of two minorities on at once? Well, once Lopez got replaced on TBS by non-minority (unless you count the hair style), Conan O’Brien, Hall decided it was time to mount the horse he’d trained again. Unfortunately that horse was ornery. The reincarnation of The Arsenio Hall Show debuting in 2013 had all the previous elements of its 1989 incarnation: band, hyped crowd, fringe guests and even Hall looking preserved; like he’d been frozen all those years, but it lacked the magic. The spark was gone. It was like returning to an old lover. It would never be the same and before the relationship could be reinvented the suits pulled the plug.
Conventional wisdom has always maintained that careers were marathons, not sprints and Arsenio Hall has always had a career that stayed in motion. He was an animated voice over actor when he did The Real Ghostbusters from 1986-87 and other projects. He released the album, Large and in Charge under his alter ego Chunky A. He proved to be an accomplished comedy film actor in the movies, Coming to America and Harlem Nights. Hall showed the world he was ahead of the curve over most other performers when it came to taking care of business when he won the reality-competition show, Celebrity Apprentice and he won it when Donald Trump was the host. Speaking of hosting Hall aptly took over for establishment favorite, Ed McMahon when Hall hosted Star Search and he also hosted the MTV Video Music Awards. Hall had his own sitcom (Arsenio) in 1997 and an action show with Sammo Hung called Martial Law in 1999. Hall guest starred on sitcoms and played himself in films, TV shows and commercials.
For his acting expertise, Arsenio Hall won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor for Coming to America and the 1989 American Comedy Award for the same role. In 1992 he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Central State University, Wilberforce.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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