Arsenio Hall will be in Miami Beach this week, promoting his upcoming talk show which premieres Sept. 9 at the 50th anniversary NATPE/Content First market and conference. It's been 19 years since he was last a late night syndicated talk show host; in this interview with THR senior editor Alex Ben Block, he opens up about the abrupt end of that show, his life in the intervening years, his own self image and what he hopes his new show will be like.
THR: When did you decide to return to late night TV?
Hall: I’ve been working on this for five years. It’s amazing to look back and say, "Wow, what do I have to do to get on this road?”
THR: What was the trigger after such a long time?
Hall: I always loved it but I needed to diversify my life and do some other things. There are moments I can pin it to. Me and George Lopez were gong to go to a Lakers game one night so I was hanging out in his dressing room. He was doing Lopez Tonight. He had an assistant come get me. He knew I was the first one to put Snoop Dogg on TV and he wanted me to introduce him on his show. When I did it, it was kind of like kissing an old girlfriend. I thought, "Oh God I love this. I really love this." I realized I missed it."
THR: Did that start you toward the new show?
Hall: Not right away. I have one kid, who is now 13. I’ve tried to never be away from him more than 48 hours. I told him what I was thinking about and he said, "Dad I think you should do it. You can win it." That was all I needed to hear.
THR: Take us back to 1994. Why was your show canceled? It had been such a big hit at one time.
Hall: It wasn’t canceled. I resigned. Sure there was an erosion of the numbers (audience ratings) as shows tend to do in year five or six. You are a little lower this year than last year. But the show never stopped making money, never stopped being profitable for Paramount.
THR: Why did you walk away?
Hall: I actually thought I needed changes in my life and I need to try other things. I wanted to do things professionally like stand-up, and try some acting. I felt my whole life needed broadening. I didn't have a family. Everything I had done was a gamble because I felt if I missed it as some point, I could get back in. I could still walk into a comedy club and make people laugh every night. That’s what I do. And I could be home in the morning to make breakfast and take my kid to school. What I was confused about was that when you go from being on every night to just being a stand-up, your visibility is on a whole different level.
THR: So you didn’t appreciate it but then came to see what you had given up?
Hall: Yes, God. Appreciate it. But being a dad alone, especially compared to Hollywood, can make you a better person.
THR: You were so good in Coming To America with your pal Eddie Murphy. Why didn’t you do more acting?
Hall: It was one of those things I tried to purse after I left late night. I wanted to study and take it seriously and not just be the talk show host who is popular so he gets a role. But I wasn’t able to crack that nut the way I wanted. It’s a tough racket. Sometimes I made bad choices. I remember there was a time I decided not to do more stand up or go on the road. I turned down a movie called Bad Boys where it would have been me and Martin (Lawrence) instead of Will (Smith) and Martin. You look back and say it wasn’t a bad decision because I’m happy with my life. I’m a daddy or whatever. But then you realize, that’s not where I’m supposed to be. One day you really miss it.
THR: Sean Compton of Tribune Broadcasting recalls a meeting seven years ago where he asked if you wanted to return to a talk show and you said you were not ready. Two years ago, however, you were ready and began this road back. What was that like?
Hall: I remember somebody asked (John) Ferriter (Hall's manager) "What does he look like these days?" People had not seen me in a whole lot of years. And that was somebody in the business who could have watched me on Leno or something else. So imagine what that means to the public. So I had to get my face out there. Now daddy has to have someone else fix the turkey bacon some mornings so I can go and do what I have to do. It feels great to fight my way back into it, to be up in the majors again. I am going to get my chance to be up to bat. The rest is up to the public.
THR: Will your new show be a party like the old one?
Hall: There’s probably some marketing person saying it’s a party. It’s a spirited show. It is targeted for a younger demographic. The bottom line is yes it’s a party, just as the powers that be will say it is. But I’m not really sure it’s a party. If I go to a party and there is an applause sign and they shut down for commercials every now and then, then it’s a party I’m never coming back to. But for TV, that’s good marketing.
THR: Who is the audience for your new show?
Hall: The audience we had the first time around is about 40 now. From the (research) we have crunched, I think the audience that will embrace the show is an interesting cross demographic . That guy has kids now. I think they will both watch.
THR: So it's not just about nostalgia?
Hall: Nostalgia is probably not the best word. People have moved on. Nobody is asking, "When Arsenio comes back I want to see Boys II Men." People have moved on in society. Maybe there is some nostalgia: "I used to watch Arsenio when I was in college." But we're doing a show for people who have moved on and now they can sit around with their kid who can stay up late and there will be a lot of stuff they can both dig.
THR: Will there be a lot of hot new acts as guests?
Hall: It's not about any of that. It's about who I am. If I am tired now and have no energy, I’ll be that guy and it will be that show. I think a lot of people are curious about who I am now. The bottom line is, trust me, this is not about a CBS board room where Leslie Moonves says ‘the word is energy.’ It's like every talk show host is an engine and you put them all in a similar bod and see how they run. I think people will see that they like the flow of our engine. Muhammad Ali had a quote. When (Howard) Cosell said to him, ‘You aren’t the man you used to be,’ he said, "The man who is who he used to be is a fool."