Arsenio Hall is back in town. Woof, woof, woof!
The comedian and television host is best remembered for The Arsenio Hall Show, his hip and funny talk fest that made a mark from 1989 through 1994.
He’s appearing at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts on Oct. 22 and it’s anyone’s guess whether or not he’ll corral part of his audience into a barking “dog pound” like he did on his late-night romp.
“I never know what’s going to happen until I get out there onstage,” he says on a phone break between tour stops. “Sure I’ve got jokes to tell and things on my mind, but whether or not I’m gonna find a dog pound up in Toronto remains to be seen. Hey, you’re the people who gave the world Alan Thicke, aren’t you?”
Hall isn’t just making one of those gratuitous local references some celebrities make in an attempt to endear themselves. He was Thicke’s announcer-sidekick during the short-lived 1983-84 run of the Canadian’s talk show Thicke of the Night.
“Yeah, I haven’t been in Toronto in a looooooong time,” Hall says. “Last visit was BT, before Thicke. Man, I do have a gift for winding up working with interesting dudes, don’t I? I mean look at me and The Donald.”
Hall is referring to the fact he won Celebrity Apprentice 5 in 2012, which put him in up close and personal contact with Donald Trump.
“OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a hypocrite about the whole Trump thing. Back when I was on Celebrity Apprentice, I used to be kinda proud. I mean I was the Jackie Robinson of that show. The black guy who broke through.
As for Trump, “It was hard to defend him, even in those days. That’s when he was on the whole Obama birth certificate thing. Give me a break, Donald. Aside from Marla Maples, I don’t think you’ve ever slept with anything born in the U.S.A. Look at his record: Ivana, Melania, all those Eastern bloc ladies.”
Now that Trump is running for the Republican presidential nomination for 2016, Hall loves to point out that “when I first met him, he was writing big fat cheques to the Democrats. Now that he’s a Republican, I just think he’s playing the room, telling people what they want to hear.
“That’s the glisten in Donald’s eye. I think he wants to be a standup. He’s just not a good one. Or an honest one.
“Take what he said recently about Senator McCain’s war record. As a comedian, I was upset because he stole the material. You go ahead and Google ‘Chris Rock McCain’ and you’ll find that not only is Trump saying the wrong stuff, but he’s stealing Chris Rock’s material.”
But does Hall think Trump’s lead in the polls will pay off on election day?
“I most definitely do not and I’ll tell you why. When Jesse Jackson was running for president all us brothers would go to his speeches and cheer, ‘Go, Jesse!’ But back in the barbershop, we were whispering, ‘I’m not voting for him once they close the curtain behind me.’
“I think you’re gonna find the same thing happens to The Donald. Trump makes me happy as a comedian, but sad as a citizen. I think he’s a sign we’re going along with a Barnum approach to politics: just for entertainment.”
The 59-year-old Hall was born in Cleveland in 1956, the son of a Baptist minister “who never really had a lot of time for me. That made me promise to myself that I would never do the same thing to my son, if and when I had one.”
And that’s what Hall did, stepping out of the limelight after his son, Arsenio Jr., was born in 1999.
But back when he was a kid himself, the lack of attention at home prodded him to seek it from audiences fairly early and by his mid-20s he was performing regularly as a standup in Chicago and Los Angeles, even appearing now and then on Soul Train.
It was his stint on Thicke of the Night that got TV executives thinking about making Hall the star of his own show. He was one of numerous replacements for Joan Rivers on The Late Show after her departure in 1987 and did well enough to be given The Arsenio Hall Show.
It became an instant success, a pop phenomenon, and soon everybody of importance was fighting to be on it. That wasn’t surprising considering Hall’s hip reputation and ace comedic timing.
But what caught everybody off guard at first was his skill at interviewing, asking tough questions, working without notes and shooting from the hip.
“Some of that might have just come out of being stupid,” he laughs. “I had Oliver Stone on one night and I was really giving it to him good about some of the more far-out conspiracy theories in JFK and when we went to the commercial, Oliver turned to me and said, ‘Hey, Arsenio, take it easy!’
“That’s when I realized I was just a kid from Cleveland who couldn’t cope with hearing bulls—! If there’s a mystery bullet on the stretcher, then I’ve got a lot of questions.”
But despite his success, Hall didn’t believe he was doing it right and he took a lunch meeting with the then-master of interviewing Larry King.
“We went to lunch together and got along great,” Hall recalls. “But we never talked about how to interview people and I finally said, ‘Larry, when are you going to offer me advice?’
“He said, ‘Arsenio, five minutes in, I knew I couldn’t teach you anything. You have a genuine curiosity. You’re gonna be fine.’”
And he was, relying on “the kid inside me” as his guests got bigger and bigger, until that moment during the 1992 presidential campaign when Bill Clinton came on the show, donned a cool tie and a pair of Ray-Bans (both donated by Hall) and played a sizzling saxophone solo to “Heartbreak Hotel.”
A lot of commentators believe Clinton won the election that night, but when asked how he felt about having that much power, Hall says, “I loved what I did. Love gave me the opportunity. Love gave me the power.”
It also cleared the way for other hosts of colour to take over high-profile shows, most recently Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.
“I knew Trevor as a standup before they ever picked him for the show and I admired his work. When he got Jon Stewart’s job, I was excited and happy, because when stuff like that happens it denotes progress.
“And I was happy he got the chance so young. I know what I went through when I started. But to see Comedy Central give him a shot and stick with him, that looks great to me. No regrets, man. None at all.”
Arsenio Hall will appear at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts (10268 Yonge St.) on Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. Go to rhcentre.ca or call 905-787-8811 for tickets.