On this day in comedy on January 3, 1989, The Arsenio Hall Show debuted in syndication.
Hall has the distinction of having two separate late-night shows named after him (not that he even tried to find another name). The first one took the world by surprise and changed late night’s approach and demographics. Once that tsunami subsided Hall came back years later under the same name. That second effort was produced by Tribune Broadcasting and distributed by CBS. It was short lived (September 9, 2013 – May 30, 2014); plagued with poor writing, a changing attitude towards late night shows and middling support from the media (Brian Williams famously did not mention Hall when listing hosts on the late-night programming grid). That second effort is not Hall’s legacy.
The revolutionary late-night talk show created by Hall was known not only for its black host, but its embrace and influence on pop culture. For decades other late-night entries were the bastion of safe, pre-slumber fare. Hall’s show introduced acts like Bobby Brown for more of a late-night party feel. If you were in bed it wasn’t for sleeping. Hall had then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton on, who in a single moment of cool, broke out his saxophone and jammed with Hall’s house band known as his ‘posse’. If you didn’t vote for Clinton at least you thought about it. The Arsenio Hall Show had his signature ‘dog pound’ of fans barking at the host. He had labels for sections of his audience. He had things that make you go Hmmmm. His introduction had a long sustained “O” as he stood in the shape of a giant “A”. It had style. It was cool. People talked about it the next day. In short, the show was an event.
The initial show was produced by Arsenio Hall’s company, Arsenio Hall Communications. After the seasoned stand-up had a run as the warm-up comedian and co-host for Paramount’s Solid Gold dance series, Hall served as host for 13 weeks on Fox’s late-night talk show as a replacement for the fired Joan Rivers. Hall was a hit in the slot and before Fox knew it Hall had made a deal with Paramount for his own late-night show; a show that appealed to a younger audience and sponsors.
The Arsenio Hall Show looked like there was no end in sight and it was in for a run as long and comfortable as the gold standard, The Tonight Show. Then suddenly, the planets in the late-night universe began to collide. First Jay Leno snagged The Tonight Show hosting gig over at NBC leaving the presumed heir to the Johnny Carson seat, David Letterman, publicly embarrassed. That didn’t last long. Letterman wiped the egg off his face and jumped over to a delighted CBS. The one who was not delighted was Hall, who now had to watch CBS affiliates either drop his show or move it to an inconsequential time slot in favor of the golden boy, Letterman. Well, at least Hall had his Fox affiliates or, so he thought. They had instructions to move or drop Hall in favor of the new Chevy Chase late night talk show. Now Hall was screwed because even though the Chase show lasted only 5 weeks, most of those Fox affiliates didn’t reschedule Hall.
The final death knell came when Hall booked Louis Farrakhan. The die had already been cast with affiliate defections, but when Nation of Islam’s polarizing leader sat down for an interview the mainstream media declared the questions soft and the scheduling of such a figure questionable and offensive. Hall stood by the interview and was soon off the air. The last episode aired on May 29, 1994.
The Arsenio Hall Show won 2 NAACP Image Awards for Best Series (1993 & 1995) and 2 Emmy Awards (1990 – Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Variety or Music Series or Special and 1993 – Outstanding Technical Direction/ Camera/ Video for a Series).
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: