It has been almost two decades since Arsenio Hall walked away from late night television. In that time, Conan O’Brien has had three shows, Chevy Chase and Magic Johnson each had one, and we saw the rise of alternative talk shows like The Daily Show, which blend news and politics with comedy, as well as a slew of related cable offerings.
In short, late-night has changed while Arsenio has been away, but as The Arsenio Hall Show launches its second week on the air, many are wondering if Hall can adapt to the new landscape.
In his opening monologue during last week’s premiere, Hall never stopped reminding viewers about all the time that had passed, comparing 1994 to present day and, at one point, wheeling out a time capsule filled with ’90s paraphernalia and sight-gags – a bit that even Hall dismissed when he joked that he had come back as Carrot Top.
All of this (and a long list of other bits, guests, and callbacks) served as a trip down memory lane for fans that had become familiar with the comic and his style while in their 20s – or in my case, as an 11-year-old sneaking downstairs to stay up late and “woof-woof” along with the dog pound; however, nostalgia doesn’t last forever.
If Arsenio is going to find a way to also emulate the success that he found in the ’90s, standing out as an alternative to the Carson aesthetic (which is still alive and well), he’s going to have to shake things up a bit. Here are four ways that he can accomplish that:
Embrace the Future, Not the Past
Hall turned his premiere week into a celebration of what he had done in the past and his decision to return. If it was an effort to energize his fans before launching this new chapter, it was brilliant. If it was a preview of what’s to come on a night-by-night basis… then Hall’s return may be less than triumphant.
Late night viewers are nesters: they find a show and live there until the show dies or something jars them out of that nest. The imprint that Arsenio put on viewers back in the day may lure some people back early on, but if he is going to keep them and earn new fans, he’s going to have to do what he did with his original show: put out a unique product that is fun and electric.
Arsenio needs to make this new show feel like a party again, but he needs to do it without showing slides of the party that everyone kinda remembers.
Know the Landscape
Putting out a unique product requires a certain understanding of the late-night landscape. Back in the ’90s, things were simpler because there weren’t many choices and Carson set the tone. It was easy for Arsenio to be unique and alternative. Carson was in his late ’60s and – while maybe not out of touch – he certainly did not seem interested in targeting a young audience; something that passively shutout a lot of guests and topics that found a home on Arsenio.
Currently, there is no Carson-like central figure to rebel against. Everyone (save for Jay Leno) is alternative in their own way. Late-night is a free-for-all and every type of guest and topic seems to have not just one home, but many. Part of that is due to Arsenio’s previous impact, but for him to succeed in this climate, he has to once again identify and impress an under-served audience – even a small one. With the viewing audience so fragmented these days, even niche shows can live a long life.