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.
Rely on Others
Arsenio Hall is a solid comedian who can put out a sharp monologue (a skill that was intermittently on display during his first week back on the air), but he is not a gifted sketch comic. There is no shame in that, but nestled in between the monologue and the time capsule bit during the debut episode was a collection of unremarkable sketches that were unleashed on the audience in jarring succession. This was Hall’s attempt to showcase his ability to relate to the here and now – and it mostly failed.
This trend has continued on the show, with occasional hits but far too many misses. If Arsenio wants to reach the YouTube generation, he has to think outside-of-the-box, perhaps going so far as to hire a sketch group to work in-house and create bite-sized clips that can have a second-life as viral videos. Conan found (pre-viral) success when he brought in the Upright Citizens Brigade for Late Night, and doing something along those lines could be a win for Arsenio as well.
Stick with Your Strengths
Arsenio Hall was the Ed Sullivan of hip-hop and a curator of cool, championing several unheralded acts in music and comedy back in the day. There’s certainly an opening if he wants to be that again, but his interview skills are his biggest strength. Hall was never afraid to park the politeness and ask tough questions.
Hall got Tupac to talk about drugs and being “too hard”, he talked about the HIV virus with Magic Johnson just after he revealed his diagnosis and left basketball; he probed Vanilla Ice – at the time one of the largest stars in music – about rap music and race.
People remember Arsenio Hall for Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo, but in truth, his frank and real conversations are a more important part of his legacy. Hall shined a magnifying glass on celebrities and musicians in a way that was a refreshing contrast to the choreographed and empty interviews that were and still are commonplace in late night.
With Hall, it wasn’t abundantly clear that people were on his show as a part of a promotional tour. There was no free press, you had to give him and his audience something of yourself, but it wasn’t done in a seamy way that was aimed at feeding the tabloids. Arsenio was interested and so were we.
The sad thing is, that may be something that Arsenio can’t go back to. Dissecting celebrities has become a sport. There is no privacy anymore, and everyone is exceptionally careful about their “brand”. Hall understands this, and told TV Guide, ”
“We’re in this world now where publicists control this so much, I don’t know if I can have conversations like that.”
After watching Arsenio’s interviews last week with Chris Tucker, Ice Cube, Magic Johnson, and many others with whom he has a personal connection, it’s hard to tell if he’s resigned himself to that disappointing reality or if he’s just taking it easy on his friends. In his second week – though faults were acknowledged – Arsenio hasn’t done much to make the changes needed to trump his competition.
Regardless, Arsenio is going to eventually run out of buddies and fall out of his comfort zone. At that point, will he rise to the occasion and work to combat the notion that true on-air intimacy between a talk show host and a guest can’t exist anymore, or will he simply play it safe?
That’s just one of many questions that are facing Arsenio Hall as he tries to walk the line between being fresh and being familiar while trying to also find success in a strange new land that he helped create.
The Arsenio Hall Show airs weeknights. Check local listings.
Source: TV Guide