Why this fan of the original Arsenio Hall Show worries the 2013 edition may be destined for failure
Some people talk about the night Magic Johnson first spoke on living with HIV. Others mention then-candidate Bill Clinton picking up the saxophone and changing how everyone would run for president. Or Mariah Carey’s first appearance on national TV.
But my coolest Arsenio Hall Show moment came from watching a group called Guy deliver two funk-drenched performances of songs that exemplified what the group then called New Jack Swing.
Back in 1989, there weren’t many places on television where you could see a band which was mostly popular in black culture, as Guy was.
But Arsenio welcomed them like they were The Beatles, speaking to a crowd filled with R&B fans who loved watching the group led by wunderkind keyboardist/producer Teddy Riley and Stevie Wonder clone Aaron Hall. It was the same way he would welcome a young, fast-stepping rapper named MC Hammer years before U Can’t Touch This would make him a household name.
This was a TV home for musicians and actors who seemed the voice f a new, multcultural generation. And when I told Hall himself about that moment back in July during a Los Angeles press party, he took it as both compliment and argument for why it was a good idea for him to return with a new late night program, The Arsenio Hall Show, debuting Monday.
“What you just said is an incredible compliment because that was a era when I was able to expose certain people that weren’t getting the light and the other realized there (were)…numbers and a viability attached to booking them and so I loved that,” said Hall, now age 57. “I think there’s a challenge for me to find what I can do now that’s not being done.”
Still, as a longtime fan who actually made the trek to Los Angeles and watched a taping of his legendary talk show in 1990, I’m worried for Arsenio. Because the balkanized, segregated entertainment universe which made his original show possible doesn’t exist anymore.
In February, Jimmy Fallon will take over NBC’s venerated Tonight Show and for the first time ever, a rap group, Philadelphia’s The Roots, will be the house band for the network’s 59-year-old late night institution. Already, Fallon has had President Obama himself on the program “slow jamming the news,” creating a viral video to rival Clinton and his saxophone playing from 1992.
Between 11 p.m. and midnight, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, Chelsea Handler, Andy Cohen, W. Kamau Bell and Keith Olbermann all host late night talk shows aimed at specific pieces of the potential audience.
Can a guy who last regularly hosted a late night talk show in 1994 really compete with that crowd?
“At the end of the day, all these comics are offering you their taste and their personalities, ‘cause we’re all different,” Hall said. “There were a lotta things I did because I was constantly looking to do something that the master wasn’t doing…and Johnny (Carson) was the master. If somebody showed me a tape or something, I would see if the other guys are doing it. If they’re not, I’m saying ‘Maybe that’s mine.’”
Unfortunately, Hall’s confident words came with no details on what his new show will actually be like. And while I loved watching his Posse backup band in person – mostly because it had players who has worked with Cameo, Chaka Khan and the Brecker Brothers – his new group isn’t as well known, at least yet.
His first week's guest list -- packed with names such as Chris Tucker, Mark Harmon, Lisa Kudrow, Ice Cube, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, George Lopez and Angela Bassett, along with musical guests including Nas, Mac Miller, Earth, Wind & Fire and Emblem3 -- seem culled from the same roster of folks who land on everyone else's talk show couches.
Still, he talked of hiring former writers who once worked on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and co-writing the program’s new theme song, using his triumphant appearance winning NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice last year as a springboard to the publicity he’d need to return.
“My biggest challenge: Your biggest fan does watch you every night,” he said. “You hope for three nights, to get a guy three nights a week to check you out…You hope you do a good, funny show and assert a unique personality that not there, so that you can just be in the game. I just gotta be better than one guy that’s there.”