It’s purely and simply weird to live in a world where the significance of Arsenio Hall (b. 1956) is no longer universally known, not just because he was once such an inescapable fact of American life, but because he also belongs in the history books.
A stand-up comedian from Cleveland, Hall first made inroads into television in the early ’80s on variety and talk shows like Late Night with David Letterman, The Toni Tennille Show, and Madame’s Place. From 1983 to 1984 he was the announcer and sidekick to Alan Thicke on Thicke of the Night. He was the most popular of several rotating hosts on Fox’s The Late Show (1987-88) after the dismissal of Joan Rivers, which led to his own syndicated late night talk show The Arsenio Hall Show (1989-1994).
This was the significance I referred to in my opener. Arsenio was the first black late night host with his own show. Some, like Sammy Davis Jr may have guest hosted other shows in the past. Arsenio had his own show, and it was hip and it was popular. Its most notable pop culture ripple was the “Dog Pound” audience ritual of fist-pumping and barking as an alternative to applause. There was a 1991 hit song inspired by his recurring comedy routine “Things That Make You Go Hmmm.” Presidential candidate Bill Clinton played the sax on the show in 1992, widely considered to have had an impact on his popularity. Other popular guests included M.C. Hammer, Andrew Dice Clay, Paula Abdul and numerous pro wrestling stars. As a comedian, Hall wasn’t hugely hilarious but he was an extremely likable host. So we are apt to think of him as a heavyweight. When I made up my recent ranking of current late night hosts, it struck me how weird it was that the list was still so dominated by white dudes at this late stage — despite the inroads made by Joan Rivers and Arsenio in the ’80s and ’90s. Yes, now we have Sam Bee and Trevor Noah. But on a list of a dozen hosts, shouldn’t there be more than one woman and one African American?
At any rate, Arsenio was an American institution at the time, and we thought, a permanently prominent one. In addition to his show, he was in movies with his buddy Eddie Murphy like Coming to America (1988) and Harlem Nights (1989). In 1993, Hall fell victim to a ratings war, in which he was battling not only Jay Leno (who’d taken over The Tonight Show the previous year), and David Letterman (who’d just moved to his new show at CBS), but also the short-lived but briefly troublesome Chevy Chase Show on Fox. By 1994 The Arsenio Hall Show was cancelled. Arsenio laid low for three years and then emerged with the 1997 sitcom Arsenio, which ran on Fox, but was cancelled after six episodes. From 1998 to 2000 he was a co-star on the action series Martial Law. Since that time, he has continued to appear frequently on television and to do cameos in movies, and even revived his talk show from 2013 to 2014. His most current credit is the sequel Coming 2 America.
For more in varietry entertainment, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.