Arsenio Hall Reveals Plan to Retake Late Night (Q&A)

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Nearly 20 years after the final episode of his first eponymous talk show, Arsenio Hall is jumping back into late night on Sept. 9 when the reboot of his syndicated series -- this time called Arsenio -- launches at 10 and 11 p.m. on more than 200 stations nationwide (in Los Angeles it will air on KTLA, the CW affiliate). A co-production between CBS Television Studios and Tribune Broadcasting, Arsenio thrusts the 57-year-old host and comedian into the battle to reclaim his once-youthful demo -- a pursuit he says "is actually not at all about race."

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The Arsenio Hall Show ended nearly 20 years ago, in May 1994. Why are you coming back now?

There was a period about five years ago where I said "Okay, I miss it," but my heart was still in parenting my now-13-year-old son. Then I was a guest on George Lopez's final late-night show in August 2011, and it felt like looking at a beautiful ex‑love. I remember saying to him, "Well, if there's ever a time for me to do this it is now." I'd always thought George's demo was much like mine, so it would have been bad for me to come back while George was trying to do his thing.

But Lopez Tonight struggled with ratings and was canceled by TBS after two seasons. Why do you think your comeback won't suffer the same fate?

Well, one of the best things about syndication -- George's wasn't syndicated -- is that it's such a niche market. My original show was syndicated, and that's why I'm doing it again. It's like what Oprah did, but for late night. A lot of things I did with my first deal in the '80s were patterned after what Oprah and Quincy Jones taught me. This time around, I'm even more knowledgeable.

What has surprised you most about how the business has changed since the early 1990s?

The financial part has definitely changed. There was a lot of waste and B.S. back then, a lot of, "Les Moonves, can I borrow the corporate plane?" This time around, I was able to prove to syndicators that I really was serious about being the minimum-wage late-night host. If it's done for the right number, you may get an extra 13 weeks. The excess of show business is over. It's a businessman's game now.

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The audience for The Arsenio Hall Show was fairly mixed in terms of black and white viewers. Are you expecting the same demo this time around? If so, how you do appeal to both audiences in 2013?

For me it's less about black and white than attracting a certain age group. When they talk about a "young viewer" in late night, they mean 49! No one has really been able to get and maintain a fit young audience. Kid don't watch late night -- they find it online. That's why [Jimmy] Fallon's so wonderful -- when he does something great about yodeling, you find the clip online. The audience who watched my first show is about 49 now, that's why I don't believe I have to steal from anyone else to succeed. We're all fighting over a piece of steak, but there is gigantic meal right around the corner.

Black entertainers haven't had an easy go in late night. Wanda Sykes was the last comedian to attempt a network series, but Fox canceled its after one season. There's also a noticeable dearth of black writers in that space. Has the diversity issue gotten worse since you started?

When I started looking for writers, that was one of the first things I noticed. I thought it was going to be infinitely better and it's not! I interviewed three black directors, and hired one, so I've seen changes in other areas. And I do have a few black writers on staff. But the fact that you can look at the entire Tonight Show staff and there's not one black writer -- well, that interests me. I actually asked Jay to refer me to some and he said, "There was one guy, but he's not here anymore." That sounds like some horrible off-Broadway black play doesn't it? Tyler Perry's: The Brother Ain't Here No More, and the lead would be played by Brandon T. Jackson.

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Have you softened over the years to the point where it might be tough to skewer some of your Hollywood friends in the monologue?

I taught a comedy class years ago and one of my students was Amanda Bynes. So yes, I would question doing jokes about her. Her ordeal seems to be more about mental illness. The harder part for me would be something like George Clooney and Stacy Keibler breaking up. I know and like them both! The strange thing about me is I'm a recluse but I still seem to know everybody. Steven Seagal is not my friend, but I'd feel sad to do a joke about him. So I guess every joke's going to have to end with "So, Zimmerman and O.J. -- how about those assholes?"

And have you gotten any good advice from your friends on the eve of your debut? Has anyone asked to be booked on the show?

Well, Jay said to me last weekend, "If you look at your show board and it looks like the Tonight Show, make some changes." Barbara Walters also called me. She just said "Do you have a good lawyer?" And the day my new show was announced, I got a call from Prince. He said, (in a Prince voice): "I'm so proud of you. Save me a night."

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