TCA: Arsenio Hall Talks Guests, Expectations and Jay Leno's Generous Assist

“I’m coming back because I love to make people laugh. If you’ve got a message, go to Western Union,” he quipped during his turn before the Television Critics Association.
Arsenio Hall

Arsenio Hall is back, albeit, he says, with “less hair and no shoulder pads.”

The veteran comedian was on hand Monday to peddle his new eponymous late night show at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. The syndicated series is set for a Sept. 9 debut, and Hall suggests he's realistic about the changes to the landscape in the two decades since he last had a late night show.

“It’s hard to get anyone to watch you. The challenges are gigantic now,” he told a room full of reporters, before noting that he believes there’s an opportunity for something -- or in his case, someone -- different. In fact, he insists he isn't bothered by the idea that he'll likely host many of the same guests as his competitors, suggesting that a show is as much about the guest as it is the host asking that guest questions. “Being in late night is a lot like being in political office," he explained. "You’re trying to represent the people with their questions.”

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What's more, there’s still a substantial swath of people who don’t have a late night show to which they are loyal, and that is his opportunity. “I’m going to try to find those who don’t have a show,” added Hall, with his manager and Arsenio executive producer John Ferriter pointing out that there are 290 million Americans who are not currently watching late night.

During his half hour before the press, Hall was light on details about the new show’s look and feel, though he did acknowledge that he has yet to lock in any guests for the first night. The comic did reveal some names on his wish list during a taped segment, which aired before he and his producers took the stage. In that clip, he said he wanted “A-listers,” mentioning Justin Bieber, Angelina Jolie, Will Smith and Jay Z. EP Neal Kendall later suggested that the show would feature interviews as well as performances with musicians, noting that late night shows often feature only the latter, and often they are relegated to the final five minutes of the night.

Hall, who has been prepping his return for half a decade, claims that Arsenio will be more about laughs than it will be about his guests pushing their message. “I’m coming back because I love to make people laugh. If you’ve got a message, go to Western Union,” he quipped, with Ferriter adding that Hall returns to the field not only with familiarity working in his favor but also experience: “Arsenio has done this before, so he knows what it requires.”

The comic also used the TCA platform to try to dispel a myth that late night is a cut-throat world. His experience has been much the opposite, and he acknowledged that several of his late-night rivals have helped him work his way back into the spotlight. Real Time’s Bill Maher invited him onto his HBO show to talk about the L.A. riots, for instance, while The Tonight Show’s Jay Leno recommended certain writers that he had to lay off during his most recent round of budget cuts. (Hall noted that he did hire one of Leno’s former joke writers.)

“The bottom line,” said Hall, “is everybody has been real nice to me.”