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Arsenio Hall will be in Miami Beach this week, promoting his upcoming talk show which premieres Sept. 9 at the 50th anniversary NATPE/Content First market and conference. It’s been 19 years since he was last a late-night syndicated talk show host; in this interview with THR senior editor Alex Ben Block, he opens up about the abrupt end of that show, his life in the intervening years, his own self-image and what he hopes his new show will be like.
The Hollywood Reporter: When did you decide to return to late-night TV?
Arsenio Hall: I’ve been working on this for five years. It’s amazing to look back and say, “Wow, what do I have to do to get on this road?”
THR: What was the trigger after such a long time?
Hall: I always loved it, but I needed to diversify my life and do some other things. There are moments I can pin it to. Me and George Lopez were going to go to a Lakers game one night so I was hanging out in his dressing room. He was doing Lopez Tonight. He had an assistant come get me. He knew I was the first one to put Snoop Dogg on TV and he wanted me to introduce him on his show. When I did it, it was kind of like kissing an old girlfriend. I thought, “Oh God I love this. I really love this.” I realized I missed it.
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THR: Did that start you toward the new show?
Hall: Not right away. I have one kid, who is now 13. I’ve tried to never be away from him more than 48 hours. I told him what I was thinking about, and he said, “Dad, I think you should do it. You can win it.” That was all I needed to hear.
THR: Take us back to 1994. Why was your show canceled? It had been such a big hit at one time.
Hall: It wasn’t canceled. I resigned. Sure, there was an erosion of the numbers (audience ratings) as shows tend to do in year five or six. You are a little lower this year than last year. But the show never stopped making money, never stopped being profitable for Paramount.
THR: Why did you walk away?
Hall: I actually thought I needed changes in my life and I need to try other things. I wanted to do things professionally, like stand-up, and try some acting. I felt my whole life needed broadening. I didn’t have a family. Everything I had done was a gamble because I felt if I missed it as some point, I could get back in. I could still walk into a comedy club and make people laugh every night. That’s what I do. And I could be home in the morning to make breakfast and take my kid to school. What I was confused about was that when you go from being on every night to just being a stand-up, your visibility is on a whole different level.
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THR: So you didn’t appreciate it but then came to see what you had given up?
Hall: Yes, God — appreciate it. But being a dad alone, especially compared to Hollywood, can make you a better person.
THR: You were so good in Coming to America with your pal Eddie Murphy. Why didn’t you do more acting?
Hall: It was one of those things I tried to pursue after I left late-night. I wanted to study and take it seriously and not just be the talk show host who is popular so he gets a role. But I wasn’t able to crack that nut the way I wanted. It’s a tough racket. Sometimes I made bad choices. I remember there was a time I decided not to do more stand-up or go on the road. I turned down a movie called Bad Boys where it would have been me and Martin (Lawrence) instead of Will (Smith) and Martin. You look back and say, It wasn’t a bad decision because I’m happy with my life. I’m a daddy or whatever. But then you realize, that’s not where I’m supposed to be. One day you really miss it.
THR: Sean Compton of Tribune Broadcasting recalls a meeting seven years ago where he asked if you wanted to return to a talk show and you said you were not ready. Two years ago, however, you were ready and began this road back. What was that like?
Hall: I remember somebody asked (John) Ferriter (Hall’s manager), “What does he look like these days?” People had not seen me in a whole lot of years. And that was somebody in the business who could have watched me on Leno or something else. So imagine what that means to the public. So I had to get my face out there. Now daddy has to have someone else fix the turkey bacon some mornings so I can go and do what I have to do. It feels great to fight my way back into it, to be up in the majors again. I am going to get my chance to be up to bat. The rest is up to the public.
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THR: Will your new show be a party like the old one?
Hall: There’s probably some marketing person saying it’s a party. It’s a spirited show. It is targeted for a younger demographic. The bottom line is yes it’s a party, just as the powers that be will say it is. But I’m not really sure it’s a party. If I go to a party and there is an applause sign and they shut down for commercials every now and then, then it’s a party I’m never coming back to. But for TV, that’s good marketing.
THR: Who is the audience for your new show?
Hall: The audience we had the first time around is about 40 now. From the (research) we have crunched, I think the audience that will embrace the show is an interesting cross-demographic. That guy has kids now. I think they will both watch.
THR: So it’s not just about nostalgia?
Hall: Nostalgia is probably not the best word. People have moved on. Nobody is asking, “When Arsenio comes back I want to see Boys II Men.” People have moved on in society. Maybe there is some nostalgia: “I used to watch Arsenio when I was in college.” But we’re doing a show for people who have moved on, and now they can sit around with their kid who can stay up late, and there will be a lot of stuff they can both dig.
THR: Will there be a lot of hot new acts as guests?
Hall: It’s not about any of that. It’s about who I am. If I am tired now and have no energy, I’ll be that guy and it will be that show. I think a lot of people are curious about who I am now. The bottom line is, trust me, this is not about a CBS boardroom where Leslie Moonves says, “The word is energy.” It’s like every talk show host is an engine and you put them all in a similar bod and see how they run. I think people will see that they like the flow of our engine. Muhammad Ali had a quote. When (Howard) Cosell said to him, “You aren’t the man you used to be,” he said, “The man who is who he used to be is a fool.”
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