The Arsenio Hall Show, a syndicated late-night talk show starring African American stand-up comedian Arsenio Hall, ran from January 1989 to May 1994. Paramount Domestic Television's syndicated division produced and distributed the show which aired primarily on stations affiliated with FOX Broadcasting. During its five year run, the show peaked at a 3.9 national rating in February 1990, an amazing feat for a syndicated show that had access to fewer TV stations than network programs and did not have a specific airing time across the nation (though it usually aired sometime between 11:00 P.M. and 1:00 A.M.).
Hall had his first break in late-night television when he became a guest hosts on FOX's The Late Show with Joan Rivers. After Rivers departed in May 1987, the show had a rotating series of guest hosts which included Hall. After fronting the show for several nights, Hall was invited to stay for thirteen weeks. That time permitted Hall to develop as a talk-show host while solidifying his position as a well-known popular entertainer. Although both Hail and the show were doing moderately well, FOX decided to cancel ii and replaced it with The Wilton North Report. During that time, when Hall was without a regular television job, Paramount approached him with a multi-film deal, a deal eventually re-negotiated to include a talk show. Yet, Hall was still under contract with FOX. In order to prevent a legal suit against both Hall and Paramount, FOX affiliates were used as the main venue for Hall's talk show.
The format of The Arsenio Hall Show followed traditional structures set by other late-night talk shows-- entrance and rapport with the band and the studio audience, the host's initial monologue at the center of the stage, interviews with guests (usually two to three) in the sitting area, and a musical number by an invited artist. Hall nevertheless brought some changes (sometimes quite subtle), in order to provide a more informal mood for his show. There was no desk in the sitting area where interviews were conducted, so he could be closer to his guests. Hall did not have a sidekick on the show. The set had an area at the stage left of the band designated as the "dog pound" where a group of guests would sit and cheer Hall with barks ("Woof," "Woof," "Woof!") while moving their right fists in circles above their heads. These more informal elements of the show were attuned with Hall's agenda of providing an alternative kind of entertainment to the traditional late night scene.
From the outset, The Arsenio Hall Show distinguished itself by targeting audiences that have been largely ignored by other late-night talk shows: African Americans, and Latinos, as well as the younger generation of television viewers which he identified on several occasions as the "MTV generation." Hall reached these audiences through a hip and casual approach to the show, strongly informed by his talent as a stand-up comedian as well as by tales of his childhood experiences in a Cleveland lower middle class community. In fact, Hall constantly invoked stories about being someone who left the ghetto for another type of life but who was still emotionally and politically connected to it. The strategy kept his television persona grounded at a level closer to audiences.
Another technique Hall used to reach a multi-ethnic younger audience was showcasing a wide variety of artists, comedians, and performers, especially those who were less mainstream and, thus, not usually invited to participate on other talk-shows. In terms of entertainment, some of the Arsenio Hall Show's highlights included a whole night dedicated exclusively to musical performances by the reclusive artist Prince, a surprise visit in 1992 by (then) presidential candidate Bill Clinton (who performed two songs on the saxophone), and the taping of his thousandth show at the Hollywood Bowl and starring Madonna.
Although entertainment was a priority for Hall, he also conceived of his show as a space where audiences, especially youth, could be educated. For example, he had a special show with Jesse Jackson as well as a night dedicated to commemorating the figure of Martin Luther King Jr. Furthermore, Hall became a spokesperson for "Safer Sex/AIDS Awareness" mainly due to his close friendship with basketball star Magic Johnson. In fact, Johnson chose The Arsenio Hall Show as the venue for his first public discussion about AIDS after announcing that he was HIV positive.
The Arsenio Hall Show also had its moments of controversy. Twice, for example, Hall invited the infamous comedian Andrew Dice Clay, notorious for his sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes. On the second visit, members of the gay and lesbian groups Queer Nation and ACT UP showed up on the program in order to voice their disapproval of the guest as well as of Hall for having him. In fact, these organizations had already confronted Hall during an earlier show, both for not having gay and/or lesbian guests as well as for ridiculing homosexuals through one of his recurring impersonations. The visit of the Nation of Islam's leader, Louis Farrakahn, created another controversial moment for the show and Hall was severely criticized for not being aggressive in his interview. In fact, Hall's laudatory attitude towards most of his guests was constantly criticized by the popular press.
The Arsenio Hall Show can be regarded as an example of a syndicated show which was able to succeed temporarily by targeting an audience largely ignored by other late-night shows, the multi-ethnic youth. In fact, in its most popular days, The Arsenio Hall Show was able to rank second in the late -night rating race, just behind The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Arsenio Hall, Marla Kell Brown
The Michael Wolff Band
Syndicated Only 1989-1994
Freeman, Michael. "Rivals Circle Arsenio Slot." MediaWeek (Brewster, New York), 26 April 1994.
King, Norman. Arsenio Hall. New York: William Morrow, 1993