When Johnny Carson was in his golden years as the host of The Tonight Show, when Yo! MTV Raps introduced Hip-hop music to Generation X, when George Herbert Walker Bush started a potential presidential dynasty in his clan, comedian Arsenio Hall took on the challenge of bringing a younger, hipper, and politically aware audience to late night television.
The Arsenio Hall Show had three strikes against it from the start.
First, it was syndicated. Would Paramount’s syndication strength match the entrenched power of NBC in marketing, advertising dollars, and ratings?
Second, Hall was competing against a television goliath. Carson had defeated several competitors before Hall’s entry into the late night programming arena. Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Pat Sajak, Alan Thicke, Merv Griffin, David Brenner, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joan Rivers. Could he take away the throne of the King of Late Night?
Third, Hall had experience in the FOX late night experiment titled The Late Show, which premiered in 1986. It initially starred Joan Rivers, but she left in 1987. Hall took over; the show left the airwaves in 1988. Could lightning strike after this failed attempt in the late night time slot?
The answers are yes, yes, and yes.
In 1989, Paramount began syndicating The Arsenio Hall Show. With an eye-catching set bathed in blue, an upbeat band, and outstanding guests, The Arsenio Hall Show easily captured the younger generation.
On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson revealed to the world that he was HIV positive. He then appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show, accompanying Hall to center stage at the opening of the show to a standing ovation.
In the wake of confusion, controversy, and prejudice in the early days of HIV and AIDS, Hall showed courage, class, and sensitivity by not only hosting Johnson, a close friend, but also giving him the opportunity to share his plight with the country.
Another hallmark moment took place in 1992, when Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton played the saxophone. No empirical evidence exists to prove the nexus between Clinton’s appearance and his election victory in 1992, but it does beg the question whether it had an effect.
The Arsenio Hall Show was not without controversy. For example, Andrew Dice Clay, the polar opposite of political correctness, appeared on the show twice. Members of Queer Nation disrupted two tapings to challenge Hall about the lack of gay and lesbian guests. Additionally, Hall opined about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, rather than avoiding the hot-button topic. Perhaps the moment with the deepest controversy, though, was Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s appearance; Hall endured harsh attacks for what critics described as softball questions during the interview.
Saturday Night Live poked fun at The Arsenio Hall Show in two sketches.
Rob Lowe starred as Arsenio Beckman, a late night television talk show host with Hall’s mannerisms and an homage to then NBC programming executive Preston Beckman. Dana Carvey played Johnny Carson on The Carsenio Show sketch, complete with takeoffs on Hall’s wardrobe, haircut, and jokes. It also borrowed from the opening and the set of The Arsenio Hall Show.
In 1994, Paramount ended the run of The Arsenio Hall Show. Nearly 20 years later, in 2013, Hall attempted a late night comeback in syndication. His new show lasted one season.