There have been other Johnnys, other Davids, other Jimmys, and we all know who the real Conan is. But there has only been one Arsenio.
This fall brings with it the return to late night television "The Arsenio Hall Show." Now while it is easy to look back and knock Arsenio Hall for his acting career as having not amounted to much outside of providing the voice of Winston Zedmore on the animated show "The Real Ghostbusters," what should not be forgotten was how good, and how important, his variety talk show was.
From 1989 to mid-1994 "The Arsenio Hall Show" provided a welcome option to the "MTV generation" in terms of late night TV viewing. While Johnny Carson still reigned supreme on the talk show circuit, Arsenio Hall was able to book guests much more familiar and welcome-of-a-sight to younger viewers who wouldn't have been as interested in what Carson's show had to offer.
Arsenio Hall also left his mark on American culture in a variety of ways; not the least of which was his signature fist pump coupled with a "woof, woof, woof, woofing" chant that he'd act out with his audience and the "Dog Pound." The Lost Boys in Neverland in the Spielberg film Hook even did the Arsenio "woof" and fist pump. To this day remnants of that ritual still remain, though it's grown to be less and less of a frequent sight and sound.
While Arsenio Hall's show was intended primarily for a vastly younger viewing audience than late night TV was traditionally known for targeting, that didn't make his show any less relevant than his competitors. In fact many were the significant moments in pop culture from that time period which occurred on Arsenio Hall's show.
For example: one memorable (and at times awkward and uncomfortale) instance of this occurred during a 1991 appearance by Vanilla Ice on Arsenio Hall.
Vanilla Ice, when not being called out by those who knew better, had a habit of telling stories that didn't exactly vibe with truth. He was #1 on the charts and immensely popular. That didn't stop Arsenio Hall from calling out Vanilla Ice on liberties he may have taken with some of the facts. In a very calm, collected and professional manner Arsenio puts Vanilla on the defensive in his interview and as a result the world got to see who Vanilla was for the first time: an overly sensitive kid who was in over his head with the whole rap game he was trying to infringe upon. Arsenio also called Vanilla Ice out for a peculiar action Ice did before the interview even began. Most of the heavy hitters in the hip hop community were coming down hard on Vanilla, so in what seemed like nothing more than a P.R. move by Ice, he calls out Flava' Flav, who just so happened to be in the audience (and actually seemed more interested in giving it up to Arsenio) so that he could come over and hug it out with him for all the cameras to see. Later in the interview, after Arsenio really starts to turn up the heat on Ice, Vanilla refers back to the always affable Flav as "his homie." It was a little odd and more than a little out of place that Vanilla even brought out Flav so Arsenio had no problem in calling out Ice on what appeared to be nothing more than a ploy: using Flava' Flav, who likes everyone anyway, as a means of making it seem like he has support from someone who is black. After expressing his surprise that Vanilla would do such a thing, in essence called him out on his ploy, Vanilla's reaction is priceless. It resembles a small child who has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. It was this interview that began Vanilla's slide into obscurity and irrelevance. There was a phony in his midst and Arsenio began the process of rooting him out.
There were many memorable interviews, memorable for a variety of reasons, that took place on Arsenio over that 5.5 year span he was on. Here is another infamous 1991 sit-down Arsenio did with another individual who liked to take liberties with truth: The WWF's Hulk Hogan.http://youtu.be/6EsBU8NQKoM
In 1991 the issue of steroids being distributed in Vince McMahon's wrestling promotion was coming to the surface for the first time. Hulk Hogan's name was prominently mentioned in some of these reports. Hogan had been earning millions as the guy behind "Hulkamania" with the tag "Say your prayers and take your vitamins," so the fact that he was a steroid user couldn't be something that the public was let in on. So here is Hulk, being taken to task by Arsenio over the reports that he might be a steroid user, flat out lying to the world saying that he had only used steroids on three instances in the 80s. But of course, as it usually does, the truth would come out three years later during the attempted persecution by the federal government of Vince McMahon. Having been sworn in, under penalties associated with perjury, Hogan was forced to admit he had been using steroids regularly since 1976. This interview on Arsenio Hall is a moment Hulk Hogan has yet to live down.
Another memorable incident which occurred on "The Aresnio Hall Show" was this very one-sided July 1989 interview with Jason Voorhees to help promote the theatrical release of Friday the 13th Pt. VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.
One of televisions great moments to be sure.If you don't consider Arsenio's interview with Jason real TV history, how about the time he had Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard all sitting on his couch at the same time? http://youtu.be/xnqvVHDlaYY How many other talk shows could pull that feat off?
Then there was the time the pro-gay advocacy group Queer Nation attempted to protest a taping of Hall's show by screaming at him from the audience. It's one of the most awesome displays of an individual sticking up for himself and standing his ground that one is ever likely to see.http://youtu.be/T6W5_CSk044
Wondering why he never booked gay guests on his show, like Gus Van Zant or Harvey Fierstein, Arsenio gave the best response anyone could; to paraphrase: "When they have a project I'm interested in, I'll book them." Reminding the protesters that he had Elton John appear more than once on his show he then puts the protesters in their place and grabs back control of his show like a boss. It's an impressive display. Incidentally, Harvey Fierstein would appear on Arsenio's show later that same year.
One of the most vivid interviews I recall watching on "Arsenio" was with Magic Johnson in November of 1991. The day before Magic had abruptly retired from the NBA as he publicly disclosed the fact that he had been diagnosed HIV positive.http://youtu.be/U0UDc1Ohwb0
Everyone wanted to be the one to get the first post-retirement interview from Magic. It was Arsenio who booked it, because Arsenio's show was where Magic wanted that first interview to be done. It's an interview I'll never forget. It was a Friday night and I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing as it was going on. Being only 12 years of age at the time, I learned more about AIDS and HIV from this short 15 minute segment than I had anywhere else before - I was riveted. Corny as it may sound, I felt a little wiser about the ways of the world the following Saturday morning.
It is now 2013. With the rise of the internet television does not mean what it once did for pop culture. It will be an uphill battle for Arsenio's show to be as successful as it was then in the present. Network talk shows are not as popular as they were and Conan O'Brien has largely been forgotten by being on basic cable. For a syndicated show like "Arsenio Hall" to succeed a lot of factors are going to have to fall into place. I for one hope that they do.