There he was back in the day, Arsenio Hall sitting on the stoop, pimps coming and going, running numbers at the corner barbershop, little hope for a future beyond the confines of Cleveland. In time, however, he made entertainment history as the first African-American late-night talk show host. Hall’s meteoric climb to the top is rivaled only by his equally rapid descent.
Whatever happened to Arsenio Hall? Well, for starters he’s got a cameo in Michael Jai White’s new blaxploitation satire, “Black Dynamite,” but that’s not all. The former king of late night tells us he just might be engineering a comeback.
You have a cameo as a pimp in “Black Dynamite.” Do all comedians have a pimp character in there somewhere?
My landlord was a pimp. He bought the house we lived in with pimpin’ money. Don King was pimp and a hustler. When I was on the streets of Cleveland as a kid, I knew Mr. King. His hair wasn’t like that, and he ran numbers with my uncle from the barber shop. The first time I saw a Rolls Royce, Don King got out of it.
That must have been impressive.
Most of the pimps I grew up around were kind of serious, not quite as funny, but a bright green suit with a gold tie. I remember looking at these guys, thinking, “Yeah, he looks sharp! He looks clean!” There’s five guys in green suits with green alligator shoes. There’s a flamboyance that comes from the inner city that is what it is.
Take me through how you became the first African-American late-night host.
Joan Rivers gets fired. There were 11 weeks left when she got fired. Fox puts a bunch of people behind her desk and sees who does the best. They chose between me and Suzanne Somers after narrowing it down from like 22 people. They tried Wally Cox, they tried Bob Dubac; they tried everybody.
But you got it…
They gave me her 11 weeks. So, when they wanted me to re-sign, I said, “Let’s do it a year at a time.” They said, “No, we want three years.” I didn’t want to sign for three years, so at the end of my contract I sent a letter to them saying I’m going to move on and try other things. I wanted some balance in my life.
I was reading Joan Collins book every night and watching Stallone’s film every night and preparing and make sure I hear the new Snoop Dogg material, and who’s this Mariah that Tommy Mottola wants me to put on? That was my life.
This every-night thing, you have no idea. As a matter of fact, if I come back now, I want the Wanda Sykes thing, because that five nights works you hard, make you gray. I’m gonna come back and do it one night a week.
What did you do during your time away from entertainment?
Raising my kid, doing it different than my dad did it. Totally content, not a mistake with some stripper, totally planned, loving my life and putting show business second.
But don’t get me wrong, when Leno calls, I do Leno, do standup a little bit here and there.
Does Leno call?
I talked to Jay yesterday and, y’know, he’s trying to find the show and what variety is to him. He called me and said, “You gotta do a few pieces.” So I’m going to do a few pieces for him.
Did you get a sense that history was being made at the time?
I wanted to create the show that I wanted to see and it worked because the strange thing is, you think that a black kid wants that but white America was not like, “I won’t watch rap!” They were like, “Nobody’s showing it to us!” When I showed them Tupac, they watched Tupac.
People think about Mariah and Snoop and people that I brought — Li’l Bow Wow. And I didn’t just do a black show. Garth Brooks’ wife, Tricia Yearwood, was on. Everything they let me break, I broke.
When Bill Clinton was on the show, he was considered the first black president. Now, with Obama …
I wonder if Martin Luther King ever thought, “Give it a few years, there’ll be a black President,” or whether Martin was like, “Not on my watch will there ever be a country that will accept a black president.” This is so good for us — even the racism that we’re going through — because it’s allowing us to learn. We got to walk through it. We have to get to know him and get to deal with him.
Do you believe it’s racism or simply people who oppose his policies?
There’s always a little racism. One time I was in a Paramount meeting and I heard an executive say something that was anti-Semitic and it dawned on me that I had to check him on it because when I’m not in the room, it’s probably anti-black and I can’t laugh at that.
When you’re out of the room, there is always racism. But the deal is, our country’s made up of good people. That’s how we got an Obama. Our country is made up of mostly non-racist people and the majority will eventually win. The good people will eventually win.
Do you think people are racist without realizing they’re racist?
Absolutely. Sometimes people don’t even realize it until maybe you show it to them in a different light. You realize, as a black man, it’s like, “Oh, it’s not just people saying bad things about black people, using the n-word.”
There are racists. If you’re in Ireland and everybody’s white, they’re probably mad at the guy with the red hair. There’s always going to be racism and you realize, as a black man, it’s not just you, bro!