Hall will face off against several local news broadcasts and a crush of celebrity-driven talk shows. He won't even be the only African American host this time around; comedian W. Kamau Bell will have a nightly comedy-talk show produced by Chris Rock on FXX, the spinoff network of FX.
John Ferriter, another executive producer, said, "We're not concerned about the competition. One of our key phrases we keep coming back to is 'Better late night than ever.' We're interested in engaging the 290 million Americans who don't watch late night."
To an extent, it comes down to realistic expectations.
"Your biggest fan doesn't watch you every night," Hall told reporters in the Hilton ballroom. "You hope for three nights … sometimes you'll get one night. But you hope you do a good, funny show and you assert a unique personality that's not there so you can just be in the game. I'm trying to be in the game. I just got to be better than one guy that's there."
When he first arrived on the late-night scene in 1989, Hall was more than a viable force — he was a phenomenon, a young, vibrant African American comic going toe-to-toe with the legendary Carson.
Hailing from Cleveland, he had honed his skills for years as a stand-up comedian opening for top musical acts such as Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. In 1987, he landed a costarring role with friend Eddie Murphy in "Coming to America" and replaced Joan Rivers on Fox's short-lived "The Late Show."
When he scored his own show in 1989, his urban vibe meshed with an upbeat, breezy manner. He dispensed with the traditional talk-show desk, chatting with guests who sat in easy chairs. He was able to reach out to artists such as Tupac Shakur and Bobby Brown riding the first wave of the mainstream popularity of hip-hop. Murphy and Magic were not only guests; they were his running buddies.
Pop-culture history was made in 1992 when presidential candidate Bill Clinton, wearing sunglasses, belted out "Heartbreak Hotel" on his saxophone on Hall's set. It was one of the first instances of a top politician going on an entertainment show to display a lighter side that instantly resonated with viewers.
"If you were a 22-year-old watching Arsenio, you're now a 42-year-old tucking your kids in bed by 11 p.m.," said Sean Compton, president of programming and entertainment for Tribune Co. "He represents a nostalgic element to those viewers. He's a guy who pulled off late night. Everybody wants a show, but it's not easy. Here's a guy who's been there and done that, and we're hoping he can do it again."
In the countdown to the premiere, producers have played it close to the vest in terms of the show's ingredients or who will appear during the first weeks. A website offering tickets to tapings at Sunset Bronson Studios in Hollywood used to list future planned guests such as Dr. Phil, Quincy Jones and Earth, Wind & Fire. But those names have disappeared, and the most prominent celebrities listed early last week were Lou Diamond Phillips and Tom Green.
There will be a monologue and a live band called the Posse.
While facing the challenges in distinguishing his show from the avalanche of other late-night offerings, producers maintain the bar for measuring the success of Hall's show has been set a bit lower.
"We're in a golden age of late night right now," said Kendall. "Everyone is doing good quality work and have carved out a great audience for each of their shows.... We're starting at the bottom — there's no illusions that Arsenio is returning to some kind of mythical throne. When you come back after any amount of time in a competitive environment, you have to start from scratch — you have to build your audience brick by brick."
If nothing else, it will be a dramatic lifestyle change for the middle-aged host. Hall has spent much of the two decades away from the spotlight raising his teenage son. (Hall has never married and has not publicly identified the mother.) Much of the inspiration for his return was to allow his son to see his father perform on television.
"I made a conscious decision in my life to get out there and do what I thought I needed to do, and I did it, and my son's 13 now," Hall said to reporters at the Hilton. "He's having me drop him off a block from the movie theater, you know. So that's usually the sign that you can go back to work comfortably."