IT WAS 1987, AND HERE he was at last. Arsenio Hall, a relatively unknown comedian with an impossibly toothy grin and mischievous big brown eyes, was sitting behind Johnny Carson's desk in Studio 1 at NBC in Burbank. He was interviewing Cher.
Hall had dreamed of this moment ever since he was a kid in Cleveland. When he was 22, he had thrown his meager belongings into a Pinto and headed for Los Angeles, hoping, as most young comedians do, to eventually land a five-minute stand-up gig on "The Tonight Show."
It had been tough. Carson's representatives, Hall says, kept rejecting Hall's kind of humor, saying it was "too barbed" for Johnny's taste; others told him his style was "too black" to appeal to mainstream audiences.
But now here he was, actually sitting in Johnny's chair, playing the talk-show host , interviewing Cher.
Except that the scene existed mostly in Hall's fantasies. The studio was empty and dark. And Cher wasn't there.
On that night two years ago, Hall had been taping a game-show appearance on another NBC sound stage. When he tiptoed onto the empty "Tonight Show" set, he approached Carson's throne, removed the canvas cover from the desk, sat down and talked to his invisible guest. Then he walked over and stood on the little star that is Carson's monologue mark.
It was, Hall says, "a form of positive thinking. It's like, 'I can do this.' " Arsenio Hall believes in self-visualization. Picture yourself there, and you will get there.
IT IS 1989 AND ARSENIO HALL has visualized himself onto Sound Stage 29 on the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood. He stands on his own mark and delivers his monologue. But unlike Carson's, Hall's low-key observational humor is spiked with naughty sex jokes and references--often irreverent--to black culture and its stars. One night, with an impish grin, he suggests that recently jailed singer James Brown has become "the homecoming queen of Cellblock H. You know, 'James, you're my bitch now.' "
And in response, in addition to applauding, the members of the energetic, racially mixed young audience bark out their approval-- rooof, rooof, rooof-- and crank their arms in circles.
The scene might be a different sort of talk show--it certainly isn't the time-worn, predictable Carson format--but it isn't in Arsenio Hall's imagination anymore. This is the future he planned. In astonishingly quick fashion, the 30-year-old comedian has risen from relative anonymity to become the host of his own fantasy come true, "The Arsenio Hall Show." The show debuted Jan. 3 and is syndicated nationwide by Paramount to more than 153 stations, including Channel 13 in Los Angeles.
After 15 weeks on the air, it's too soon to say how Hall's show will ultimately fare in the competitive sleepy-time slot in which a long line of upstarts have challenged--but never threatened--Carson's venerable television institution. But there's a buzz about the show and its engaging young star, who began to develop a cult following in the summer of 1987, when he was named to replace the fired Joan Rivers on Fox Broadcasting's "The Late Show," another of Carson's failed challengers.
The buzz centers on Hall's fresh approach. Even if he trots out his own nocturnal parade of self-aggrandizing hustlers of books, flicks, Top-40 tunes and miniseries, his show is for many viewers--particularly whites--a new cultural experience.
In what he calls his "mission to bring worlds together on one couch," Hall puts on what may be the hippest--and what is certainly the blackest--late-night party in town, the kind of party many Americans have never been to.
The show's critics, however, charge that its gossipy, in-joke humor, street-wise language and cutting-edge pop-culture references are so hip that the show leaves some viewers feeling like uninvited guests.
Whether Arsenio Hall becomes a household word or the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question ultimately depends on ratings--and whether he and Paramount can expand a cult following into mainstream numbers in an era when TV marketing strategies are changing dramatically.
But he is intent on maintaining the integrity of his cultural style in what until recently had been a medium run by whites essentially for whites. "Yes, I'm black, very black. . . . And I've gone to the same schools as (white people) and read the same books. Now, can we go on and do the show?" he says with exaggerated patience for those who keep raising the "black" issue.
But if he is weary of the subject, he can't escape the pressures that come with it.
THE USUALLY EBULLIENT Hall, who opens his show with the trademark welcome "We be havin' a ball," is sitting, shoulders hunched, behind the desk in his ultramodern, gray-and-black office on the Paramount lot. His voice is scratchy, resonant, full of bass--the tired voice of a man up since dawn doing coast-to-coast radio interviews.
Befitting the image of an ambition-driven, rising pop icon, Hall virtually lives at the studio, and the day-to-day grind of being both star and executive producer of his show is taking its toll.
"I'm in talk-show hell," he is saying. This is different from "regular worldly hell," he explains. In the everyday inferno, he walks out of the Comedy Store club on Sunset Boulevard "and a guy calls me a 'nigger.' " And then the guy's wife "says the funniest thing: 'That's not a nigger, honey. That's Arsenio Hall.' "
But right now there are other things to worry about, and Hall is wondering aloud whether having his own show is worth the hassles. "It's like no matter how good you are, people are on your case about stupid things," he says. "There are struggles at Paramount that make me just not want to do it."
First, there is the delicate balancing act: how to be a black cultural emissary who at the same time can produce a mainstream, "crossover" talk show. It results in disagreements--trivial and large--that are essentially variations on the theme of what is "too black."
One night, a Paramount executive, whom Hall prefers not to name, watched the show and heard him tell a member of the audience to "chill, brother." The studio honcho later told Hall: "I don't think you should use the word brother because it's a term that applies to black people." (Hall points out that he was addressing a white man, who was off camera).
Then there are the daily financial pressures of producing a show Hall describes as severely underbudgeted: He claims that his budget is less than half what Joan Rivers got when she was hosting "The Late Show" for Fox. "I'm constantly fighting for the necessities," he complains, although he won't elaborate on what those necessities are.
Next, there's the pressure from what Hall calls "the talk-show mafia." Hall had lined up actor / dancer Gregory Hines to promote his movie "Tap," but this day the "mafiosi" from "Late Night With David Letterman" had persuaded Hines to appear on their show first. Hall had to find a replacement in a matter of hours. (He grabbed actress Jackee of the sitcom "227," who was taping nearby on the studio lot, as a substitute.)
And, finally, there is what he calls the "depressing" matter of a $10-million slander and libel suit filed against Hall by Willis Edwards, president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. The suit is an outgrowth of a newspaper interview in which Edwards charged that Hall refused to employ blacks in key positions on his show and said there were no qualified blacks he could hire. After Hall denied the charges on a radio talk show and called Edwards an extortionist, claiming that the NAACP official had demanded $40,000 in return for not publicizing Hall's alleged failure to hire blacks, Edwards sued.
But mostly the pressures on Hall are those faced by any talk-show host or TV producer, black or white: ratings and money. "The bottom line is it's big business," Hall says, "the business of making people laugh."
"YOU CAN'T SAY THAT ON TV"
MOST MAJOR television critics haven't laughed at "The Arsenio Hall Show" nearly as often as its star would like. But none of them can accuse him of copying Carson's perennially popular "Tonight Show" style.
Hall's show revolves more around popular culture and entertainment than the topical and homespun Carson. And Hall's irreverent, devilish humor is designed to titillate. Interviewing sex-advice maven Ruth Westheimer, he asked: "Have you ever faked an orgasm?" Rather than censor Hall, Paramount has chosen to play up the star's off-the-wall remarks. A recent promotional ad that highlights the Dr. Ruth question proudly proclaims: "You can't say that on TV!"
Hall's guest lineups are a combination of street-smart rap artists, country singers, aging movie stars and sexpots with whom he often flirts so outrageously that supermarket tabloids have suggested that he sleeps with some of his female guests. But, ever mindful of mainstream appeal, his shows frequently offer a mix that hits virtually every demographic group. One night, for example, it pulled together talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael; jazz singer Bobby McFerrin; percussionists Sheila E and her father, Pete Escovedo; comic Rick Ducommun, and Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie from the the old "Dick Van Dyke Show."
Still, Hall's show is most notable for its consistent array of minority artists, whom other talk shows present either intermittently or not at all. It's also a launching pad for unpolished young talent--particularly comedians--that the competition might pass over.
And "The Arsenio Hall Show" is certainly the only show that gives audiences regular lessons in rap terminology. Recently, for example, audiences learned that the word dope has lost its drug connotation and supplanted def in the verbal arsenal of rappers as a synonym for bad, which, of course, means good.
All this has caused the show's critics to complain that Hall is sometimes too "in" for his own good.
Says Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales: "As a middle-aged white man, you tune in and think: 'Now, am I meant to get this? Am I being an old fuddy-duddy if I don't get it?' I never thought of the Carson show and the Letterman show as for and about white people.
"(But) if I watch a show that I feel is for and about black people, then I feel, well, this wasn't meant for me. I've been excluded. . . . I think Hall is going to have to widen his horizons a little if he wants a mainstream audience."
Hall, on the other hand, sees himself as a cultural middleman. "My show includes blacks and sometimes, when you see blacks at all, there seems to be an intimidation factor" associated with their presence, he says. "All of a sudden, it looks like too many blacks. I'm not trying to do a black show. But every other show looks like an (all-white) boys' club. I have blacks, women, you name it.
"Let's share," he adds, with missionary zeal. "Let's learn about each other's culture and enjoy. Because we tried fighting, we tried separating ourselves and we've realized that none of that works."
Unlike Carson, Letterman and CBS late-night entry Pat Sajak, all of whom, Shales says, can "at least be credited with doing topical jokes about the day's news, about figures with whom everyone can certainly identify," it bothers Shales that "Arsenio does a joke about these pop stars and it's a frame of reference I don't feel comfortable with."
Other critics have accused Hall of being a poor interviewer and one who fawns over his guests.
Hall believes that part of the problem stems from the fact that TV critics tend to be like Shales: white, middle-aged and male. "But I forgive them and respect them," he says. "Because, just like Johnny is not for the crowd I've attracted, my crowd doesn't have critics."
Bonnie Allen, a free-lance writer who contributes celebrity profiles and stories on black culture to such magazines as Ms. and Essence, agrees. "For the first time on TV, you get a chance to see how black people interact among each other. It's as if you were sitting in a black person's living room."
Michael Renov, an assistant professor in USC's School of Cinema-Television and an expert on avant-garde television and film, believes that Hall's presence on TV represents a significant departure from usual fare. As an example, Renov points to a February show that featured controversial black New Jersey high school Principal Joe Clark, on whom the recent movie "Lean on Me" is based.
"Joe Clark was allowed to be the person he is, the hyperbolist, the dramatist," says Renov, who believes that despite the seriousness of Clark's mission--educating black youths--his flashy manner could easily have made him the object of ridicule on a show with a less culturally sensitive host. Hall, Renov says, accepted him on his own terms.
Joan Rivers, who gave Hall his big break on "The Tonight Show" when she was guest host, indicates that he might be ahead of his time. "People forget that the critics killed Letterman the first few years, too," she says. "Arsenio's appeal is his youth and that he's black. (His humor is) current, obviously very much of the streets, which I think is wonderful. None of the taboos have been knocked into him. When you go on these other shows, you can't say this, you can't say that. With Arsenio, it's just free flying.
"Television is changing radically," Rivers points out. "You can't just appeal to the WASPs. There's a lot of other people out there, in terms of age groups and minorities."
Dog Phi Dog and the Maroon Raccoon
ARSENIO HALL LEANS BACK in his chair at Nucleus Nuance, a restaurant and jazz club not far from the Paramount lot. It is 8 p.m., several hours after the late-afternoon taping of his show. The elegant Armani and Hugo Boss suits that are his on-air trademark have given way to his preferred casual attire: bell-bottom denims and a sweat shirt. His shirt bears the red, green and black of the international African liberation movement, a raised fist and the words Positively black .
He has a cold and he's tired, but over a cup of tea he warms up and becomes his usual talkative self as he reminisces about 1987, the year he sneaked on to the Carson set. (At the risk of sounding "psychotic," he admits to having done so "more than once.") "That was the year it all came to me," he says, the year he landed his co-starring role with Eddie Murphy in the hit Paramount film "Coming to America" and replaced Rivers as host of Fox's "The Late Show." But Hall's popularity wasn't enough to save "The Late Show"; it had already been canceled by the time he took over. Fox tried to sign him to appear on "The Wilton North Report," a short-lived "Late Show" replacement, but Hall was committed to the movie role.
It's probably no accident that when Hall finally got his own talk show, it was syndicated by the studio where Murphy is the top moneymaker. But Hall points out that he already had a relationship with Paramount, having co-hosted the variety show "Solid Gold" for one year. "I was signed to Paramount, and they had to release me to go (to Fox) and do 'The Late Show.' "
When ratings for "The Late Show" confirmed Hall's audience appeal, Hall says, Paramount "realized what they were letting go" to the competition.
It had taken Hall eight years in Los Angeles to get to that point. He landed here in 1980, a move financed by singer Nancy Wilson, who discovered him in a Chicago nightclub. He stayed with Wilson's manager for a time and later lived in an $18-a-night hotel. "I used to eat while I was in--this makes me laugh--the supermarket," he says. "There are a lot of things you can eat while you are shopping. I guess I didn't consider it stealing 'cause I took it out inside my body."
His first performance that first year was on his birthday, Feb. 12, opening for singer Joe Williams at the now-defunct Parisian Room. For most of the next few years he played comedy clubs, opened for singers Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones and others and appeared on modest-to-forgettable TV shows. Meanwhile, he tried in vain for the all-important shot at "The Tonight Show."
" 'You're too barbed,' " he says he was told by representatives of the show. "I had a joke where I said, 'I watch "Star Search" sometimes, and my question is: "What is Ed McMahon's talent?" ' They didn't like that at all." ("Tonight Show" co-producer Jim McCawley, a talent coordinator for the program at the time, says he liked Hall but found his material "sophomoric.")
On other occasions, agents told Hall that he was " 'too ethnic.' . . . I was 'too up.' I was 'too physical.' I moved too much." So, Hall says, "I allowed my old manager to hire these writers who could provide material that would get me on the Carson show, get me to cross over." He had "no business" doing the material they wrote for him, he says now--he even did Jewish jokes while wearing a yarmulke.
The turning point came about three years ago when he opened for a Patti LaBelle concert as a last-minute replacement for comedian Nipsey Russell. "I was used to going to headliners and saying, 'What would you like me to do and what would you like me not to do?' " When he asked the flamboyant LaBelle, she told him: " 'Honey, that's your act. You do what you want to do.' "
It was the stuff of epiphanies.
"I got my first standing ovation opening for Patti LaBelle because I was being me. And when you come out and they don't know who you are and don't want to see you and then end up giving you a standing ovation, you know you've found it." He stopped imitating white comedians, and his act became more risque; in short, he performed as if he were on stage at the Apollo instead of at a bar mitzvah.
He auditioned again for "The Tonight Show" but says, "Johnny still didn't like me." Joan Rivers recalls defending him to the producers, saying: " 'He's barbed, he's this, he's that, put him on with me. That's the stuff they say about me, too.' But they wouldn't put him on."
His chance, Hall says, came one night in March, 1986, when President Reagan's daughter Patti Davis canceled her appearance on "The Tonight Show." Rivers told the Carson staff: Get Arsenio.
Hall praises Rivers for her generosity and for her inspiration. But she is just one of many women who have played strong, influential roles in his life, beginning with his mother, Annie Hall. An assortment of female relatives, including his grandmother and godmother, helped to raise him after his parents divorced and his mother was busy finishing her college degree and working.
Hall's father, the Rev. Fred Hall, who died in 1979, was a Baptist minister who was much older than his wife, Hall says. He remembers that his parents constantly squabbled; his father once pulled a gun on his mother after an argument. When Arsenio, who was an only child, was about 5, he and his mother moved into his grandmother's house, which he regards as his childhood home. The house burned to the ground in the biggest fire in Cleveland's history while he was in college.
"The neighborhood," around 79th Street and Kinsman Road in Cleveland, was, he says softly, "not much, not much at all. When I think of my neighborhood, I always remember (dry) cleaner's plastic. Everybody's windows had cleaner's plastic or some painter's plastic throw cloths. It was like, when windows got broken, they never were replaced."
In this impoverished neighborhood, where most of Hall's childhood friends ended up dead, incarcerated or, in one case, transsexual, he had dreams first of being a preacher like his father, then of being a talk-show host. "When he was 11 or 12," his mother remembers, "he would see Johnny Carson on TV and say, 'I want to do what he's doing.' "
Says her son: "You know that graphic at the opening of the show?"--a scrawled, nearly illegible Arsenio --"I used to practice that in study halls because Dinah Shore used to sign her name like that. I was obsessed with talk shows, and that's what I used to do--practice signing my name, pages and pages of it, 'cause I knew I was going to use it someday."
His mother worried that her child was destined for disappointment. " 'He's reaching. I hope he can reach it,' " she recalls thinking. "But I just couldn't see it at the time."
He enrolled at Kent State University to remain close to his family and earned a degree in television and radio communications. It was there that he adopted the "rooof rooof" chant from a pledge ritual used by black fraternities. He and other anti-frat friends founded a mock fraternity and named it Dog Phi Dog.
After graduation, he briefly worked in sales for the company that makes Noxema face cream in Detroit; he started his stand-up career in that city and later moved to Chicago. Art Gore, a Chicago neighbor who is one of Hall's best friends, says that Hall "really wanted to go into comedy. I can recall him progressing from little clubs, like the Maroon Raccoon Inn just outside Chicago, to becoming the opening act for Parliament Funkadelic, just like that." Today, Annie Hall's son has not only made his grasp equal his reach, but he has also enabled his mother to quit her job as a financial aid counselor at a vocational college in Chicago and move to a West Hollywood condo he bought for her, 10 minutes from his four-bedroom home.
Annie Hall worries about the pressure of her son's work schedule. He needs periods of "complete solitude during the day," she says, "but he's too busy to rest." Since childhood, when he's been under stress, he has had a tendency to sleepwalk, she says. Last year, when "Coming to America" premiered in Los Angeles, Annie Hall was visiting her son. "I was in bed, and he came walking in my room and said, 'Mommy, mommy.' I said, 'Arsenio, sit down.' "
"How did I get here?" he later asked.
Rest and relaxation is the obvious prescription for what may ail Hall at times. But he claims that when he isn't working or "hanging out with Eddie (Murphy), I pretty much don't go out of the house. I watch a lot of TV, and I spend a lot of time alone."
Hall's friend and fellow Black Pack member, writer / director Keenen Ivory Wayans, says, "Arsenio is an extremely driven person." The Black Pack was the name given by Eddie Murphy to a group consisting of Murphy (known as "Big Money"), Hall (known as "Little Money"), Wayans, actor-director Robert Townsend and Paul Mooney, who for 15 years was head writer for Richard Pryor.
"In some cases," Wayans says, Hall's drive "tends to make him crazy when he's not where he wants to be." He gets "consumed with (achieving) his idea of success--though I don't really know what his idea of success is."
THE LATE-NIGHT SHUFFLE
ARSENIO HALL'S success on TV will ultimately depend on ratings, of course. But, while the name of the late-night TV game once was to take on "The Tonight Show," Hall and Paramount say their strategy is different.
"I think people thought we were putting on a show that was going to wipe out the other late-night programs. That's really not what we want to do," says Lucie Salhany, president of Paramount's domestic television division. "We want to reach a segment of the audience that's going to be loyal to him, that's going to like him, understand him and stay with us."
As part of the strategy, in Los Angeles and most other major markets, Hall's hourlong show airs at 11 p.m. The timing is aimed at pulling in viewers who aren't interested in watching the late news and also at getting a half-hour jump on "The Tonight Show" (although Hall's show does go head to head with Carson in some smaller cities). At 11:30 p.m., the show overlaps Carson and the other recent late-night entry, "The Pat Sajak Show," and, in some cities, "Late Night With David Letterman."
Salhany says the idea is to go for a young, urban, upscale audience--"18 to 34, which is a premium audience for the advertiser"--and leave to Carson the older, less urban, more conservative crowd. Coors beer and Hershey's chocolate are among the advertisers that have found Hall's show attractive to younger viewers.
What about his appeal to minorities?
Frank Kelly, vice president of programming for Paramount's television division, says: "We get the benefits, obviously, that he is a black host and we are going to do better in certain markets. But that's only in some markets; we have to look at the broad structure of (all) the markets he's going to be in and figure how to be successful across the board."
"The show is a big, big success. Paramount is very happy," says Kelly, who points out that Hall is particularly good at outperforming movies, game shows, sitcoms and other fare that previously aired in the same slots on local stations. "That's the basis on which stations renew shows."
It's too early in the game to tell how many of the 153 stations that have bought Hall's TV party will eventually renew. In the meantime, Hall seems to be doing well enough in the ratings that Paramount has been touting his success over Letterman and Sajak during February's sweeps weeks. Hall scored his highest Nielsen rating nationally on Feb. 10, when Eddie Murphy and singer Sheena Easton appeared.
Nielsen Television Service ratings data available through March 12 shows that, on the average, however, Hall has been nip and tuck with Sajak and Letterman in the top 17 television markets. Since Hall's show debuted, it has averaged a 3.2 rating, or 2,850,000 TV households, while "The Pat Sajak Show"--which debuted Jan. 9 and is broadcast on 52 more stations--averaged 3.9, or 3,480,000 households. "Late Night With David Letterman," which airs in 211 markets, had average ratings of 3.5 for its first half hour, 12:30 to 1 a.m., and 2.8 for the 1-to-1:30 a.m. time slot. Carson is still clubbing the competition with a 5.6 rating in 5,070,000 households.
"The Arsenio Hall Show" seems to be pleasing large and small stations alike--even in Boston, despite Hall's running gag about drawing low ratings there. Bill Butler, program manager for WLVI in Boston, says his station is "extremely pleased, not only with the ratings performance, but with the content of the show, the energy level. It's very spontaneous. It is honest, and people respond to that."
Peter Brake, assistant general manager of KSHB, a Fox affiliate that serves Kansas City and Topeka, says he eagerly bought Hall's show from Paramount because "his success as replacement host of Rivers' 'The Late Show' had already demonstrated his appeal. We were disappointed when they canceled ('The Late Show') because he was doing an excellent rating for us." Hall's new show is too. As for exactly who is watching, although neither of the television rating services, Arbitron and Nielsen, "gives us an indication of (demographics), advertisers tend to attribute them to an audience or to a program just by the feel of the show," Brake says. "His appeal tends to be both male and female, 18 to 34, upscale and urban."
The tactics behind "The Arsenio Hall Show" are part of a trend in TV programming to carve out a specialized niche in an increasingly competitive market in an era when cable, videocassettes and satellite dishes offer viewers a mind-boggling array of entertainment choices.
According to Miami Herald television critic Steve Sonsky, the Hall strategy seems to be working. The show, Sonsky says, is attracting "a college campus crowd and probably a good black audience." Those groups "certainly weren't watching Carson and probably wouldn't watch Sajak."
"Carson, in this market, skews extremely old, 35 to 54, which is pretty much true across the country," says Robert Bolton, local sales manager for WYZZ, which serves Bloomington and Peoria, Ill. Sajak's show attracts a similar audience, he says, and neither appeals to the 18-to-34 crowd.
Sonsky believes that Hall can capitalize on his appeal to minority viewers. "(Television programmers) have found that blacks, and this is true of Latins also, watch more TV proportionately," he explains. They are less likely to have cable, they may not have as many VCRs as white, middle-class viewers, "and they have less disposable income to go out on weekend nights. . . . That's why, historically, so many black sitcoms come on Saturday nights. So TV is a form of entertainment they are using more often."
BARRY WHITE VERSUS 'THE BRADY BUNCH'
IT'S ABOUT 3:30 in the afternoon in the trailer that houses Hall's production staff at Paramount. He's seated on a couch in producer Marla Kell Brown's office. They met when she was producing Fox's "The Late Show," and he brought her with him as part of his "package deal" with Paramount. Hall says Brown keeps him in touch with Middle America.
"I come from a white, Jewish, suburban Chicago background," she says, "and was raised on 'The Brady Bunch.' He brings up names I've never heard of and I bring up things he never heard of." For example, she was embarrassed to admit that she had never heard of Barry White, the black pop singer. "To Arsenio, this guy is, well, this is the guy he grew up listening to. He couldn't believe I didn't know who he was."
Despite their different backgrounds, Brown, 27, points out, "we both have a contemporary outlook on people. So I think there is a real balance. (But) there are times when he pulls me over and says, 'Marla, you're just too suburban.' "
And she'll say: " 'I don't think people will understand that reference, or it's important that you explain this joke.' But the show has to be his sensibility. The show is built around Arsenio."
Hall may be naive to think that he can change the way cultures communicate by simply putting black and white entertainers together on one talk-show couch, but one senses a sincerity of purpose, as if the message spurring him on is the same that has resounded in black churches for years: "We've come too far to turn back now."
So it's particularly ironic that Hall, who calls himself "the Martin Luther King of Comedy" because of his commitment to employing minorities and women, is being sued by an official of the NAACP.
Hall emphatically denies that he said there were no qualified blacks he could hire for major positions on his show, as Willis Edwards charges. And Edwards is equally vehement in denying that he ever attempted extortion. A Superior Court judge recently denied Hall's motion for dismissal of the suit, and it appears that the case may go to trial.
Hall maintains that his staff has more women and minorities than most of the talk-show competition. "I set up a power regime of me and two people," Hall says. Producer Brown "handles the creative side of my decisions" and Corky Lee, a black man, handles technical matters.
"I set things up so that black people are in key positions," Halls says. "I have five talent coordinators, and two are black," including head talent coordinator Kim Swann. Three of the four cameramen are black. And Hall has instituted intern and job-placement programs for minorities.
As for writers, he says, "I'm going to hire the funniest," based on the material submitted. "I asked them (NAACP officials) for a list of joke writers. They never sent me a list." Instead, Hall says, Edwards sent him names of black screen writers and sitcom writers. A stand-up comedian needs jokes, Hall insists, and "it's hard to find black joke writers."
"It's so depressing," he says, "to find that my biggest obstacle didn't turn out to be what people said: 'You're young, you're black, you're going against the legend--Carson.' The biggest stumbling block turned out to be my black organization, the NAACP."
"What drives me crazy," he adds, "is you look in the mirror and say, 'Your job is making people laugh.' Why the controversy and the pain? I'm just a guy trying to do something good."
And he'll keep trying to send out his bicultural signals, even though some people will never get the message. "I have this black friend who will go anywhere to see Patti LaBelle," he says. But her white boyfriend can't understand the singer's appeal. Hall assumes his nerdiest white voice: " 'When she starts screaming and kicking her shoes off like that, that's not singing. Singing is more like, ah, ah, Vic Damone.'
"You look at a comment like that," Hall says, and it's understandable why some people have a problem with his show--and why he can't give up. "I'm Patti LaBelle," he says defiantly. "And I'm screaming."