The Arsenio Way : No Carson Copycat, Hall Woofs Up His Audience By Making His Own Rules

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joan Collins was chatting on about life on the road with her touring play, "Private Lives," and the burden of traveling with 28 pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage. The attention of "The Arsenio Hall Show" studio audience, who had come see to a late-night house party, seemed to be waning.

Until Hall asked Collins if she would ever wear a Heavy D. & the Boyz T-shirt to bed.

Some heads in the audience perked up.

Oh, and did Hall hear that Collins does the splits in her stage show? "No way I can talk you into doing a split before you leave," he urged.

Collins, 58, obliged, dropping to straddle the carpet and thrusting her arm in the air like a high school cheerleader. The crowd went wild, Hall's posse struck up a funk tune and the house party was hoppin'.

"I honestly thought she would come out in a tight skirt or beaded dress by Tony Chase or Bob Mackie," Hall said after the show, sitting on the soft carpet of his dressing room, his double-breasted olive jacket tossed aside, his shirt untucked and tie loosened. "And then she walks out in stretch pants and leather boots, and I'm saying to myself, 'Girlfriend's gonna do a split tonight, or I'm not going to commercial.' "

Would Joan do the splits for just any talk show host?

"No," she said with an impish smile, when ambushed on her way to her dressing room after the segment. "This is just for him. Because this is the sort of thing that works for Arsenio."

When asked to explain Hall's appeal, Collins shrugged. "It's stardust," she said, and walked off.

Well, not really. Despite smooth appearances, there's more to Hall's flip, easy appeal than meets the eye. The 33-year-old host, celebrating his show's third anniversary this week, has gone to great lengths, including the hiring of an independent research firm, to assure his status as the No. 2 late-night host behind his role model, Johnny Carson, whom Hall has reverently called the architect of his dreams.

"The press is always pitting me against him, which is very unfair because Johnny and I have so easily, peacefully coexisted," Hall said. "He gets an audience; I get their children, cut and dry."

With the king of late night giving up his throne in May, however, Hall would appear to be the crown prince. But his ascension may not be as easy as all that. In addition to Carson's replacement, Jay Leno, there is a vertitable convention of new late-night challengers who are sharpening their tongues--the most talked about being former "Saturday Night Live" regular Dennis Miller, premiering Jan. 20 on KTLA in Los Angeles and KUSI in San Diego.

"Dennis Miller is the only one who scares me," Hall said, "because I have tremendous respect for him and think he's one of the brightest comics on the scene."

Hall doesn't do many interviews these days. His publicist approached The Times for this story, and Hall concedes that part of his desire to talk to the press is a competitive response to the shifting late-night landscape.

"I feel you're only new once," he said. "And when you come out of the chute in the beginning, you should do everything you can to let America know who you are and that you're here. After that, you just do solid work. And my exception to that is every year around anniversary time you should kind of remind people that the vehicle is there, and that I've made it through another year."

Hall can indeed celebrate another successful year, although there were some struggles. His show's ratings dipped for a spell--he says because of the Persian Gulf War--and his first producing project, "Party Machine with Nia Peeples," was a ratings flop.

More recently, he was accused in The Times of outraging a Hollywood Hills community for obstructing views with the proposed construction of a monstrous tennis court on 25-foot pylons, part of a private 15,000-square-foot mansion he is building. Hall maintained that the project belongs to a business partner of his and he has no part in it--and certainly no plans of living there.

Hall admits to trusting no one, especially the press. "You can't afford to," he said. "Another thing reported in The Times was that I survey property in a helicopter, which I thought was very unfair because I'm afraid to fly and I've never been in a helicopter, with God as my witness. There's not even a gray area there."

Alos this year was the disturbing news that Hall's close friend of eight years, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, contracted the AIDS virus. Nine million households, Hall's largest audience to date, tuned in last month when Johnson chose "Arsenio Hall" as the best public forum to reach his fans.

"It's obviously a wake-up call to the world, I'm just devastated that the alarm clock was my partner," Hall said.

If his personal life is still tough, professionally Hall is sitting on top of Hollywood. "Arsenio Hall" is back up in the ratings. He has a four-picture deal with Paramount and is developing a feature film for young rapper Will Smith, the Fresh Prince.

Hall acknowledged that he is often intimidated by the larger-than-life power his position affords him. When a pastor recently pointed out a crack house adjacent to his church in East Los Angeles--"deep in the 'hood," Hall said--Hall impulsively purchased the home and is turning it into a youth center.

"You can do that," Hall said, snapping his fingers. "You can feed a thousand people with the drop of a dime. You can just write out a check. That's the cool part of all this."

Hall is particularly pleased with where he is today in light of the media's overwhelmingly negative reaction to the premiere of "Arsenio Hall" three seasons ago. Hall responded to some early criticism--specifically to comments from New York Times TV critic John O'Connor, who referred to the penchant for Hall's rowdy audience to act like the Cleveland Browns dog pound from his home state (which is where the trademark Arsenio yowl "Woof! Woof!" comes from). "Too often the impression is that he has simply lost control of the situation," O'Connor wrote.

"When I read that I looked back at the tapes that preceded that review, and he had some points that needed to be observed," Hall said, recalling an incident the first week of his show when Little Richard got out of his seat when an audience member shouted a homophobic remark. "If I didn't do something the next step was having my nose broken by a skinhead."

But even as Hall's popularity soared, his show becoming an in-crowd club for the MTV masses, critics continued to assail Hall for what they called simplistic monologues and hack interviews, for schmoozing with guests and bathing in the frenzied reception that greets him nightly from his barking, fist-flailing fans.

Last year, Hall considered changing to please those critics. In August the earnest talk show host hired the research company Frank Magid and Associates to talk with fans and find out what they thought about the show, about the interviews, about the music.

"They did focus groups, and we sat behind mirrors, and Paramount executives flew into some cities to listen to people," Hall recalled. "One of the most interesting things that came out of it was fans thought that if my competitors and I talked to the same guests, I would get more out of them. So all the things that critics were saying about me, fans were in the total opposite direction."

Contrary to what has been reported, Hall said he does prepare for interviews, and he retreats to his Studio City home every evening to fill his head with current information. Similar to other talk shows, Hall has two pre-interviewers and a research team of three who collect information on guests and present Hall with a synopsis prior to the show. "I have everything from who they slept with last night to what their grade point average in high school was, if I choose to use it," Hall said, only half joking.

Given the choice between discussing guests' position on the former Soviet Union or their position in bed, he will probably choose the latter.

"I realized the worse thing you can do is change for the critics and forget that the show is not for them," Hall said. "I was about to change what made me famous for eight guys."

When asked why fans flock to him, Hall seemed taken aback, as if considering the question for the first time. "I suppose, clearly you got to ask what is my appeal when every critic, every single critic, was off, was wrong. They said it couldn't happen. They said I was too black for mainstream. So now everybody is like, what the hell? What did we miss? What's his appeal?"

After thinking about it for a moment, Hall suggested his street-level perspective, growing up as an only child with his mother in a lower-class area of Cleveland, is a clue to his popularity. With his guests, he can shift from the king's English to hip-hop ghetto rap in a beat. "I think I offer more longitude than the average host," Hall said.

As a result, though, the host is forced to walk a tightrope as the black kid from the ghetto in tailored Italian suits. When Hall tried to ease into his preferred mode of dress last year--tattered jeans, baggy sweat shirts, high-top tennis shoes--his fans wouldn't have it, research revealed. Hall has become a late-night paradox: an ultra-successful role model for blacks and a colorful connection to the streets for middle-class America.

There, perhaps, lies his real appeal.

"I'm so different from Johnny," Hall said. "I used to turn on Johnny and say"--he began whining--" 'Hmmm, I don't want to see Don Rickles again . Why are Steve & Eydie doing twooo songs?'

"I came along and did something that I don't think anybody else did. Twenty-three people challenged Johnny and tried to play him on his field. I came along and said, 'Isn't there someone who doesn't watch him? Don't they need a show?' It was as simple as that. It wasn't a stroke of genius."

Former Paramount chief Frank Mancuso doggedly pursued Hall to do his own show after he filled in for Joan Rivers when she was cancelled on Fox. Since then the late-night arena has never looked the same. "I wanted a show for the huddled masses," Hall mused.

The week "Arsenio Hall" premiered, one of his guests was pop superstar Bobby Brown, who, despite having a No. 1 single on the charts, couldn't get on any other talk shows, Hall said.

"Until a few years ago Stevie Wonder told me had had never been on the Carson show," Hall said. "I've got friends who say now they get on other talk shows and never got them before. What's really cool is somebody brought me a tape (recently) and said, 'Watch this.' And it was Jay Leno interviewing Gerardo. And I said, 'Yes! Yes!' "

Hall feels bittersweet about Carson's pending departure. The stories are well documented how as a kid Hall set up chairs in his basement and pretend he was Johnny. His greatest thrill, he said, was sneaking onto the "Tonight Show" stage when he was a struggling comedian and standing on the star where Carson delivers his monologue. Last year, Hall even occupied Carson's Los Angeles Lakers seats, purchasing them after hearing Carson rarely used the season tickets.

But Hall insisted he is no pretender to the throne.

"I think when Johnny leaves I'm going to be able to keep my core audience, and I'm going to be fine," he predicted. "I don't think any one man will ever occupy the demographics that he has for 29 years. I think everyone who made up that Carson number will just go everywhere. Some will take up crocheting, some will watch Dennis Miller, some will watch Jay Leno, some will rent more videocassettes. But no one will ever dominate like Johnny."

"Aresenio Hall" airs Monday-Friday at 11 p.m. on KCOP and XETV.

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