Review: In late-night return, Arsenio Hall lives in the past
Arsenio Hall, who was on the cover of Time magazine in 1989 (“TV’s hip host grabs the post-Carson generation”), returned to the air Monday night for an indefinite run as the host of a revived “The Arsenio Hall Show.” (It should be said right off that the Tribune Co., of which this paper is a property, is a co-producer of the series.)
“Leave it to the first black late-night host to take 19 years off work,” said Hall, “and come back here and expect my job to still be waiting for me.” If it was not a stunning return to form -- the original show was a cultural landmark over its five-year run, the place where candidate Bill Clinton famously donned a pair of sunglasses and blew a couple of choruses of “Heartbreak Hotel” -- it was, in any case, a return. And there is something to be said for that.
It is a curious thing to launch a new late-night series under the stewardship of a 57-year-old, even one as lively and youthful and fit as Hall; that is the age, rather, when they are painting the target on your back. But with late-night still dominated, almost to the point of exclusion, by white men -- very white men, mostly -- Hall does make sense: He is the outsider and insider, with a track record and good will, and the power of nostalgia working for him.
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The host brings not only a still-necessary demographic corrective to late night but memories of a time, which was also the time of the Wayans brothers’ “In Living Color,” when black culture seemed poised to join the broadcast mainstream. Hall appeared then very much a man of the future. It was a false spring, in most respects -- Hall’s first show lasted only five years. But it shined in the moment.
“Let’s get busy,” Hall said, pumping his forearm in his signature forearm-pump. The audience barked their approval, as in days of old when magic, and Magic, filled the air. “I’m back and back is beautiful.”
In pursuit of continuity, the set, with its sofa, comfy chair and ottomans and its blue Deco-esque background elements, recalled its predecessor. (Possibly it was the original furniture, out of storage.) The new set added a big photo of a bend in the Sunset Strip, where we are invited to imagine the show is produced. (The studios are on Sunset, but miles to the east of the Strip.)
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Hall’s first guest was the comic and actor Chris Tucker, whom Hall first met “back in the day,” as illustrated by a clip from the old show. They danced a little before sitting down. Though he is a talented man, Tucker was a terrible interview, keeping his answers short and insubstantial, if energetically delivered. Hall’s strength is conversation -- he doesn’t use cards -- and if this tended at times to produce gossip and name-dropping, it also created a sense of intimacy and excitement and opportunities for hilarity and revelation.
None of that was evident Monday night; there was a pumped breathlessness to the hour -- understandable after all -- that produced a lot of noise but little to remember. There was possibly too much emphasis on the past, and most of what Hall pulled out of his head, or what his writers gave him to say, suggested that not only had he been off the air for 20 years, but that he and they had spent much of that time stranded on a desert island.
“A lot has changed,” said the host in an opening monologue. “Back then you could invite Mel Gibson and a Jewish guy to the same party -- can’t do that no more. Back then the only doctor that prescribed marijuana was Dr. Dre.... I tell the kids, back then Instagram was a cocaine delivery service.” There were parody clips of shows that Hall had supposedly made in the meantime, including a drama called “Prison Snitch,” in which he was stabbed repeatedly by prisoners, guards, the warden and his own lawyer, and “Tunaphoon,” with a cameo from “Sharknado” star Tara Reid. (“I found Nemo, and he’s a bitch.”)
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A time-capsule routine had Hall producing an old, big cellphone (“It’s so old it tried Siri for being a witch”), A-Rod’s high school mitt (full of pills and hypodermic needles) and Kim Kardashian’s tricycle. (It had a big seat.) “I wait 20 years and I come back as Carrot Top,” adding, “Carrot Top makes a lot of money, though.” A prosthetic derriere supposedly worn by Paula Abdul brought Abdul onstage (as if, but clearly not, by surprise): “I know I’m speaking for millions,” she told him. “We’ve all missed you so much.” And now that he was working again, “I hope this means you’ll be moving out of my pool house.”
One hopes that the opening salvo of backward glances means that Hall can now move on to something resembling the present. Still, if there is any thought of attracting a new generation of younger viewers -- past those with a historical interest in the culture of the late 20th century -- it is not apparent in the first week’s bookings, which include Ice Cube, Lisa Kudrow, Angela Bassett, Mark Harmon, Penn and Teller and Magic Johnson. Decidedly old school, apart from the musical guests, anyway, which include Mac Miller and Ariana Grande -- something “for the youngsters,” as Ed Sullivan used to say.
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Music, hip-hop especially, was a strong point of Hall’s old show, and so it was Monday, with an unannounced appearance by Snoop Dogg, who performed twice and sat for a brief interview. Snoop is no kid himself -- he went back to 1993 for “Who Am I (What’s My Name),” which had the crowd waving its hands in the air like it just didn’t care. But whatever nostalgia attached to the number, the performance felt fresh and modern.
Hall is out of practice himself but has already proved himself good at this job, and he remains likable. (He is a good guest on other people’s talk shows.) We will give him his first night, and his first week, and check back later to see where he’s headed -- to 2013, hopefully, or beyond.
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