Arsenio Hall's strong guest lineup for the first week of his new program after nearly two decades in talk show hosting exile befits his return as a one-time would-be king of late night: Chris Tucker, Nas and Lisa Kudrow, among others, are slated to appear.
But perhaps the most impressive of the bunch is Wednesday's guest: Magic Johnson, a reminder of the power and influence of the first edition of “The Arsenio Hall Show.” The basketball great memorably visited Hall’s show in 1991, in his first interview after learning he had HIV. Hall, displaying humor and sensitivity, delivered an upbeat, touching and informative broadcast during a very different time. “You can gain strength by being with those who are close to you,” Johnson told Hall.
Johnson’s slated guest shot Wednesday offers inspiring signs, in very different ways, of the strength, vibrancy and resilience of both men. It’s also a sign that Hall is ready to create new magic.
Hall’s comeback brings him to a vastly changed late night landscape – a crowded field that's in new flux with Jimmy Fallon's impending ascension to the “Tonight Show” throne and Seth Meyers taking over at “Late Night.” It's a field Hall helped create.
By the time Hall's show debuted in 1989, many had gone up again Johnny Carson's “Tonight Show.” But few lasted long, save for Dick Cavett’s ABC venture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Cavett ran a different kind of show than Carson, Hall put a youthful twist on the "Tonight" formula of monologues, entertainment world guest and musical performances – and an unspoken tight connection with the audience.
Hall pulled a young, diverse crowd into his studio and onto his sofa (his pal and “Coming to America” co-star Eddie Murphy was a frequent presence). The show’s so-called “Dog Pound,” complete with its “Woof! Woof! Woof!” chant, created a fun, loose atmosphere where a presidential candidate named Bill Clinton felt comfortable enough to don sunglasses and play sax in 1992.
It’s unclear whether Hall’s early fans, now over 40, will flock back to him or whether he’ll be able to attract a younger crowd to his new late night party. The time slot of his syndicated show varies somewhat market to market, but he’ll be going up against Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler, Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno and David Letterman to start.
But, as he showed on “Celebrity Apprentice,” Hall is a smart, likable and funny performer who belongs back on TV. As we await his comeback, check out his classic 1991 interview with Johnson below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.