Twenty years ago this month, then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton donned sunglasses and played the sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show," helping, in the process, to change the tune for late night TV.
Sure, Richard Nixon tickled the ivories on a self-penned classical number more than three decades earlier on Jack Paar's show. But Clinton's rollicking version of "Heartbreak Hotel" shattered any staid expectations and presaged the stampede of presidential candidates to the late night talk show circuit.
It proved a defining and iconic moment for Hall – as well a testament to his too-often overlooked influence on the late night talk show game. Now Hall is getting a chance to stake new ground in the crowded late night field he helped create – and that's something to Woof! Woof! Woof! about, far beyond The Dog Pound.
When Hall's syndicated talk show debuted in 1989, Johnny Carson was in his twilight as king of "The Tonight Show.” The only host with any lasting power previously to go up against Carson was Dick Cavett, who offered a different brand of humor and talk.
Hall, whose rise coincided with the then-growing prevalence of hip-hop culture, got tagged as an alternative "urban" act – code word that unfairly downplayed the breadth of his appeal. He wasn't the anti-Carson as much as a host who smartly tweaked the Carson formula – adding an ample dollop of his own energetic style – to draw a young, diverse crowd. Like Carson, he picked strong guests – and let them get the laughs and cheers. (The similarities – and stark generational differences – between the two are highlighted in the classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch starring Dana Carvey as “Carsenio”).
You can hear echoes of Hall’s smart, fun and friendly style in Conan O’Brien’s various efforts. Hall’s stress on current music can be found across the late night dial, especially on Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night.” But perhaps Hall's biggest impact came in showing there’s room in the late night field for multiple players and styles.
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Hall, in a bitter irony, got squeezed out of the game in 1994 amid a post-Carson scramble that made Jay Leno and David Letterman feuding 11:30 p.m. competitors, brought O’Brien to NBC’s “Late Night” and inspired memorable failures by Chevy Chase and Dennis Miller.
Hall, whose new show is set to start on 17 Tribune stations in September 2013, faces challenges, especially in an age in which the Internet often draw attention away from TV. But Hall but has a strong foundation to build upon: old-school fans who were proud Dog Pound members back in the day and are now over 40. He also stands to capitalize on his exposure from “Celebrity Apprentice,” and capture part of a generation that believes fist pumping began with “Jersey Shore.”
There’s a certain poetic justice that Hall’s ticket back to the crowded late night field got punched in the packed Reality TV world, where we were reminded of his likability and quick wit as he rose far above his C-list competition – and not just because of his business acumen.
Hall, at 56, still projects a youthful exuberance that could help him attract an audience that’s diverse, most of all, in age – something he might want to keep in mind as he books guests. Sure, we can expect Donald Trump and Hall’s “Coming to America” co-star and pal, Eddie Murphy, to show up – maybe even former President Clinton. But the new gig will mark a deserved opportunity for Arsenio Hall to toot his own horn.
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.