The Once, Current and (Maybe) Future Arsenioooooooooo Hall!

The state of black celebrity has come a long way since Arsenio Hall last hosted a late-night talk show. Which is both good news and bad news for Arsenio Hall.

It’s bad news because Hall is hosting a late-night talk show again, 20 years after the heyday of his first show. The original Arsenio Hall Show was a groundbreaking effort, both in form and content. The odds are against anyone trying to do the same thing in a groundbreaking way a second time, and judging from the episodes I’ve seen so far, there’s nothing at all groundbreaking about Arsenio 2.0.

Perhaps that can’t be helped. When Arsenio 1.0 hit the airwaves in 1989, late-night TV was a much different territory.

NBC had The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the venerable warhorse which had long since become an institution, followed by Late Night with David Letterman, the quirky outlier nobody suspected would become one too. ABC had the half-hour newsmagazine Nightline and called it a night. CBS’s periodic stabs at late-night repeatedly went down in flames.

The brash TV network of the moment was Fox, then carving out an identity as younger and hipper than the Big Three. In 1986 it saw an opening for a late-night show, and tapped Joan Rivers to host it. Fox got style points for having a woman host a show (that’s still an awfully short list), but things just didn’t work out, and the gig eventually went to her emcee-sidekick for a brief while before the plug was finally pulled. That person was Hall, who thus became the first person of color to stand on a mark after the late local news and deliver a monologue on at least a semi-regular basis (Bill Cosby’s occasional stints as Carson’s fill-in don’t count). The experience was enough of a success to embolden Hall to think he could do this for real.

His show had an immediate impact, made easier by the relative lack of competition but due mostly to it being dang near everything Carson and Letterman weren’t. Its format was looser, its staging was fresher, its house band was hotter. Hall didn’t tell the same tired jokes, and he didn’t present the same tired celebrities. Everything about the show skewed younger, especially and most crucially the show’s music. Hall embraced the current face of pop music, which meant some rock but mostly R&B and hip-hop. Acts that never saw the light of day on the Tonight Show and Late Night were staples of Arsenio 1.0, and if they were big enough they sometimes got to do two numbers.

An even bigger factor in the show’s success was its timing. Hall’s show debuted just as a new wave of black celebrity was gaining traction. Spike Lee’s success as a filmmaker opened the door for other black movies to get green-lighted. His Nike commercials starring Michael Jordan showed how athletes could be transformed into pop culture icons, and ultimately brands of their own. Fox launched sitcoms starring black performers – most significantly, the sketch comedy series In Living Color. A black comedy circuit was emerging, which would eventually bust into the mainstream with Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam on HBO. Terri McMillan and other authors began attracting readers starved for seeing black characters in print, at a level a bit poppier than Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. And hip-hop’s golden age was in full effect, with artists expanding not only the genre’s artistic possibilities, but also its crossover appeal.

What all this talent – and its audience – needed was a place to hang. Carson guest slots remained unreachable except for the A-list of the A-list (and the older end of it at that). There were a lot fewer cable networks, and the main black one, BET, made its coin by showing videos. And no, young’uns, there was no Internet to speak of. Pop culture was still very much a monoculture as the ‘90s began, and not all that diverse either, with few options for segmented audiences to see anything besides the established mainstream fare. For every Cosby and The Cosby Show that achieved such standing, there were dozens of stars, ideas and visions which had growing fan bases but never received a fraction of that shine.

Enter the fist-pumping, woof-woofing Hall. As an interviewer, his style was hardly rigorous, but that was OK with his audience, who wanted stars to celebrate, not cross-examine. Arsenio 1.0’s mix of young black, white and Hispanic guests that older generations probably hadn’t heard of, represented television’s first glimpse at what America’s then-nascent cross-cultural future might look like. That point was shrewdly noted by no less an arbiter of such things than one of Hall’s guests in 1992, a sax-playing presidential candidate named Bill Clinton (Hall kicked off the parade of politicians bringing their campaign trails to late-night couches too).

Arsenio 1.0 was perfect for its moment, a spot-on mix of vitality and community. It provided promotional opportunities for stars who weren’t getting much of it anywhere else, and helped them become even bigger stars. More importantly, it was a regular, funky dose of validation for viewers finally seeing someone who looked and thought like them on TV.

But his show’s time in the spotlight was surprisingly brief. When Letterman bolted to CBS in 1992, a huge amount of the late-night market share got sucked away from Hall. Jay Leno, having won the Carson succession war, modernized the Tonight Show format without abandoning its mainstream bonafides. Hall’s willingness to open up his couch to controversial guests like Minister Louis Farrakhan became problematic in some quarters, and a serious beef with Queer Nation wasn’t helpful at all. And as fresh as his style was at the onset, it quickly wore on audiences. Midway through candidate Clinton’s first term as President Clinton, Arsenio 1.0 became history.

No one then had any idea how widely the late-night talk field would expand. We know the names: Leno and Letterman, Conan O’Brien (who famously landed on TBS after his own Tonight Show succession war and thus rendered George Lopez’s Hispanic-flavored spin on Hall’s formula into oblivion), ABC ‘s Jimmy Kimmel, Leno’s designated successor Jimmy Fallon (who had the masterstroke of hiring the Roots as his house band, helping secure some cred with younger audiences), and Craig Ferguson after Letterman on CBS. Throw in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Channel, Chelsea Handler on E!, and everybody else on cable, and there’s no shortage of stuff to fall asleep on the couch by.

What all these shows have in common is a need to fill up their space with guests. Had they been forced to draw from the same limited pool Carson exploited for years, things would have been grim indeed. But Hall’s success helped make the black celebrities of the late ‘80s and ‘90s familiar household names, and thus accessible enough for late-night shows to book. Leno, especially, had started hosting them on the Tonight Show even before Hall’s show ended, and everyone followed suit once Hall was gone.

We’ve gotten so used to seeing stars of color all over late-night TV, there hasn’t been much of a hue and cry for a specific go-to show for audiences of color. That’s not to say that late-night guest slots couldn’t be even more inclusive, but progress seems to have been made nonetheless. And that’s the battleground Arsenio 2.0 is gamely trying to navigate.

The headline guests of Arsenio 2.0 episodes I caught recently were Tyra Banks and Cedric the Entertainer, two shining examples of the generation of black stars who beat a path to Hall’s couch back in the day. But instead of novelty or any other level of excitement, it was as if I had fallen into a time capsule. Arsenio 2.0 seems to have the same carbon-copy feel, from the theme music to the desk-less set to the fawning questions to the overly geeked-to-be-here audience to the silly gags, as the original.

In fact, much of Arsenio 2.0’s guest list to date has come straight from the ‘90s and early 00’s, with a few stars from reality and competition TV thrown in to stay somewhat close to current. We already know who they are and what they’re likely to do while they’re there, so there’s little if any must-see factor to their appearances.

His musical guests have been more contemporary – Kendrick Lamar, A$APs Ferg and Rocky, Mac Miller, even neo-bluesman Gary Clark, Jr. But he’s got no monopoly on the pop charts this time around; Fallon had Drake on a couple of weeks ago. And when even Letterman can visit the fringe and have avant-rap collabo Deltron 3030 as a guest, Hall is losing points on a playing field he used to own.

It might have been news, or at least some measure of cultural progress, to see Banks or Cedric or a hot rapper on a talk show 20-odd years ago. Now that those black stars (and also those who emerged since Arsenio 1.0) can be seen in all kinds of talk shows and other mass-market venues (including, it should be noted, the White House), it is nowhere near as big a deal.

Meanwhile, there is a new generation of stars in the making and, Internet be damned, they could use some mainstream TV attention. No, they’re not household names, at least not in most households. But neither were many of the people Hall featured the first time around, and many of them turned out OK.

Arsenio 1.0’s magic happened because he captured the untapped edge of mass entertainment — mainstream exposure for performers who represented pop’s future as well as its present – and wrapped it in a captivating package. Hall needs to traverse the emerging edge again in order to make Arsenio 2.0 as hot as the original. He needs to modernize the guest list and stop trotting out the likes of Nelly and Dr. Phil.

Hall should think Donald Glover as well as Don Cheadle. Book writer/blogger Samantha Irby before ringing up Mo’Nique. Keep showcasing hip-hop, but broaden the mix enough to make room for non-rappers with buzz: Valerie June, Gregory Porter, the list goes on (and don’t be afraid of hosting an occasional 21st-century rock band while you’re at it). When it’s time to get newsy, give Cornel West a break and tap Melissa Harris-Perry or Matt Taibbi. Go find the next Louis C.K. or Kevin Hart. Shine a spotlight on prime time TV folk of color not named Kerry Washington or Sofia Vergara; lesser-known talents like Demian Bichir of The Bridge would be one place to start.

During the run-up to his comeback, Hall noted in various interviews that one barrier to Arsenio 2.0’s success would be the relative ubiquity of the biggest stars. He’s well aware most of them, all the way down to the C-list, have already made numerous stops on the Leno-Letterman-everyone else circuit throughout these last 20 years. But he might be misreading the terrain. What he sees as his biggest challenge could actually reveal a route to a unique niche in this crowded marketplace.

Which brings us to the good news about Arsenio Hall’s return to late-night TV. Although this probably wasn’t the plan, Arsenio 2.0’s lackluster start shows us just how much black star power penetrated the entertainment mainstream in a generation’s time, and how deeply it did so. It also gives us rise to consider how many new voices worthy of late-night couch time are out here now. It’s a reminder that although Arsenio 1.0 lost the battle, its basic idea won the war.