If The Arsenio Hall Show been around in 2016, would we have another Clinton in office now?
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton did not secure the office just by exploiting the electoral college. Another crucial component was his unorthodox performance on Arsenio’s late-night talk show, where Clinton mesmerized the nation with his shades and Kenny G-worthy sax skills.
Through Hall’s show, Clinton was able to connect with young voters and the “urban” community (i.e., people of color). Whereas Hilary Clinton was seen as pandering to the black community last year, to some, Bill Clinton was the closest thing to a black president we would ever get—until Obama, anyway. Had Hilary had the chance to play the flute along to Future’s “Mask Off” on Arsenio’s show, maybe her relatability would have rivaled her husband’s.
While many black comedians of the early nineties were disciples of Richard Pryor, Arsenio made his own comedy applicable to a vast audience with his large smile, upbeat tempo, and universal perspective on life. During his show’s initial five-year run, nationally syndicated from 1989 to 1994, he gave a voice to the black community that could not be found elsewhere on late-night TV.
In the world of Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, and Conan O’ Brien, The Arsenio Hall Show was a vital platform for breaking artists of color into the mainstream. During the late eighties and early nineties, hip-hop culture was mainly relegated to a two-hour segment on Yo! MTV Raps. Though the likes of N.W.A. and Tupac were arguably becoming some of the greatest musical acts of their generation across all genres, their visibility was still limited by the “controversial” narrative that the mainstream media painted. But Arsenio provided a star-studded list of people, including Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson, Will Smith, and Snoop Dogg, with a space to be unapologetically black on national television.
Comedy plays a significant role in how many of us receive information. So it matters that, unlike any other show at the time, Arsenio’s not only put underrepresented entertainers in the spotlight, but also illuminated issues affecting “urban” communities in entertaining, enlightening segments. He brought together some of the most notorious “gangster” rappers (some of whom represented rival gangs), like Eazy-E, Ice-T, and N.W.A., to perform “We’re All in the Same Gang” as a way of denouncing and shedding light on gang violence. He brought in Magic Johnson to talk about the stigma against HIV and Louis Farrakhan to speak on the Nation of Islam and the late Malcolm X. During the era of the L.A. riots, with police brutality making national headlines, Arsenio became a symbol of positivity and camaraderie in the black community.
Facing falling ratings because of stiff competition from similar programs starring Letterman, Leno, and future The Daily Show host Jon Stewart—whose The Jon Stewart Show premiered in 1993 on MTV—The Arsenio Hall Show ended in 1994, but not without first hosting the most monumental hip-hop cypher of all time, which featured A Tribe Called Quest, MC Lyte, KRS-One, and other big names, to wish him well.
Hall would go on to have a successful career as a comedian and an actor, costarring alongside Eddie Murphy in Coming to America and voicing Winston in the Ghostbusters cartoon, among other TV appearances. It was exciting when CBS decided to bring back The Arsenio Hall Show in 2013, but its short lifespan revealed a not-so-shocking truth: not much has changed. Police brutality is still making national headlines, and late-night TV is still a cis white men’s country club.
In 2013, Arsenio was on familiar ground, but he still stood out, competing against Stewart, Colbert, and O’Brien. His core audience, which he called “The Dog Pound,” was still there, returning his famous, fist-pumping “Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” But that wasn’t enough to keep him on the air.
Though it only lasted one season, the second Arsenio Hall Show brought to late-night TV something it still desperately needs: a fresh perspective. Though the likes of Trevor Noah have shown up on Comedy Central, their shows are still rooted in the narrative that Stewart and Colbert built. It’s not enough to give black people a seat at the late-night table if they are not drawing their narrative from the black perspective.
But Arsenio’s influence on late-night TV can still be felt, with groups like Migos showing up on The Tonight Show and Ellen. Though Arsenio isn’t likely to get back on the late-night TV circuit anytime soon, his stand-up dates at Goodnight’s Comedy Club this weekend should be filled with hilarious stories and life lessons from a historic entertainer.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Real Talk.”
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