Question: Why did The Arsenio Hall Show go off the air? For a while there, he was like the biggest thing ever. Andi B., Ambler, Pa.
Televisionary: Well, it wasn't the biggest, Andi, but at its most popular, Arsenio Hall's syndicated talkfest got pretty close, breaking new ground for an African-American host and shaking up the stodgier elements of the format in a way that hadn't been done since David Letterman took to the air. But the simple answer to your question? Hall quit.
When the hourlong show first hit the air in January 1989, nobody knew how well it would eventually do. At the time, Hall was known only as the man who stepped in for Joan Rivers when she left Fox's The Late Show nearly two years earlier. In fact, many initially paid more attention to CBS' The Pat Sajak Show, since Sajak was riding the wave of the popular Wheel of Fortune. But Hall, who brought a manic energy to his offering that complemented his noisy audience nicely, surprised everyone with his popularity among younger viewers.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn't a big fan of the show, which I found to be overly fawning and irritating. Nor was TV Guide reviewer Merrill Panitt, who wrote that Hall "tends to overpraise his guests especially Brat Pack movie stars and comics who come on with naïve social comments and prompt screams and whoops from the most annoyingly loud studio audience in talk-show history." But a lot of people disagreed with both of us.
By September, Arsenio topped Letterman's and Sajak's shows and was running behind only Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, surprising everyone with its younger demos. Hall wasn't poaching viewers from Carson; he created a new late-night talk-show audience on his own. By June of the following year, his ratings improved on the first six months of '89 by 23 percent, he was on 205 stations nationwide and he was named TV Guide's TV Person of the Year. He was No. 1 among 18-to-34-year-olds. And not only did he have his own parking space on the Paramount lot, he had spaces on either side of his car to provide a buffer. That's clout.
Hall had reason to gloat, and in interviews he allowed himself to indulge in a little bit of an "I told you so" routine. "Man, only a few people ever believed I could do this. And no one from the old days in Cleveland [his hometown]," Hall told TV Guide in 1989. "I was considered nuts. Even my mother thought I was a fool. At Kent [State University], in this communications class, they'd ask people what they wanted to do someday, and I said I planned on being a standup comic and doing something like Johnny [Carson]. And all these people would be coverin' their mouths and laughin' like, 'Sit down, stop embarrassin' yourself. You'll be workin' at Republic Steel or at the rubber plant in Akron. Be quiet.' I wish I had those people's numbers right now. I'd call 'em and let 'em know I'm living the dream. I'm kickin' the dream's a--."
The host had the numbers to back him up and he talked a good game, but he also came off as touchy and found himself in public tiffs with people like Jay Leno, whose a-- he said he'd kick when Leno took over from Carson. Early on, he was sensitive to comments made about him. "I notice on other shows now, like Letterman, you see Dave and Paul Shaffer doing jokes about me," he said. And Dennis Miller said something [on Saturday Night Live] one night, when people were laughing and applauding him, like, 'Stop it, stop it, you're going to make me think I'm Arsenio Hall or something,' and they laughed some more. When you're quiet, in a room alone, you start thinking, 'Why were they clapping? Am I a joke or something to them?'"
He was a joke to some, sure, with his rah-rah approach to what was often a celebrity lovefest. But his popularity was undeniable and he definitely blazed trails, inviting African-American celebrity guests when other talk shows wouldn't book nearly so many of them.
By 1993, however, Arsenio's fortunes started to turn. Leno replaced Carson, and despite Hall's previous vows of kicking, Tonight proved to be the tougher of the two. When Letterman moved to CBS, the situation got worse, claiming more of Arsenio's ratings and taking CBS affiliates away. As a result, Hall's show ran a constant third and it aired its last new offering in May 1994. However, as TV Guide reported in 1995, sources at Paramount said the company would've kept the show going, since coming in third behind Leno and Letterman was still profitable. But the host said he'd had enough.
"Six [seasons] is a long time, through 18 hours a day, to do anything even something you love," he said. "Even sex. You can't have sex 18 hours a day! You need a rest."