It's mid-July, and Arsenio Hall is touring Stage 6 at the Sunset Bronson studio lot in Hollywood. With the exception of a few cables, the space is empty. But with the Sept. 9 launch of The Arsenio Hall Show in national syndication looming, it won't be barren for long. "This is raw," Hall says, pointing to the floor. "But this is where, one day, Madonna will walk."
He glances where his new house band, the Posse (led by percussionist Robin DiMaggio), will play. But Hall is still mulling over whether to resurrect the "Dog Pound" — the rows of audience members who sat behind the band on his old show. "I might not put them there. As popular as it was, no one could see."
As he plots his long-awaited return to late night, Hall has been thinking a lot about his original 1989-1994 talk show and how much of it to duplicate. Some Hall staples will be unavoidable. "People ask, 'Will there be barking? That's not something I get to signal," he says. "They're barking at me in the mall."
Not that Hall wants to escape the ghost of that groundbreaking gabfest. He signed with CBS Television Distribution because the syndication company owns the rights to the old show, and he wanted access to those clips. Twenty years later, it's easy to forget the impact Hall's show had on pop culture at the time. He altered the face of modern campaigning — with Bill Clinton's famous saxophone solo — and brought hip-hop into the mainstream, helping break artists like Snoop Dogg.
A lot has changed in TV since then, and some insiders wonder whether Hall, 57, can have the same kind of impact he did in his 30s. There's a lot more competition, and much of what works for rivals like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon are ironic moments and parodies that turn into viral Internet clips. "Does Arsenio get modern comedy?" asks one insider.
But Hall remains energetic, boasts a youthful demeanor and is still keyed in to pop culture. (He points out that he taught Amanda Bynes comedy at age 5 and remembers watching his pal Alan Thicke's young son Robin — now a pop superstar — grow up.) Hall also offers some much-needed diversity in late night, which will also be on display when he reveals his choice (still under wraps) for show announcer.
Meanwhile, in a nod to the changing times, Hall has hired a group of young staffers to monitor buzzworthy moments from TV and the Internet. And Hall's writers hail from a wide range of shows, including The Tonight Show, Key & Peele and Wipeout.
"It's an incredibly diverse group," says Neal Kendall, who executive produces with Hall and John Ferriter. "It always used to drive me nuts when they'd hand out a writing Emmy and 18 white guys would get up on stage."
Comedian Paul Scheer, who has created a series of Internet videos reenacting old Arsenio Hall Show moments, remembers marveling at how Hall conducted off-the-cuff interviews without note cards. "I'm a huge fan," Scheer recently wrote.
In the beginning, The Arsenio Hall Show was such a departure from NBC's Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson that the late night king remained friendly with Hall, even as the upstart host siphoned away young viewers. "I have a huge sense of pride that until he died, we had an open channel of communication," Hall says. "Johnny hasn't always had a good relationship with people who tried to compete against him. But he never hated me, and I always respected him as my idol and a competitor."
Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, who also hosted Star Search (which, coincidentally, Hall would later host in a short-lived CBS revival), would even steer some of that talent Hall's way. "He would take talent to Johnny and say, 'I want to call Arsenio about this,'" Hall says. "Because Johnny did legends. And then Ed would take me to Spago's and say, 'write this down: Usher Raymond.'"
It was Carson's departure and subsequent Jay Leno/David Letterman battle that played a role in pushing Hall out of the marketplace. "Johnny and I had a very defined territory," Hall says. "The moment Johnny left, it was an announcement to the world that everybody go after it, because the king's gone."
In the years since, Hall has performed on a handful of TV shows (like CBS' Martial Law) but mostly he took time off to raise his son, who is now 13. The itch to return was still there, and one night back stage at his buddy George Lopez's TBS talk show Lopez Tonight, Hall stepped in front of the camera to introduce Snoop Dogg. "I wanted it so bad after that night," he says.
But Hall didn't want to compete with Lopez. So he pitched Fox on hosting a Saturday night talk show in the slot vacated by Spike Feresten. He also took a meeting with HLN and kicked around an Internet talk show idea. He even pitched a series of specials, in which he'd tape new interviews to wrap around clips from the old show. Friends like Eddie Murphy had their own ideas. "Since the day I left late night, Eddie's been like, 'do daytime,'" Hall says.
In August 2011, the night Lopez Tonight was canceled, Hall visited the show to help Lopez shut it down. "But you can imagine the drive home that night," he says. "'OK, it's on now.'" Hall and Lopez considered doing a show together — "maybe the dark Smothers Brothers," he quips.
Hall embarked on a self-marketing campaign, taking various guest host gigs and landing a spot on The Celebrity Apprentice, which he ultimately won. He decided to ride that win straight back on the air.
The new Arsenio Hall Show launches Monday with comedian Chris Tucker. The first week also includes visits from Ice Cube, Magic Johnson and Mark Harmon. On Hall's wishlist: Former President George W. Bush: "Me and W., that's a different interview." And Hall would also like to finally sit down with Joan Rivers. Hall replaced Rivers as host of Fox's The Late Show in 1987 and won Celebrity Apprentice three years after she did. "Our histories are so closely aligned, but I don't know her," he says. "My life has always loomed under Joan's."
Kendall and Hall know it will take some time to win over big-name stars. Hall also laments that the game has changed: On the old show's first episode, he asked Brooke Shields about her virginity. "We're in this world now where publicists control this so much, I don't know if I can have conversations like that," he says.
As he preps his return, Hall is getting help from the unlikeliest of consultants: Leno. "Jay starts talking to me and Neal about different things we should do and not do," he says. It's like Michael Jordan working with your jumper."
It's a long way from that infamous magazine article where Hall promised to "kick Leno's ass." "I'm a disciple of his," Hall says. "But we're like Cain and Abel. When we started battling, it's because we wanted the same thing."
The two eventually patched things up, but Leno still can't resist giving advice, such as the time he told Hall not to crack a Kobe Bryant joke. Hall obliged, but later regretted it. "I told him, you're trying to make me Arsenio Leno. It's got to be Hall. Sometimes he's like, 'just do it the way I do it.'"
Hall expects to hear more from Leno once he exits Tonight. "Before he took over for Johnny, I'd get bits. All the time," he says. "When I first started my show, there wasn't a night Jay didn't call me after the East Coast feed. Like a big brother, it was a brutal critique sometimes."
Hall says he's surprised about the upcoming late night upheaval, with Fallon taking over Tonight from Leno. "I'm watching and thinking, 'Oh man, it was so quiet and boring, and I thought it would be the perfect moment,'" he says. "Even now, I'm here because this is the place for me. A smaller, syndicated engine that could."
DiMaggio, who is also a United Nations diplomat when he's not playing drums, says Hall is being modest: "His momentum is unheard of." Even UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon knew immediately who DiMaggio's new employer was. "He was like, 'the woo-woo man?' And I go, 'Yes. The woo-woo man." (Actually, it should be woof-woof.)
But after 20 years, are viewers ready to once again "get busy" with the woof-woof man? "When you choose a show, you choose who you want to hang out with, you choose your late night representative," Hall says. "I'm ready."