It was one of 1989’s most anticipated television debuts: an edgier, hipper new late-night chat show on CBS — armed with a bevy of skilled comedy writers, loads of media hype, and a knowing, ever-smirking host — that was billed as the challenger to Johnny Carson’s empire.
Then, a little more than a year after its debut, The Pat Sajak Show was canceled. And feisty, fist-pumping Arsenio Hall was to blame.
When The Arsenio Hall Show debuted in syndication on Jan. 3, 1989 (with guests Brooke Shields, Luther Vandross, and Leslie Nielsen), it was dismissed as the other talk show, and most pundits predicted the ratings victory would go to Sajak. But thanks to a good-time vibe and a demographically savvy guest list, Hall almost instantly generated the buzz that eluded competitors Sajak, Chevy Chase, and Rick Dees (anyone remember him?) — all of whom saw their shows crumble during Arsenio’s five-and-a-half-year run.
”We were very much the underdog,” says former segment producer Bill Royce. ”[Publicists] would have nothing to do with us.” In addition to duking it out with the big boys for big-name couch warmers, Hall had to overcome the perception that a show hosted by an African American couldn’t cross over and capture the eyeballs of a white mainstream audience. ”The main thing we fought from the beginning was that [Arsenio] was ‘a black show,”’ says Royce. ”But Arsenio always wanted everyone to come to the party.”
It was an invitation that soon proved hard to resist. In 1991, for example, Hall was the first to interview Magic Johnson after the basketball great disclosed he had tested HIV-positive, while a 1992 appearance by then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton — in which he donned shades and saxed up ”Heartbreak Hotel” — remains one of the most indelible political campaign images ever. And in a display of audience participation that became a pop-cult touchstone, he made barking cool, fitting in as many arm-waving rounds of woof woof woof per show as possible.
At times, Hall himself landed in the doghouse. Naysayers tagged his interview technique too soft, a criticism Royce shrugs off: ”He wasn’t trying to be Mike Wallace.” Maybe so, but that excuse hardly dampened the controversy that swirled around Hall’s 1994 hour-long one-on-one with Muslim firebrand Louis Farrakhan, which prompted film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert to cancel their post-Oscar appearance on the show.
But even before Hall’s cozy chat with Farrakhan got the thumbs-down, Arsenio’s momentum was beginning to wane. He arrogantly picked a fight he was destined to lose with Tonight Show host Jay Leno, telling EW in 1992 that he was going to ”kick Jay’s ass.” And then he had to go head-to-head with David Letterman in 1993, when the Late Night host defected from NBC to CBS. After ratings dipped almost 25 percent from 1993 to 1994, Arsenio shut down in May 1994. Hall’s post-Arsenio career hasn’t been much to bark about: His 1997 self-titled ABC sitcom was a high-profile, high-cost flop, and his most successful stints to date — costarring on the defunct Martial Law and shilling for 1-800-COLLECT — don’t quite recall his party-hearty glory days.