With his all-gums smile, putting-green hairdo, and wet-kiss interviewing style, Arsenio Hall was the indisputable talk-show champ of 1990. The 31-year-old schmooze artist bagged the biggest stars — gab-shy celebs such as Harrison Ford, Warren Beatty, and Robert De Niro — bringing them to TV exactly when viewers wanted to see them. In its second year, the syndicated Arsenio Hall Show is the second-highest-rated after-hours talk show, and the first ever to hold its own against Johnny Carson. More than 3 million households tuned in every night, while NBC’s Tonight Show pulled in 4.5 million and Late Night With David Letterman, 2.7 million. Among viewers under 35, Hall’s ratings were even higher. ”I’m the talk-show host for the MTV generation,” he boasts. ”I’ve been warming up in the ’80s, but I’m really for the ’90s.”
If that’s so, expect a decade of conversation that seldom delves deeper than the what’s-your-favorite-color variety of chit-chat (”Let’s talk about pet peeves,” is one of Hall’s favorite setups). But occasionally a guest lets $ slip a delicious morsel. When Madonna sat down to plug Dick Tracy, she announced that consensual sexual spanking was a favorite extracurricular activity. Woof! Woof! Then there was Hall’s November hug-fest with Roseanne Barr and husband Tom Arnold: Arsenio had been feuding with them all year, and their making-up was the most amazing display of celebrity gush since Merv left TV for real estate.
One of Hall’s earliest memories from his childhood in Cleveland’s ghettos was watching a rat scurry across his foot in the bathroom. ”I decided right then,” he once said, ”that my big goal was to live in a house with no rats and roaches.” He got a whole lot more, including a multimillion-dollar TV/film contract with Paramount and a costarring role with buddy Eddie Murphy in 1988’s Coming to America.
His apple-polishing interview technique hasn’t won him any job offers from 60 Minutes, but Hall doesn’t care. ”One critic accused me of fawning over second-rate talent,” he has said. ”How dare he! In the ghetto the game is respect. If I book you, I’m committed to you. I’m an entertainer, not a tough interviewer.” Tough interviewer, no. Tough to resist, yes.