Talking with Arsenio Hall -- The late night host discusses his show and taking on Jay Leno
At 5:15 p.m. on a rainy spring day in Los Angeles, the screen lifts, and for the 744th time, Arsenio Hall marches out to turn a Paramount Studios soundstage into his own private playpen. Since The Arsenio Hall Show burst onto the late-night airwaves in early 1989, its ebullient, driven, fist- pumping host, a preacher’s son born 37 years ago in a Cleveland ghetto, has / wrested young viewers away from NBC’s Tonight Show with unparalleled and unexpected success. In its three years on the air, Hall’s naughty-by-nature hour has infused a safe, sleepy TV genre with cutting-edge black entertainers (you won’t find Spike Lee or Public Enemy chatting up Johnny — or Jay) and too-cool-for-Tonight superstars (Madonna, Prince, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy). For millions who love Hall’s ability to spur show-biz controversy, Arsenio has become an essential pop spectacle.
Any lingering doubts about Hall’s clout were erased last fall when, in a single night, Magic Johnson (an old friend) and Roseanne Arnold (a onetime enemy) both chose his show to talk to America about very personal matters: Johnson about AIDS and Arnold about incest. The hour was Hall’s highest-rated ever. It was also a warning to Jay Leno that, starting this May — when Leno takes over from Johnny Carson — the battle for late-night primacy will be fierce.
After the curtain goes down at 6:15, Hall keeps working, and at 9 p.m., he’s ensconced behind a Buick-size semicircular desk in his bowling alley of an office, a dimly lit haven filled with high-tech equipment, professional memorabilia, and dozens of teddy bears, a favorite gift that he says plays on memories of a less than prosperous childhood. With a Paramount contract, estimated at eight figures, that will keep him on the air for three more years, Hall is, as he puts it, ”a long way from Cleveland.”
He’s an equally long way from the casual, cheery, laid-back party giver he becomes for one televised hour per day. In an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY interview that stretches toward early morning, Hall talks with rare candor, wit, and anger about his friendship with Magic Johnson, his war with the gay activist group Queer Nation, and his fierce rivalry with Jay Leno. ”I change every day,” he says at one point, springing from his chair to pace. ”One day I have a heart of gold. The next day, I want to march with Al Sharpton the rest of my life. I’m America’s most schizophrenic entertainer.”
EW: This looks like one of those offices you never have to leave.
AH: I live here. Everything I have at home is also in my bathroom [here] and this office. I spend more time here than I do at home. I’m happier when I’m working than when I’m not.
EW: So when you do go home, are you miserable?
AH: You know what happens? I take this briefcase, sit it on my desk, turn on the TV, and assume the exact same situation as now. Sometimes when people force me to articulate what I do, I realize that I’m this entertainment and show-biz machine, and clearly, I should go out and purchase a life.
EW: Well, you say that, but obviously you’re very happy doing what you’re doing.
AH: Yeah. People say, ”You gotta get married! You gotta get yourself a Jet Ski! We’ve got access to the Paramount plane, you can go anywhere!” But I’m very happy. I don’t want to jet ski. I don’t want to go to the Bahamas. I don’t care what Big Ben looks like up close. When I get tired of this, then I can do all that stuff. Maybe it’s just that I wanted this so bad all my life that I’m not blinking and taking a chance on it disappearing.
EW: You never get tired of it?
AH: Not at all. But I have no intention of going beyond my Paramount contract, which locks me into it for three more years. I never want to allow myself to get comfortable. In my earlier life, I wouldn’t challenge myself if I thought there was a chance of not winning. I set good old chump goals that I knew I could handle.
EW: When did you start aiming higher?
AH: One night several years ago I was watching The Tonight Show. Somebody was hosting for Johnny, and Jimmie Walker was the guest. And I said to myself, I don’t want to be an old man and look back and say, I could’ve. I remember crying. I was scared. I knew I was gonna have my mother call me an asshole and say, ”Why did you waste my money in college?” Parents think if you’re not going to be a doctor, you don’t need college. What wasn’t understood was that I needed it even more. I have business, budgets, money, decisions. I don’t want to seem like a control freak, but I have to look at every penny of the budget, every guest that’s coming on, every clip. I don’t think I’ve ever done a joke I didn’t have a hand in writing.
EW: Why is that so important to you?
AH: In the past, I allowed people who hadn’t necessarily done anything to tell me what to do. This town is full of people who aren’t talented guiding people who are. I remember a guy at ABC telling me, ”It’s time for a salt-and-pepper team to hit, and I don’t think you can make it alone. So we’re gonna audition a white guy for you.” They brought guys like Wil Shriner and Thom Sharp and Tom Dreesen, a lot of people named Tom, and they told me to pick a white guy! Pick a white guy! It sounds like a bad Chuck Barris game show. So I picked Thom Sharp. Me and this guy, we didn’t know each other from Adam, and they wanted me to do a six-episode summer series [1983’s The 1/2 Hour Comedy Hour, produced by Dick Clark]. It failed miserably. So I say, ”Trust yourself.” If I ever fail again, it will be based on my own sensibilities. I will never, ever let an executive at ABC or Dick Clark tell me what to do again.
EW: Since you bring up failure, it’s odd that you and Pat Sajak started at the same time, and you were the underdog.
AH: I still can’t figure out why I was the underdog.
EW: You know all the buzzwords. You were too urban…
AH: Throughout that entire year, here I was reading that I was too black, and here I was reading that Spike Lee thought I was an Uncle Tom.
EW: How much of it hurt you personally?
AH: As a kid who grew up watching television, I never said, ”Merv is too white.” I thought it was very unfair of white America not to accept me as I am. That blatant kind of institutionalized racism bothered me. I thought, I’m not gonna get a nose job and wear blue contacts and get extensions and change my name to Vanilli. I got to the point where I said, ”Nobody likes me.” I stayed in that funk for a while. I mean, I have feelings. I am a human being. I am not an entertainment machine that Paramount created and tweaked and said, ”Give him the Michael Jackson nose.”
EW: Speaking of Spike Lee, you scolded him on your show when he criticized Whoopi Goldberg for wearing blue contact lenses. And you told him that black entertainers hold back their progress when they quarrel publicly. Do you still feel that way?
AH: Absolutely. I think that’s the reason that the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY article [July 27, 1990, listing rumored feuds between Hall and several black entertainers] affected me. It bothered me the way black-on-black crime bothers me. Where I grew up, guys in the neighborhood said, ”I’m not going to let the white man hold me down.” Now we’re hanging each other more than the white man’s hanging us. There are too many roadblocks that we have to get past to succeed without black people being their own worst enemy.
EW: But why shouldn’t you be able to go public with this? Doesn’t it feed racism to keep it to yourself?
AH: People want to see the battles, but I won’t do it. I think it’s counterproductive. White people are watching. And I honestly believe it’s hard to get a racist society to respect you if they see you don’t respect each other. How can I ask someone not to lynch me, figuratively speaking, if what they see is black people lynching each other? See, with Spike, I said, ”Why don’t you leave Eddie [Murphy] and Whoopi alone?” But I should have said that in private. Here’s the irony of it: I said to Spike once, ”If you don’t stop f — -ing with black people, I’m gonna whip your little ass!”
EW: And what did he say to you?
AH: ”Come on, stop. This isn’t a movie.” I meant well, but I was wrong, and I apologized. I won’t let people draw me into conflicts with other successful black people.
EW: Is there anyone you are feuding with?
AH: The only person I legitimately ever feuded with was Roseanne. That was real.
EW: How do you feel about Whoopi Goldberg, now that she’s going to be competition with her own talk show next fall?
AH: I talked to Whoopi. She wanted to be the show that comes on after mine. She wanted to be my Letterman, and apparently Paramount wasn’t interested. So Paramount didn’t have to have Whoopi as the competition. I was at NATPE [a National Association of Television Program Executives convention where syndicated shows are peddled to local stations] and one guy said, ”Arsenio’s become a little too black, and Whoopi is the answer to that.” Whoopi and I went out one night a couple of weeks ago and I laughed about it.
EW: Do you watch the competition at all?
AH: I watch myself a few times a night — once for the technical, and once for the creative, and a third time just because I have no life. And every night, I try to watch two or three other competitors. First of all, you want to know who’s good. Second, I think it’s real important to find out what’s stolen.
EW: Jay Leno is younger than Johnny Carson, and he’s already beginning to go after your kind of guests.
AH: Yeah. I’ve heard the rumors that Jay is coming after me. The other day, I was told that Jay Leno’s camp sent flowers to somebody on my staff to try to lure them. But I don’t worry about that. A talk show is like a big team. You succeed with effort by each member. Unless you’re Magic Johnson, and then you realize that one guy can be the whole team.
EW: The first or second joke you told on your first show was about Magic Johnson’s gracefulness on the court.
AH: He’s my boy.
EW: You seem to be very close.
AH: When I first came out here, we had a mutual friend who said, ”You want to go to a basketball game? Magic Johnson’s a friend of mine.” At the end of the game, we went downstairs, and he was coming out of the locker room, and he said, ”Yo! The guy from the Comedy Store! Where did you sit?” And I said, ”You see this blood dripping out of my nose? I was real high up. Some stewardess from American Airlines came by with peanuts and s—!” We joked and fooled around and he was laughing. The next day, our friend said, ”Magic says, if you ever want tickets, call him.” So he’d come to the Comedy Store; I’d come to the games. And that’s really how it happened. We became friends. He’s a really special, unselfish kind of guy. I don’t use the word ”friend” loosely, because I think people use it too much. If I have enough friends to count on one hand, I’m a very lucky man. Magic’s one.
EW: How hard was it for you to do the show in which he talked about being HIV-positive?
AH: It was the hardest show I’ve ever done, and I don’t believe there’ll be a harder show in my life. That day was like the day I heard King was dead. There was a somber attitude in department stores, it was on every news station, on everybody’s lips. Magic has a strength and courage that flow from his positive attitude and his smile, and I knew my job was to deliver that to America. Since I knew there were going to be some very unethical and unkind things said, I wanted to let him tell his story. We had a lot of guests booked that night. Roseanne and Tom [Arnold] called me and said, ”We’ll come, we’ll be there, but if he wants our time, he can have it.” Keep in mind, Magic’s thing dwarfed everything, but Roseanne had a serious thing to talk about, too. By the time he came on, I had cried myself out.
EW: Let’s talk about the AIDS awareness video that you’re producing for the Magic Johnson Foundation.
AH: I wanted to do something that would help wipe out ignorance about AIDS. This is not a project for children. This is an adult approach to safe sex, abstinence, monogamy, and knowledge. There are people who don’t know how to put on a condom! There’s a condom now that comes with a shield. You roll it on the penis and pull the shield off. And it seals — there’s an adhesive on the inside. It’s called a Mentor. Here, have one.
EW: Thanks. I guess this leads to the issue of how gay activists have reacted to you. Queer Nation criticized you for being homophobic, and you spent a lot of airtime fighting with Queer Nation members when they heckled you.
AH: Attacked me. But go ahead, ask.
EW: Are the people who have attacked you for telling anti-gay jokes right on some level? And do you think this video will mend any fences?
AH: First of all, will it mend fences with Queer Nation? I don’t care. I know I should probably fence-sit on this, but I’m going to tell you how I feel. I approached that evening the way I did because they were wrong. I wasn’t about to go to a commercial. I felt violated, so I fought back.
EW: Violated how?
AH: If I treated them the way they treated me, I’d be a gay basher. I’m a comedian, and I’d be the first not to do a joke if I felt it created some kind of pain for someone. I am not a callous, heartless comic. I grew up watching the greatest comedians — Bill Cosby and George Carlin — going after the fat cats and the Establishment. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve apologized for many things. But I will not apologize to Queer Nation. The joke they were mad about [in which Hall referred to San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade as ”Gay Country Safari,” and said heterosexuals would roll up their windows and lock their car doors] was about homophobia. My approach was pro [gay].
EW: What about their criticism that you don’t have enough gay guests?
AH: Do they really believe that I am in my office saying, ”Homosexual? Let’s hold off on that guy”? They’re out of their minds. And furthermore, this is my damn show. You get a show if you want to book it. It’s not my responsibility to introduce certain comedians and singers as ”Ladies and gentlemen, a very funny man, and a homosexual, put your hands together for…”
Maybe people within the gay community want to live their lives privately. I have friends who feel that it would be a terrible assault on their career if people knew they were gay. I can name you five singers who are gay and have women crazy about them, and they feel they would be discriminated against. The Advocate had a thing saying, ”Arsenio Hall seems to be having more gay people on,” but the idea was, ”We’re watching him.” Watch my black ass! You have to understand — everyone who’s gay does not follow Queer Nation. I have hardworking friends who are activists for gay rights who believe that that approach is detrimental to the gay community, because what America sees on the news is violence and anger. There is a way to do it without ostracizing people who could be warriors on your side. As far as my being homophobic is concerned, that’s ridiculous. If I were homophobic, I’d lose half of my staff and a lot of my guests. It’s as simple as that.
EW: Let’s talk about you as an interviewer. Are you soft on your guests?
AH: It is not popular in the journalistic community to say that I’m good at what I do. At the same time, the people who criticize me most would be deathly afraid to enter the arena with me. I’ve always said that if [Washington Post TV critic] Tom Shales understands it, let him get a show! I’m waiting!
EW: Are you a better interviewer now?
AH: Absolutely. For people to think I’d have it all the day I started was unfair. I was competing with Johnny Carson, a 29-year legend. Sure, I took a couple of journalism courses [at Kent State University], but I was a comedian. I feel I’ve worked hard, and I’ve gotten a lot better.
EW: What’s most likely to go wrong in an interview?
AH: When I’m on the air, if I’m too worried about ratings or bookings, that takes you out of your game. You miss an obvious follow-up question. Or somebody like Robert De Niro or Joe Pesci gives you a one-word answer and you freak. I try to be freewheeling, to keep it loose and spontaneous. When you watch Leno work, he has cards there. I don’t want to have cards. That takes away from the ability to have a real conversation. You can’t listen with cards.
EW: Are there any guests you wouldn’t book?
AH: The other day they said, ”Andrew Dice Clay wants to come on!” I said no. In the past, it has been a mistake [to have him on the show]. Racism by any name is still racism. I’ve watched Dice do handicapped jokes that I wouldn’t do, and at one time I was like, ”He ain’t messing with black people. I’m fine. He’s messing with handicapped people and Asian people and gay people and people with AIDS.” Sometimes it’s hard to see someone else’s pain. One day I listened to a tape of Andrew’s concert. And some things he said about people with AIDS made me say, ”I’ve been wrong and irresponsible.” That has nothing to do with Queer Nation — but I’m responsible for anything I present to America.
EW: Do you ever watch yourself and groan?
AH: Absolutely. And I try to do better the next night. But you know what? I never make a mistake that hasn’t been made by the other hosts. There are certain things I’m just going to have to deal with because I decided to do the show in America. If I had done A.M. Uganda, or P.M. Soweto, maybe some things wouldn’t have happened. When I came I said, ”I want to create a party with America looking through a keyhole.” I’m not Mike Wallace. I’m not Tom Brokaw. I have the same intellect but I’m a comedian. I’m not tooting my horn — well, yes, I am, because if I don’t toot it, in America it won’t get tooted. One day, people will have to say, ”He’s pretty good.” I’ll probably be dead. Usually we give people their propers after they’re gone.
EW: Will you extend your Paramount contract?
AH: I need to have things that make me nervous. Once you say, ”I got this,” it’s time to move on. Otherwise you become complacent. I need to take on other challenges.
EW: On camera or off?
AH: Both. The art of the deal makes me moist. But as for performing, I wish I could have you on stage when I opened for Stevie Wonder at the Rose Bowl and heard 70,000 people laugh. My ego was so huge, you had to put my car in low to get me home. I don’t think it’s natural to smile, because this world is a bitch. And to know that my job is sending people to bed with a smile is unbelievable.
EW: I watched you talking to a young girl from the Starlight Foundation [which grants wishes to seriously ill children] tonight. What does that do for you?
AH: It keeps my ego in control, and keeps me out of trouble. It takes a lot emotionally. You talk about racism — I met a Starlight kid who was just thrilled to see me, but the mother was not very happy. The little girl said, ”My parents call me Latifah ’cause I like you so much. They tease me and say I wanted to be born black.” That’s some deep s— to put on a kid. Cruel s—. There’s a parent ragging a sick kid ’cause she likes me and I’m black and she’s white? That was the strangest curve anybody threw me.
EW: Rumor has it that you won’t have anyone on your show who goes on The Tonight Show first. Vanessa Williams and Will Smith were supposedly told this.
AH: Let me deal with it this way. We try to get things when they’re new. I put Mariah Carey on (a talk show) for the first time. Now I have a relationship with Mariah professionally so that she knows this is the place. That’s important to me. Suppose Brigitte Nielsen wants to announce that she’s pregnant — great! I tell my people to fight to get it first. Fight to get it exclusive. Is Brigitte going to get applause here if she does Entertainment Tonight, Today, and Hard Copy first? No!
EW: Are you saying you’ve laid down an ultimatum?
AH: It’s not ”Do my show or you might not perform ever again!” But I don’t want to be the second person to hear stories. It’s business, and my demographics have earned it. My people drink more Pepsi, drink more Coke, wear more Reeboks, buy more albums, go to more movies. Now, I’ve yielded to Johnny out of respect. He has earned it and fought for it for 29 years. I am happy being the prince while he is the king. But if you think I’m going to let somebody say, ”Ask Arsenio if I can promote my movie with [L.A. public-access comic] Skip E. Lowe first,” the answer is no, no, no, no, no! No, you can’t!
EW: It sounds like your hands-off-Johnny policy won’t transfer to Jay Leno.
AH: I hear so many people talking about Jay Leno stepping into Johnny’s shoes. I think Jay Leno better just step into a new pair of shoes. He can’t replace Johnny. No one will ever reign like he reigned. And I think it’s an insult to his legacy to say Jay is replacing him. He’s done too much. He’s been too good. Jay Leno can’t replace Johnny Carson. It sounds like an insult.
EW: I thought you might say, oh, Jay and I are friends and we go way back…
AH: I always hear that Jay and I are friends when they interview him. Jay and I are not friends. I think people don’t know the definition of the word. I have friends. And I have no problem becoming the friend of a competitor. I would love nothing more than to have dinner with Johnny Carson tonight. I think Dennis Miller’s a very bright guy who gets a bad rap — I see him as a nice person. I have no problem about saying good things about my competitors, but Jay Leno and I aren’t friends! And you know what? I wasn’t anointed, okay? No one put the late-night silver spoon in my mouth. I earned every drop of mine. And I’m gonna treat him like we treated the kid on the high school basketball team who was the coach’s son. He was there because he was anointed too. We tried to kick his ass, and that’s what I’m going to do — kick Jay’s ass. So get ready for me, Jay, and then I’ll send you back the flowers that you sent here.