On Hollywood's Sunset Blvd., on a lot that was the filming site of the first feature talkie -- 1927's "The Jazz Singer" -- talk show host Arsenio Hall is planning to once again storm the barricades of late-night television. Tinseltown loves a comeback story, and Hall is hoping to recapture a bit of the magic from his former talk show, which ran from 1989 to 1994.
Among the high points of the original "The Arsenio Hall Show" was an appearance by 1992 presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who played "Heartbreak Hotel" on the saxophone (ensuring that future candidates and even presidents would have to make the late-night talk circuit). Prior to that, in late 1991, basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson came on friend Hall's show the day after he publicly announced that he was HIV-positive.
Hall's first talk show made history, and now he's working to reinvent his format for a new century and a vastly changed TV landscape. On Monday, Sept. 9, "The Arsenio Hall Show" -- a partnership between CBS Television Distribution and Tribune Broadcasting -- premieres in first-run syndication across the country, including on Chicago's Channel 9.
Hall moves into a crowded arena, which already features Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart. Talking in his upstairs office, Hall reflects on what he learned in his first late-night go-round.
"I look at my number sometimes," he says, "and I look at the specifics of focus groups. I used to look and say, 'I'm not as juiced in with men as I'd like to be.' I had this heavy female demo, and I would look at it and break it down ... you always want what you don't have, whether it's dating or show business.
"What I realized, it's deeper than that. Your persona is being analyzed constantly. It's the little things. Jay (Leno) loving cars. He's a guy's guy. I was raised by three women. I honestly believe you feel who I am when you watch me."
From an interviewing standpoint, Hall sees himself as a surrogate for his audience, which isn't blessed with his access to celebrities and newsmakers. "I try to leave my agenda at home," he says, "because my questions for a star or an artist might not be interesting to my audience. It might get too show-businessy. You have to be careful with that.
"What I want to ask LeBron (James) or Kobe (Bryant) is totally different from what a fan might want to ask. When I step out there and put on that uniform, that suit that I wear, I go out as a representative of the audience versus myself."
After so many years in entertainment, Hall sometimes has to repress his natural response to the industry's somewhat flexible relationship to the truth. After all, this is late-night chat, not "60 Minutes."
"Every now and then, you have to say, 'Just play the game.' What I've found out is, America doesn't always want the truth. They want what they want, so paint them the picture that makes them happy and sends them to bed with the joy that they need," he said.
As for who's going to be on the show, Hall has a simple formula that resembles the one already being used by his competition.
"The usual," he says. "We all want Matt Damon. That's pretty much it. There's no mystical, unique difference in booking. We all want the same people; we just do different things with them. We want people who are hot and doing things."
He also lets the audience be his guide.
"I look at late night the way I look at politics," says Hall.
"I'm being elected to an office, and whatever my constituents want, that's who I'll book."
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