To put things in perspective, the last time “The Arsenio Hall Show” was on the air, Tom Hanks was acting dumb in Forrest Gump, Boys II Men was spending six months at the top of the Billboard charts and Al Cowlings was chauffeuring O.J. Simpson around LA in a white Bronco. Oh, and the Alibi was still called NuCity Weekly. Twenty years later and the short-lived king of late night is hoping to conquer the world of talk shows once again with his new syndicated series “Arsenio.”
Gone are the shoulder pads and the triangular haircut. But the Arsenio of yesteryear seems mostly untouched. Grinning happily, wearing a shiny suit and surrendering to a barrage of fist pumps and “woof-woof” chants, Arsenio took to the stage of his new show earlier this week and picked up exactly where he left off in 1994.
Of course the landscape has changed in many ways since Arsenio’s late-’80s, early-’90s heyday. David Letterman is still around, but he’s moved over to CBS. Jay Leno has taken over NBC’s “The Tonight Show” (and is on the verge of retiring himself), and Jimmy Kimmel sweeps up the leftovers on ABC. The post-10pm news slot has become the exclusive realm of old people, not hip young urbanites looking for a late-night party. The young people are all on Facebook reposting twerking videos. Which makes you wonder what’s left for Arsenio.
Arsenio started off his show with some corny jokes. He segued into some prop comedy, holding up an AOL CD and asking everyone if they remembered such an item. He then welcomed his first official guest, rapper Snoop Dogg—which might have been a credible first “get” before the guy changed his name to Snoop Lion and became the spokesperson for Overstock.com. Dogg immediately took the “hip” out of hip-hop, performing a 20-year-old song and urging the audience to “throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care.” C’mon, Dogg. In this day and age, that creaky old dance floor exhortation sounds more realistic coming out of my grandmother’s mouth.
Deep down you have to admit there’s something comfortingly old-fashioned about Arsenio’s return to the national spotlight—like a warm sweater and a nice glass of Crystal Pepsi. “Ingratiating” has always been the best word for Arsenio. As his brief movie career standing alongside Eddie Murphy will attest, he does the best friend thing very well. He seems like a nice guy. And it’s hard not to like his tame, toothy style of humor. But this doesn’t make him the best interviewer on TV. In an age when somebody like Chelsea Handler eats up headlines, Arsenio’s ass-kissing interview style seems distinctly “Entertainment Tonight.” Chatting with his first sit-down guest, Chris Tucker, Arsenio peppered the comedian/actor with slow-ball questions like, “So what can folks expect from a Chris Tucker show these days?” Tucker, for his part, responded with some deeply personal answers. Personal life? “Good. It’s good.” Working on Silver Linings Playbook? “Good. It was good.” The country of Australia? “Good. It’s good.”
Looking over Arsenio’s first-week guests, it’s hard to spot one that anyone under the age of 30 would recognize. Magic Johnson? Mark Harmon? Lisa Kudrow? Earth, Wind & Fire? Nostalgia is nice, but it ain’t gonna get you a season pickup after 12 weeks, old pal.