Headed to town for two stand-up sets Saturday night at City Winery, I spoke with Arsenio Hall about getting his comedy start in Chicago, fond memories of both Don Rickles and Charlie Murphy, rumors of a Coming to America sequel and his mindset upon creating a late night talk show that would go head-to-head with Johnny Carson and the establishment in the early 90s...
"God put me here to make you smile. Because everybody ain’t here to make you smile," said Arsenio Hall midway through a phone conversation last week. "These days, I think it’s enough just to be the guy that makes people laugh and I think that’s what we need most. At the end of the day, did you make them laugh? I’m kind of all about laughter now," continued the comedian.
It was a serious moment in an often lighthearted chat that made clear a mission statement of sorts as Hall continues his return to stand-up comedy, touring regularly for the first time in nearly twenty years.
Most successful comics are quick to point out that stand-up is a craft which needs to be continually honed. Staying sharp, regardless of where else the career path goes, requires consistent work.
Hall's journey took him to film, television, radio and more. But it began with a Chicagoland stand-up presence at city and suburban clubs like Zanies and the now defunct Comedy Cottage in Rosemont.
The unique approach to comedy that he developed in Chicago clubs went on display across the country as The Arsenio Hall Show took over late night with an initial televised run between 1989 and 1994. Key to its success was a conversational tone marked by a stunning lack of a number of traditional late night hallmarks: Arsenio didn't sit behind a desk, conducted interviews without note cards and actually seemed to be paying close attention to his guests.
He became one of the first late night hosts to consistently reach the much coveted, but traditionally unreachable, youth demographic. And he did it by uniting black and white viewers alike, with a diverse array of guest bookings that ultimately reflected his personality. In the pre-internet era, Arsenio was consistently creating the most talked about moments in late night television - from Bill Clinton's playing of the saxophone to emotional moments involving Reginald Denny, Magic Johnson and more.
Today, Hall remains busy in a variety of mediums. There's film, with a role in the new Adam Sandler Netflix project Sandy Wexler, radio, where he can be heard Monday mornings as part of the syndicated Tom Joyner Show (heard locally on Soul 106.3 FM) and more.
But, as he heads back to Chicago for a pair of performances Saturday night at City Winery, it's clear that love of stand-up comedy remains.
I spoke with Arsenio Hall about his comedic roots in Chicago and his return to stand-up comedy, his efforts to convince Eddie Murphy to make a comeback of his own and much more.
A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below.
Q. Let's start with Chicago. I didn’t realize that, in terms of stand-up comedy, you got your start here. What sticks out about those formative days?
Arsenio Hall: Yes! Because I’m a Cleveland guy, and every time I walk in some place people bark, nobody ever associates me with anything but Cleveland.
When I graduated from Kent State… Here’s how old I am, Mr. Ryan – I graduated from Kent State and I had dreamed of trying stand-up ever since I saw this comic open for Al Green at the Cleveland Public Auditorium. I was like, “Wow!” This guy just had a glass of juice and a stool and he controlled the entire Cleveland Public Auditorium. My father was a Baptist preacher so that’s what it reminded me of. So I wanted to try something like this.
I move to Chicago (because there’s no comedy clubs in Cleveland at that time). That’s how long ago! You could go to a club in New York or L.A. or Chicago. There was no comedy club in Cleveland.
So I move to Rosemont, Illinois where there’s a comedy club. And my mother is living in Chicago. Right down the street there’s this club. And I go in there every Monday night and sit. And when "It's time for new talent!”... I run to my car and drive away.
Finally, I went up one night and I’ve been on the path ever since.
I also auditioned at Second City. And there was a man named Bernie Sahlins who just recently passed.
So my whole show business career, in the comedy world, began in Chicago.
Q. Do you remember the name of that club in Rosemont?
AH: It was called Comedy Cottage!
And then I started going down to Zanies on Wells Street which I had seen when I went to my Second City audition. Then I started going to a place called The Comedy Womb. I don’t even know if these places are still around. The Comedy Womb – the big joke was, “where comedians are born.” Some nights I’d go... not some nights. When you are learning to do it, every night I’m hitting those three clubs.
And there was a strip club I’d go to sometimes and they would let me go up because they would have a break. In a strip club – and you can pretend like you don’t know this – but, in a strip club, they have these times where they want to let the ladies kind of just peruse the room and talk to people. And they would hire me and this other guy to go up on the stage behind the bar – it was almost like that Tyra Banks coyote movie – and we’d stand there where they’re stripping and do comedy.
And, by the way, you miss it! You miss it when you don’t do it. And then it’s even better... It’s an incredible high that you get when that’s what you do
Q. Well, you’re back on tour now with two shows coming up Saturday at City Winery. In terms of the culture and audience expectations, stand-up is an art form that’s gone through some changes. How long has it been since you did it regularly? Have you been able to kind of flex that muscle occasionally over the years or had it been a while?
AH: You know what? I would say I hadn’t done stand up in at least seventeen to twenty years. And I’ll tell you how I remember that: the last time I worked, I remember carrying my son through an airport coming from the Improv in Phoenix. So probably about seventeen years.
But every now and then… Say for instance, my friend, Bob Saget had a charity dinner. And if you’re there they say, “Why don’t you do five minutes?” And you do five minutes. And you know you’re not finished because of how good it feels. And every now and then I would have that situation.
I think, recently, when I started back like two years ago, I was with George Lopez and a bunch of guys and we’re all hanging out. Dave Chappelle and all these young guys that I used to put on TV. And I realized they were trying to drag me back into it.
And Eddie [Murphy] too! We all hung out in Washington at the Mark Twain celebration for Eddie. And a lot of it was these young guys saying, “You all gotta do it again!” And, you know what? Now I’m trying to get Eddie to do it! Because I’m like, “These kids are telling you right, man!” We’re like body builders who don’t go to Gold's Gym. We gotta get back out there! I tell him how much fun it is and how much I love it.
And, by the way, you miss it! You miss it when you don’t do it. And then it’s even better. It’s like seeing a girl that you once loved tremendously and you haven’t seen her in years. It’s an incredible high that you get when that’s what you do.
Q. I grew up watching your talk show. And you hosted that show at such an interesting time for that medium as huge names like Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase crashed and burned in the format. I would argue that you connected with your audience as a late night talk show host in a way that nobody else really has. What was your mindset as you started putting that show together knowing you were going up against the Johnny Carsons of the world – the establishment, basically?
AH: You know what, now that I look back at it, it was an amazing experience.
But Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon were always nice to me. We’ve seen so many books written about late night wars and stuff – the two people that were always nice to me were Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon.
I’ll tell you why. Ed McMahon would call me sometimes and give me a name – and you’ll see where I’m going in a second – he would say, “Johnny thinks this guy is funny.” So I would say, “Ok!” And I would put him on. Or they would give me a singer’s name. I remember one time they gave me the name Usher Raymond. Both names.
But the point is, Ed McMahon knew that the shows had personalities. There were certain things that were right for me and not right for Johnny.
So him and Johnny had this thing... One day I went to dinner with [Ed] and [his then wife] Victoria at Spago. And I’m sitting there and I said [to Ed], “I’m a kid from Cleveland. It still blows me away that Johnny doesn’t even have to call [me]. He lets you” - because I know how this late night thing works – “He lets you give me these names that he thinks would be great for me.” And I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.
So I guess what I’m saying is, at that time, it was split up in a sense where everybody knew what their demo was. I think now we’re in a time where everybody is grabbing for every piece of the pie possible because the talk show pie is split in about a thousand pieces.
But back then it was kind of clearly defined. “You know, I like things like Trisha Yearwood and Ice Cube so I’m going to Arsenio.” And if you wanted Steve & Eydie and Alan King you knew… the shows had distinct personalities.
And that’s what it was like back then. You could say, “Oh, that’s an Arsenio guest.” And the reason I said, Trisha Yearwood was because it didn’t have to be black. There was a point where country didn’t have to be “Achy Breaky Heart” and Billy Ray Cyrus. So I’d put it on. I broke Trisha Yearwood. It didn’t have to be traditionally slotted into a certain place.
Q. Well, that’s something I wanted to ask you about. In an era where Carson was starting to grow predictable, you were consistently uniting a younger demographic that was historically kind of unreachable in that time slot. And you were doing that with a diverse array of bookings that, in terms of race, whether it was Madonna and Bill Clinton or Tupac and Ike Turner, was exposing both black and white viewers to a lot of stuff that may have otherwise, at that time, not have wound up on their radar. You were also the first late night host to feature rap and hip hop. Were you aware that you were kind of breaking new late night ground?
AH: Yeah… But I didn’t think about it in those terms.
You know what I thought about? I knew I needed guests. I couldn’t be there alone. And there were people like… I’ll give you an example. When I first took over for Joan Rivers – before it was called The Arsenio Hall Show, it was The Joan Rivers Show. And she was going through something with Fox and she left. And all that kind of stuff.
So I get this show. And I think about when I was a kid and I would watch the Carson show. And I would say, “Wow. You never see many black people.” And this is as a kid in Cleveland. And then when somebody was on… I remember my Mother - one time Ray Charles was on The Tonight Show. And we didn’t have Twitter. So it was almost like, all day people would be like, “You know Johnny’s got Ray Charles tonight…” And it was a big deal. Because it didn’t happen.
So when I got this opportunity – you learn in business to fill the void. Where is there a need? Because that will be your best product and your best way to make it in something. So I’m like, “Where’s the void?”
I ran into Russell Simmons. At that time him and Rick Rubin were starting the whole hip hop world. And I realized that Reverend Run [of Run-D.M.C.] was Russell's brother (well, not Reverend then). But so I called them.
Because I was like, “Ooooh, I know something that Johnny would never do!” I said, “Hey - that kid Todd, man… I love his stuff.” And they said, “You’ll put him on?” And it was still The Joan Rivers Show. I said, “Yes!”
So Todd was LL Cool J. And he came on and did a song called “I’m Bad.”
And, at that point, I knew and Fox knew that, “You know what? This thing we don’t think has an audience, this stuff that we don’t think has an audience? It can work. This can work.”
My thing was that my show was my personality. I knew guys like David Blaine. I started as a magician. And, clearly, I loved Rick Rubin’s work and Johnny liked Steve & Eydie's.
And it worked perfectly in life, you know?
It broke my heart because Charlie [Murphy] is a funny guy. But do you know what he is better than funny? He’s a great father
Q. We're coming up on the 30th anniversary of Coming to America in 2018. A recent Hollywood Reporter report hinted at a sequel. Care to shed any light on that?
AH: Paramount signed our original two writers, [Barry] Blaustein and [David] Sheffield. So they have been assigned to pen a sequel. And that’s really all that’s gone on.
Right now? The sequel could actually star Drake and Little Wayne. (laughs)
But, really, nothing has been done other than the penning of the writers. And obviously… Obviously, between you and I, they’re spending a lot of time at Eddie’s house. (laughs)
By the way, it might be Eddie Murphy and Michael Blackson in Coming to America 2. Actually, it might be Eddie Murphy and Dikembe Mutombo in Coming to America 2! (laughs)
It’s been a very rough month for stand-up comedy between the loss of Don Rickles and Charlie Murphy…
AH: Oh man… Especially because I’m so close to that family.
You know, when I was a kid, I didn’t know the words “edgy” or “edge.” When I went and saw that comic [open for Al Green in Cleveland], I had no concept of what "blue" meant.
Don Rickles. He defined the word “edgy.” That’s when I first said, “Wow! That guy is edgy.” He kind of personified that. And everybody wants to be edgy.
I remember watching him and feeling like... he was like "must see TV" if you dreamed of being a comic. Because you felt like, “I can’t believe he did that! I can’t believe he said that.” And that was exciting for whatever was going on with a kid that wanted to be a comic.
You’re looking at an all white band on The Tonight Show. And a [black] trumpet player named Snooky Young. I’ll never forget it as a child. Snooky is holding this trumpet. And whenever Don Rickles came and sat down, I would be like this black kid in the ghetto saying, “I hope he f---s with Snooky!”
Because [Rickles] would always turn to the trumpet player like, “Hey, brother. How are you? Are we alright?” And then he would pretend like he threw a spear [at him]. And I’m like, “Oh s--t! Don Rickles is pretending like the black guy up there threw a spear!” And then he’s “Oh, Snooky!”
Really edgy s--t. It was just amazing. [Rickles] would say stuff where you’d say, “I can’t believe he said that.”
But as far as my friend Charlie… Eddie and Charlie [Murphy] are like brothers to me, man.
I spent many nights on the phone talking about new jokes with Charlie telling me, “Well, if Hillary wins, everybody will be doing Bill Clinton/First Lady jokes.”
I had known him not only as a comic but I knew him when he first came out of the service and worked for Eddie kind of as a security guy. If we were going to a party, it was Charlie that went in and told the door man, “Here we come!” And Charlie would come back to the car and say, “Ok, they got a booth. Let’s go!” Charlie took care of everything for us.
So I’ve known him in many different ways: as a friend, as Eddie’s brother, as Eddie’s bodyguard and then as this star who took a sentence from our old friend Rick James. And I don’t care whether you’re 8 or 80, everybody knows, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” So I’m gonna miss him.
He was such a trooper. He tried really hard not to worry people in the end. Some of us didn’t know how bad it was. Some of us didn’t know about the chemo. And it broke my heart because Charlie is a funny guy. But do you know what he is better than funny? He’s a great father.
A lot of people don’t realize Charlie’s wife died recently. So he was taking care of both of his children and going on the road with Lopez and D.L. Hughley on the “Black and Brown” tour. And he was making it work after losing his wife. And it was tragic watching it happen - but I was so proud of him.
Because there’s so many issues about black fathers in our society. And here’s a guy… Who would know that the guy who created, “I’m Rick James, bitch” is working the clock night and day to be the best father that I know?
So it’s been a hard comedy month, brother.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Saturday's pair of Arsenio Hall stand-up shows at City Winery below)
Saturday, April 29, 2017
7PM (doors open at 5PM)
10PM (doors open at 9:30PM)
Tickets: $35 - $48
Click HERE to purchase tickets