I’ll never understand the dynamics & expectations for a late night television show, especially how one with a urban edge is supposed to survive.
Arsenio Hall’s show got cancelled last week, even after it was renewed for a second season, seems some stations were moving his time slot and in other markets he was losing to syndicated sitcom reruns.
I’m biased about Arsenio because for my generation he’s our Flip Wilson, he was the urban late night talk show but like every other one after him and now including him, he couldn’t survive in the crowded and confusing late night talk show genre.
When I started high school (1990), Arsenio’s original late night show was must see television, you sat up late in your room on some small second hand TV trying to stay awake to see who was on and what happened so you can talk about it in school or on the bus the next day. He was new, fresh and related to “us”, for at that time Johnny Carson was for our parents and David Letterman was more towards college kids.
Bill Clinton famously played “Heartbreak Hotel” while campaigning one night in 1992 on Arsenio’s show, it would have never happened on any other show at that time. So many urban artists had memorable performances on there (I remember Tevin Campbell trying to hit a high note in 1991 or 1992 and his voice cracked just like mine used to at the time), and it was where to go to find the hippest talent and see what was going on in urban entertainment.
Now unfortunately , the show aged quickly and didn’t keep up with the urban times which was moving quickly and by 1994, the show was in the middle hell of either changing to keep up with the times or risk being stale and out of date. The show didn’t change and was then cancelled.
A few years later (1997), two new shows came out trying to repeat Arsenio’s success as the urban late night hang out, “The Magic Hour”, hosted by none other than basketball legend Earvin “Magic”Johnson and then music mogul Quincy Jone's Vibe magazine had a late night show as well. Both were terrible, no where as solid as Arsenio with hosting, jokes or ironically having any "magic" or "vibe" with the guests and they were both soon dispatched.
George Lopez made a great attempt at a late night show a few years ago, but being on cable and leading in to a struggling Conan O’Brien show didn’t do him any favors and he was gone, not because George didn’t try or wasn’t funny.
So when it announced that Arsenio was making a comeback on late night television it was greatly anticipated for my generation but I admit the show started out slow (so slow some staff members were let go early on), and it was sometimes rough around the edges and some awkward moments with guests.
Things change a lot in 20 years, Arsenio didn’t seem to always have the confidence from back in the day and though some nights (like when Eddie Murphy was on), it was like the old days and there were performances (including a surprise show by Kanye West), that were really good. But other nights it was hit or miss like when he had recently had on the ensemble from the improv TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway" and he only really got along with the host Aisha Taylor and comedian Wayne Brady and it was distant with the other actors.
But not because Arsenio didn’t try, he used social media (I followed him on Instagram), and the local channel (WGN TV), in Chicago even promoted him at the end of the local news hour and gave him a 30 seconds to preview the nights show.
But even Arsenio himself said “It’s not 1994 again” and it’s not. People have so many entertainment options now and we’ve lived through so many tries at late night television and the big networks throw a lot of money, time, talent and production at their late night shows. I was never a fan of any other late night show (outside of Arsenio), but the major shows seem like three ring circuses with non-stop guests, acts, skits, quick bits by the in house band, it’s a enough to keep you up half the night.
We live in a society with no patience and we have to be constantly entertained and engaged. Even at sporting events there’s constant music, big screens with activity and so many quick images and never a moment to take a breath.
I applaud Arsenio for his ground breaking work over 20 years ago and then coming back to try and do it again and I know he will find success once more, c’mon the guy won a reality show hosted by Donald Trump, he can do anything, except win the impossible late night TV talk show war.
Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.
Filed under: African American History