Sunday, January 13, 2013

Arsenio Hall Revisited

Once Arsenio Hall's red hot comedy career hit a wall, to many the man became a joke himself. It happened rather quickly; rarely have I seen a comedian treated like an out-of-style pop star, with ex-fans pretending never to have liked him. People seem to have forgotten that at one time the man was seen as a very serious competitor to hosts like Letterman.

I never watched him as often as my friends did, and I must say I too had a fuzzy memory of him being a lightweight.

After revisiting some clips of him on YouTube, I realize that I--and the rest of the world--may have had him all wrong. Forget "Things that make you go hmmm" and the over-the-top crowds. The man was a smart and very natural interviewer.

Here is his famous interview with Vanilla Ice:

And his famous interview with Dice Clay:

Go back in time and remember how huge and controversial those two celebrities were, and how easy it would have been to be confrontational and sensationalist. Had Arsenio taken that approach, every paper in the country would have been on his side. But he didn't, and the interviews were better for it.

When other hosts have folks on they don't seem to like, it's palpable, and the interview becomes a mini-roast. That didn't happen on "Arsenio". The guy also didn't score easy points by lambasting easy targets. He let guests speak. He allowed for natural silences.

And here's something else that is key: when he talked to guests he didn't mug constantly to drag out cheap laughs. That's because he was creating a facsimile of a conversation, and when you're conversing with someone, you don't start gesticulating like a nervous mime. If you were at Starbucks having a chat with someone and in the middle of hearing their break-up story you randomly jumped up and did a Chippendales dance, chances are the conversation would never regain its footing.

For all the talk about his show bringing hipness to late night, his interview style actually owed a lot to the classic approach of Johnny Carson. In that sense, you might say he was a truer heir apparent to Carson that some of the other late night hosts. Had "The Arsenio Hall Show" stuck around, perhaps the more guest-driven, less sketch-packed style that he and Carson used wouldn't have ridden off into the sunset. Maybe more late night shows would have taken their queues from it.

I understand he has a new show in the works. Hopefully it is in the vein of Bob Costas's old "Later" show, which was nothing but interviews. If Mr. Hall takes that approach, I have a feeling the show will be different and better than most other shows on TV.

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