Interview by Paul Salfen
From an early age, Arsenio Hall has mastered the stage. From his childhood as a magician to a young man doing stand-up routines opening for music legends to his wildly popular show, “The Arsenio Hall Show,” which aired from 1989 to 1994 and then was revived again in 2013 and 2014, he has always commanded the audience with what appears to be the greatest of ease. He also hosted the MTV Video Music Awards, a revival of “Star Search” and got plenty of laughs on “Chapelle’s Show.” But it wasn’t just the stage or the small screen. On the big screen, Hall teamed up with friend Eddie Murphy for the beloved comedy Coming To America and Harlem Nights. In addition, in 2012, he won “Celebrity Apprentice,” hosted by future president Donald Trump.
Now at 62, Hall is warm, laid back, reflective, and gracious – and ready to hit the stage again. He spoke with AMFM Magazine about a variety of topics leading up to his weekend club appearance.
AMFM Magazine: Last time you came to The Improv, the energy was electric in the audience. It was like being in the audience of “The Arsenio Hall Show” – but wilder.
Arsenio Hall: You know what? A lot of people know the name and they know the show or Coming To America but they’ve never really seen me do stand-up. It’s something that I stopped doing early on because I never liked to travel. It’s really cool because they don’t know that’s how I got in the game. And thanks for coming. I appreciate y’all checking it out.
AMFM: You know how to command a stage. Obviously with “The Arsenio Hall Show” and other hosting gigs but even though you started out doing this like you said, it’s not easy to do, is it?
AH: You know, it’s not easy for someone who doesn’t do it. It’s a frightening experience. But if you do it, it’s incredibly addicting. It’s this incredible high. Someone was telling me that it’s the only thing in Hollywood where you’re your own director, producer, writer. Maybe I’m just a ham and I’m so selfish so it’s perfect. But back in the day, I used to open for people when I was a young comic. The last time I was on the road, I was with Anita Baker if that tells you what time it was. I used to go out with Aretha Franklin and my name would be under theirs in big letters and most people thought that’s where the show was gonna be at like that was the name of the venue. So I’ve never had the experience of people sitting in front of me who know who they’re coming to see and are there for me. That’s a whole different experience. You could come out before Patti LaBelle and a guy in a Patti LaBelle wig could be screaming at you, “Get off! I am not here to see you.” [Laughs] I’ve opened for Tina Turner and you have to be careful what you say because this is her show. It’s a total cathartic freedom and I am so happy I’m doing it again because when you stop doing it, there’s a wall of fear that gets tall and you start going, “Can I still do it?” and “Oh, I can’t be there for a whole hour” and you forget that that’s what you do. I hated not doing it because you can’t go in and work on new stuff when Tiger Woods is on the freeway loose with no shoes on or there’s a benefit you want to participate in. It’s the greatest tool ever. I’m so glad I’m doing stand-up again because black people don’t like to go therapy and I need someone to talk to. [Laughs]
AMFM: There’s so much material right now because we’re in such a strange place in the world. Do you find yourself inspired by this or do you stay away from it?
AH: No, you gotta do it. It’s like God loves stand-ups all of a sudden. He’s making it rain on us. You just sit there and twerk with a yellow pad and it starts raining. You wake up and Trump has tweeted something on the toilet at 6am that you can use. And by the way, with Trump and politics, when I’m on stage, it’s kind of cool because I know their people so I get an extra point of view. I won “Celebrity Apprentice,” so I know Trump well and I’ve known Hillary for years but I’m a non-partisan kind of guy. I’m a Republicrat. I don’t trust either one of them and I do know them. Hillary and Donald Trump? That’s like asking me who my favorite Menendez brother is, ok? But that’s the added advantage to say I’ve sat in Trump’s house and talk about him from a very personal standpoint. That’s the advantage I get. I mean, Bill Cosby was my hero. But on a serious note, at the same time when it happens – because it’s your hero, you go, “Oh my, this is some he say/she say kind of stuff. He’s done so much for colleges and the black image on television. This is some he say/she say then you realize a couple of years after, it’s some he say/she say and she say and she say and she say and then it gets crazy so you kind of have to let that hero worship go and respect the experiences of these women. What makes it even crazier is that I not only know Cosby but I know some of the women that brought the charges forth. I’ve had to separate Dr. Huxtable from Dr. Fuckstable. By the way, the other reason I do stand-up is that you can’t say that joke on TV or in the paper.
AMFM: So do you switch up the set regionally so that the set in Arlington, Texas is different than the set in LA or Washington DC?
AH: Absolutely. I’m one of those guys that I’m a stand-up and if I want to do the same set every night, I should take my ass and do an off-Broadway play or something. That’s not what I do. I would bet – and I’ll ask my assistant – that I’ve never done the same set twice. First of all, when you arrive at a place, you find out “Tony Romo wrote a letter…” “What’s the letter? Let me see the letter” because you want to customize the show. The show I do in Sarasota, Florida should absolutely not be anything like the show I do in Arlington. Also, you have to be cognizant of the local politics in the area. When I’m home in Ohio, I’m in Trump country so I start with Hillary cankle jokes. [Laughs]
AMFM: [Laughs] Sorry, I just got a visual there.
AH: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s a big thing.
AMFM: You’ve mastered the stage on TV, on the screen, and can command an audience in comedy, so I know a lot of comedians, hosts, and actors look up to you. What advice do you give them because it’s a tough business?
AH: Yeah, it’s a tough business and I think the thing that’s important is that you love it because it’s going to have its ups and downs as far as what you do and success and heat. It always has its ebbs and flows. Everyone has heard the saying “Find something you love and you’ll never have to work” and I love it. Last night I went to a comedy club to work on some new material and there was no paycheck involved. I get nervous when I don’t get to the stage. It’s important to me.
AMFM: And patience
AH: The one thing I’ll tell you about patience is that I remember a time when Eddie Murphy said, “We’ll probably never do a Coming To America 2.” He loves it. It’s probably one of his favorite movies. It’s his baby. He said, “I want to leave it where it is. People probably don’t want a second one.” Recently Paramount decided to do Coming To America 2 and they talked to him and talked him into it. In show business, you gotta be patient. Things are always changing; the world is always changing. What’s hip can no longer be hip. Look at the streaming services and how it’s changed everything. I told Eddie that we waited so long to do Coming To America, we can probably do the barbers we’re so damn old. [Laughs] I’ve seen so many changes in this business, so just enjoy it and be patient.
AMFM: Well, you’ve brought us some good news – there will be a Coming To America 2.
AH: Yeah, they hired – I don’t know if you’ve seen this movie Girls Trip – it was a big comedy last year…they hired the writer of that, Kenya Barris. He also created a show for ABC called “Black-ish” that does very well. He’s hot. I love that Paramount went and got a big gun, so you know they’re serious about it – they have to pay him big gun money. I was waiting for Traci [his publicist] to connect us and I was looking at a second draft and it looks really good so probably one more draft at Paramount and then some things that Eddie is interested in changing. This thing should go real soon.
AMFM: And I’m sure we’ll see some other things from you on the stage or screen.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. I’m working on a television thing that I wrote and did something with Reverend Run from Run DMC where I play his best friend on a Netflix show. And I’m doing stuff on the road but trying to stay home a little, so my relationship won’t fall apart. It’s a complicated balance.
AMFM: So how is traveling now OK for you?
AH: I always tell people legal marijuana in California. [Laughs] It makes me a little lost and confused so I’m not worried what the pilot is doing. You know what? You got to want what you’re doing and it has to outweigh your fear. You can’t do stand-up and not travel. You have to hear a crowd in Chicago and hear what they’re laughing at. You have to go to Sarasota, Florida, you have to get to Addison [Texas]. I guess my desire to do stand-up was stronger than my fear of flying. I remember going on the road and my son is 18 now so it was around the time of 9/11 and that was a terrible time for a guy that doesn’t like to fly to do stand-up again. I literally walked into the San Francisco airport and saw a man with a machine gun and there was no safety on it. Things were crazy – they were taking my large shampoo and my toenail clipper [Laughs].
AMFM: And now you’re doing enough and getting rabid repeat crowds. That’s got to be cool.
AH: You mentioned the term “repeat crowd” and that’s the other reason you have to constantly write. You have to keep your act current because people will come and see you again and you want to make them laugh. So working hard and hitting the clubs after watching a cycle of CNN or FOX. Sometimes FOX is a lot funnier.
AMFM: Who was that comedian for you that you looked up on the stage and said, “That’s what I want to do.”
AH: Wow. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of watching Ed Sullivan so I didn’t see them live but I did see when Richard Pryor made his debut and you didn’t realize that he wasn’t doing what he really does – that he was being clean for television. I remember watching Flip Wilson make his primetime debut and later being an executive producer and me trying to understand that this guy was the producer of his own show and what that meant – the first black producer of a certain situation. So all of those guys – Cosby is making things complicated for me because I know some of the women that have brought challenges against him so I have to balance that in my heart. All of those guys were heroes. Johnny Carson was a huge influence. When I was a kid, I wanted to have a talk show like Johnny and wear suits like Johnny. Suits were important to me to look so cool like Johnny.
AMFM: And how great was that? You accomplished that.
AH: Oh yeah, that was real cool. I have a letter that I wrote Johnny Carson when I was 11 years old. I was a magician and I had a dove act and sold things out of a magic shop in downtown Cleveland. I would do Bar Mitzvahs and birthday parties. I was the weird kid that didn’t have a paper route or cut anybody’s lawn. I had a magic act and that’s how I made my money. So I found the letter when I moved recently and I was asking if I could come on the show and there was a picture of me in my little tuxedo that a friend of mine had taken at school and I got a letter back from The Tonight Show saying “not yet.” [Laughs] There was a little explanation but it was the fact that it was on Burbank NBC stationary. I realized, “Hey, Johnny Carson told me no – I’m ahead of the game!}” [Laughs] When I did Celebrity Apprentice later on in my life, guys like Penn Gillette from Penn & Teller were on and I already knew him from my childhood. People would always say, “How do you know Penn Gillette? How do you know David Copperfield?” Well, before I got rid of the doves and put all of the large cabinets in storage, I was a young magician.
AMFM: Who in comedy do you think is doing it right?
AH: Oh, wow. It may sound cliché but it’s absolutely a fact – Dave Chappelle is state of the art. He’s the Rolls Royce with the suicide doors right now. I like guys that may not be names you necessarily know like Jim Gaffigan, who is a brilliant machine of comedy. I worked last night with Brian Regan. I saw on Twitter that Dennis Miller said on Twitter that Brian Regan is the funniest man alive. He damn well is. Sometimes you don’t want to watch guys you like so they don’t influence you,. I flew into New York to do a Chappelle show with me, him, Russell Peters, Chris Rock, Jeff Ross – who is a beast on the stage. He was brilliant, masterful. He brought six people up on stage and he looks at one guy, who is little, fat, and black, and says, “Hey, Kevin Hart Attack!” Eddie Murphy is talking about doing stand-up again,. That would be fun to see who he’s become now that he’s a father and not the kid in the red leather suit. We talked about going out on the road a while back when Charlie Murphy was alive. It was sad because we had gone down to see Charlie at The Improv on La Brea one night and we’re like, “Yo, we gotta get back on the stage.” Charlie inspired us. The big brother inspired the little brother. I’m sure Eddie is going to want to get back on stage soon.
AMFM: So what are we going to hear about in this set? There’s so much to discuss.
AH: Wow. I think since the last time I was there, you gotta start with Stormy Daniels. [Laughs] You see, I know Melania Trump.and she’s such a sweet lady. I can’t believe…if you’re gonna mess around, you’re gonna mess around with a porno star? How embarrassing. At least John Kennedy messed around with a real legitimate actress. You’re supposed to mess around with an actress that we watch her movie all the way through. You know, The Witches of Breastwick? You don’t ever get to the end of porno films. At least with Some Like It Hot, we watched it all the way to the end. There’s so much Stormy Daniels – even her lawyer is getting on my nerves. I see him more than I see Flo from Progressive. He’s on TV all the time. The only person I want to see on TV all the time is Steve Harvey. I’ll go in exactly where I left off because there’s so much stuff going on. I remember last time I was there, I didn’t even get through all of the stuff when the hour was up. I’m like, “I may have to pass around the vape pipe at the hotel room and continue to entertain y’all because I’m not finished.” [Laughs] I got the Childish Gambino video on my mind. I talk about everything. That’s why I love my crowds because I get these really hip crowds and you can do the jokes you want to do without people going, “Who is Drake, honey?” [Laughs]
Arsenio Hall performs Friday and Saturday at the Arlington Improv on Friday, May 11th at 7:30pm and 9:45pm and Saturday, May 12th at 7pm and 9:30pm. $25 to $35. For more info, go to www.ImprovArlington.com.
For more info on Arsenio Hall or to find out information on his shows in Louisiana and Washington DC, go to www.ArsenioHall.com.