THE NAME IS ARSENIO
Arsenio Hall is back this month in Coming 2 America. Here’s what we’ve been missing all these years.
ARSENIO HALL’S CAREER WAS PICKING UP STEAM IN 1983. He did Letterman. He sidekicked on Alan Thicke’s short-lived late-night talk show. He was a panelist on the very strange Match Game Hollywood Squares Hour, now in reruns on the Buzzr network. One of the game show’s striking details was that everyone— literally everyone—mispronounced his name as Arseenio, with a long e. America was getting to know Arsenio Hall, but the rotating cast of this shitshow couldn’t get his name right.
Like you, I am offended on his behalf. So this past December, during a three-hour conversation with Arsenio, I ask: Why didn’t you correct anyone?
“You’re just glad to be indoors, man. Let them call me what they want to call me.” Then he smiles. Big. “Eventually, somebody will start saying it right, and then everybody starts saying it right.”
By the end of the eighties, we were all saying it right. He lent his name to the late-night talk show that left a footprint on our culture in only five seasons. He gave it to his son, whom he stepped back from the spotlight to help raise. It’s on the short list of winners of The Celebrity Apprentice, which I promise we will get to. It’s in the credits of the 1988 classic Coming to America and its sequel, Coming 2 America, out this month on Amazon Prime Video. It’s been on marquees since he revived his stand-up career, and above the title of his first special, Smart & Classy, which debuted on Netflix in 2019.
We know the name, and it’s good to say it again. In this increasingly rancorous world, we’ve missed his energy, his insight, his enthusiasm. Arsenio is back. It’s enough to make you pump a fist in the air.
When we speak, the sixty-five-year-old is at home in Los Angeles, hovering above a royal palace. His Zoom background is an aerial shot of Zamunda, the African kingdom we revisit in Coming 2 America. Why do a sequel after all these years—especially when Arsenio and Eddie Murphy had both agreed to “leave it right where it is”? They hit on an idea: Eddie’s character, Akeem, has all daughters, but he finds out he has a son, too. “Then it just started rolling.”
Directed by Hustle & Flow’s Craig Brewer, with a script assist by black-ish creator Kenya Barris, Coming 2 America is a perfect double shot of comedy and comfort, just in time for (God willing) the last act of a dark age in American history. By centering on the new characters—Akeem’s son, whose experience as a Black man in twenty-first-century America is decidedly unregal, and his daughters, bristling at a traditional Zamundan life of subjugation—the sequel manages to say something. “This movie is about the old school versus the new,” Arsenio says. “Things must change.”
If you were aware of pop culture in the eighties and nineties, Arsenio was inescapable. The Arsenio Hall Show changed the latenight game: It was looser, brighter, with an eye on the future. He gave Mariah Carey her television debut and introduced Will Smith to Benny Medina, who pitched him The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air backstage. “The place became a clubhouse. The first time Michael Jackson came on the show, he wasn’t a booking. He was in back with orange juice and a mask on.” Arsenio laughs. “He was way ahead of us on the mask thing.”
It wasn’t all a party. In November 1991, he got a call from his good friend Magic Johnson. “Dog, I’m HIV-positive,” Magic said. “I know you probably got a whole show planned, but I’m doing a press conference, and then I think I should do your show.” Arsenio bumped Roseanne and Tom Arnold, who came to set anyway just to watch.
Then there’s April 30, 1992, the night the Rodney King riots spread across Los Angeles. The network wanted to air a rerun.
“I’m the guy that needs to do a show,” he countered. Arsenio asked the Reverend Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Church in South Central to round up an audience. Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley was a guest. The audience aired its grievances about the LAPD and the racial makeup of the jury in the King case. People simply talked and listened. Edward James Olmos urged viewers to meet him at a corner in South Central and clean up. “It created these news photos of Black people and white people sharing water and sweeping. I loved being able to be that guy.
“When I look back,” Arsenio adds, “I realize I was Twitter.”
Until ’93, it was just him and The Tonight Show on after the news, and they settled into their roles: Arsenio breaks new talent; The Tonight Show focuses on the Robert Goulets. Then David Letterman got a show opposite them, followed by Jon Stewart on MTV. Late night got crowded. The new talent had new places to go. Arsenio’s ratings started to slip, and in 1994 he called it quits. A few years later, he downshifted his career to help raise his son, Arsenio Jr. He’d been opposed to having kids until he took Magic’s son EJ to a Lakers game and witnessed the bond between them. “Magic comes down the hallway and EJ becomes like a water balloon in my arms, because he sees Earvin. Earvin leaves that basketball bullshit and goes to Daddyland. I said, ‘I can’t leave here without a kid.’ ”
Arsenio reemerged in 2012 for The Celebrity Apprentice. My question about this period isn’t halfway out before he answers: “Donald Trump and I don’t speak anymore.” He breathes and goes on. “If you watch that show, we got along. I went to do an event with him in New York, and we’re alone, and I’d seen him on TV doing this birther thing. I tried to bring it up as a joke: ‘When you met me, did you think I was from Zaire instead of Cleveland?’ ” Trump didn’t get it. “So I say, ‘I know there aren’t a lot of Black people around you, but you have to understand how it feels when you say the first Black president shouldn’t even be here.’ ”
He wanted Trump to admit he was doing it for attention, for the grotesque political theater of it all. Instead, Trump doubled down, promising Arsenio he’d “have something real soon.” Arsenio is still in disbelief. “What that means is you don’t respect me. You’re trying to mentally pimp me because you know what you’re saying is not true.
“I don’t know if people understand how it hurts. You want to say, ‘I’ll whoop his racist fucking ass.’ But that’s not how you feel. Racism just hurts.” Arsenio crosses his arms over his chest, the only time he’s closed off to me. “Right then I knew I’d never talk to him again.”
They haven’t spoken since, but Trump got in touch years later. “I guess he read an article where I didn’t mention him, so he faxed it to me and wrote on it ‘NO TRUMP.’ ”
He’s vulnerable when he talks about this stuff. Hurt and hopeful, never self-righteous, undeniably funny, and confident enough not to bowl me over with jokes. He brings a perspective I’d taken for granted and never knew I’d miss. A voice I’d like to start hearing regularly again. So with the kid off to college, why not come back to late night? “There’s plenty for me to do, but it isn’t that. Society doesn’t need me,” Arsenio insists. And indeed, a 2013 reboot didn’t last past its first season. “When people say, ‘We don’t have a Black talk-show host now’ ”—and it bears pointing out that commercial network television currently has three times as many white late-night talk-show hosts named James as it has had Black hosts ever—“it’s a compliment, but we’re even better now, because everybody’s talking, everybody is speaking.”
True enough, but what’s missing is the person who gets us to listen. There are people in the culture who help contextualize the world around us. They share their enthusiasm for their favorite stuff; they hold space for us when things get serious. They are curators, cheerleaders for the culture. They are hosts.
Arsenio Hall was a great one. Put some respect on that name.