In the midst of all this talk about NBC’s late-night television show shuffle, and where Conan O’Brien is going to go next, there is a healthy amount of speculation about what NBC’s 10:00 p.m. slot— the last hour of prime-time television—is going to look like now that Jay Leno is skulking at his old Tonight Show slot. May we suggest adding a little bit of color in this final hour of prime time? How about Arsenio Hall?
When The Arsenio Hall Show debuted on Fox back in 1989, the show was a game changer in late-night television, and sadly, it is one sorely missed in today’s television world. Sure, there’s The Mo’Nique Show on BET and TNT has Lopez Tonight hosted by Mexican-American comedian George Lopez. Even Fox injected some color in the late-night wars with The Wanda Sykes Show airing Saturday nights at 11. But let’s be honest: None of those shows have the cultural cache or the popularity Hall’s show once enjoyed. If NBC has any fear of Fox luring Conan and his youthful fan base away from their network, they can easily fight back by replenishing their own lineup with a face not only familiar but missed, a show that even Fox hasn’t been able to replicate.
Of all the shows the network aired back in their experimental years, nothing moved the pop-culture needle more than Arsenio Hall’s version of late-night TV. Those who tuned into The Arsenio Hall Show back in the early ’90s can easily recall their fondest memory. Political junkies and historians will remember that it was there, a young presidential candidate jammed on his tenor sax with The Arsenio Hall Show band, arguably locking in the “black” vote. Sports buffs will remember Magic Johnson giving his first interview to Hall after he announced that he was HIV-positive. And hip-hop heads surely can’t forget the way Arsenio Hall thoroughly embarrassed Vanilla Ice.
Such moments are the reason why the rebirth of The Arsenio Hall Show on NBC would work. It is pretty much a guarantee the show would get at least every single famous black person (or non-black person who wants to appeal to black people) on the show and not because of some contrived sense of loyalty. Most of today’s black stars grew up watching Arsenio. And for those too young to remember Hall’s late-night reign, they’ve certainly heard the stories, so of course they would want his show to be the first stop on their publicity tour. If Arsenio Hall were on today, we wouldn’t see Tom Cruise trying to dance like Yung Joc on BET’s 106th and Park. We’d see Tom Cruise trying to dance like Yung Joc on Arsenio. (He’s not going to pull something like that on Letterman, Leno or even O’Brien.)
The last thing anybody wants, and the last thing NBC needs, is more of the same programming. Leno didn’t work at 10 p.m. because people were tired of seeing the same, old thing bumped up an hour earlier. A prime-time talk show in a late-night format can work, but only if it’s hip and fresh. Jimmy Fallon understood this. He knew that the only way he was going to stand out as a funny, white guy on late night amidst other, more famous funny, white guys on late night was by attracting viewers who would usually be watching the now-defunct Rap City on BET. So how did he accomplish this? Fallon hired The Roots to be his house band—a move that has arguably helped keep his show on the air.