I’m glad to see Arsenio Hall is back. In many ways, what he brought to late-night TV has been merged into late-night as a whole. The Roots are one of the house bands, and even the whitest shows have to pay at least lip service to hip hop culture. But the most obvious thing hasn’t happened in Arsenio’s absence: there are no black hosts. Letterman and Leno, Conan and Kimmel and Fallon, Stewart and Colbert and Craig Ferguson … they all have something in common. George Lopez lasted a few years, but he’s gone now.
It matters that it’s Arsenio’s name in the title. He’s not the band, he’s not the guest, he’s the host of his own show.
Much has been made of how TV has changed since 1994. The thing I find most important is that many, many people “watch” the late-night shows the next day on the Internet. It’s so easy to skip to the highlights, it’s barely necessary to watch live any longer. I doubt I’ll watch Arsenio live after the first show. I rarely watch Craig Ferguson live, and he’s my favorite. So Arsenio, like everyone else, will need to have the kind of highlights that go viral.
The energy in the premiere was fevered. The fans had waited 19 years to pour out their affection. His monologue reminded me that he was never the best at the opening segments. He’s at his best with guests that he likes … some people hated what they saw as his fawning, but I always felt he just loved to give respect to his favorites.
But he has to confront the fact that he’s back from the virtual grave, has to prove that he can still be relevant. And that was a serious problem with the premiere. His monologue was filled with brief skits about what he did when he was off. After the first break, he trotted out a time capsule from 1994, and made jokes about how times have changed. This didn’t make him seem contemporary, it made him seem like he’s still in 1994.
And his guests weren’t any help. His first music guest was Snoop, who is still a big star, but he performed “What’s My Name”, a hit in 1993. During the time-capsule sketch, Paula Abdul made an appearance, and her music career peaked around 1990. His first regular guest was Chris Tucker, still a funny man, and that was a little better … Friday and the Rush Hour movies came after Arsenio went off the year, and recently there was Silver Linings Playbook, but even there, he introduced Tucker by showing a clip from the old Arsenio show. It was great to see Arsenio and Snoop and Tucker sitting together … it could have been 1994 all over again. But … well, that’s not going to get Arsenio anything but nostalgia.
I have no idea if he’ll be able to break through, to find his way into 2013. I think it’s an interesting try, and I tip my cap to him.