BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Late night viewers of a certain age are likely to remember the original “Arsenio Hall Show.”
The exuberant stand-up comic and actor (“Coming to America”) had his “dog pound,” the things that made him go “hmmmm,” and his catchphrase, “Let’s get busy!” He also served up several memorable moments, from presidential candidate Bill Clinton playing sax with the band or Magic Johnson sitting down for his first discussion of his HIV status. After six successful years, Hall called it quits to spend time working on a family.
Now he’s ready to get back in the game with a new late night show premiering Monday, and Johnson is scheduled to be one of his first-week guests alongside rappers Nas, Ice Cube, and Mac Miller, and actors Lisa Kudrow, Angela Bassett, and Mark Harmon, among others.
“My son’s 13 now, and he’s having me drop him off a block from the movie theater. So that’s usually the sign that you can go back to work comfortably,” said Hall with a laugh, chatting with reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour here recently.
In addition to raising his son, Hall has done some acting work, made many late-night guest appearances — including 160 on his buddy Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” — and emerged the victor on his season of “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Q. During your original run there was much less competition than there is now with people like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. While you hope to have a show that appeals to everyone, how do you feel about the playing field now?
A. It’s amazing. I actually was down at the courthouse today. I’m trying to change my name to Jimmy because I think Jimmy Hall would work a lot better. (Laughs.) There’s a lot of competition. Obviously, back in the day I was trying to take anything that was left over on [Johnny] Carson’s plate. But I know that everybody doesn’t have a late-night host. One of the biggest challenges for all of us as late-night hosts is to get people to even make an appointment to watch TV and not say, “I’ll watch Fallon yodel tomorrow,” because you have that ability to Google anything [later]. So the challenges are gigantic now. . . . People come up to you in the mall, and they say, “I watch you every night, man.” And that’s not true. Your biggest fan doesn’t watch you every night. You hope for three nights. And two nights they’ll be watching other people. Sometimes you’ll get one night. But you hope you do a good, funny show and you assert a unique personality that’s not there so that you can be in the game. I’m trying to be in the game. I just got to be better than one guy.
Q. Are there any elements from the original show that you’ll be bringing back, like the “Things That Make You Go Hmmm . . .”?
A. Yeah. Oh, forgot about that one. But you know what? It’s kind of the same Arsenio you know. Less hair, less shoulder pads. But inserting myself into this culture of music, comedy, pop. I was looking at an interview [from the old show] the other night with Alan Thicke, but this time I’ll have Robin Thicke. It’s the same guy being put into a whole generation of new talent and new opportunities for bookings.
Q. The last time around you didn’t have to have any sort of Web presence, but obviously, now many of the late night hosts do. Do you have to have a heavy Web presence to be successful?
A. Yeah, it’s very important. I’m really into social media. I love it. But it depends on who you are and where you’re from. I watch Fallon use it brilliantly with the yodel bit on the roof. People find that on the Internet. “He’s doing this kind of stuff? I’m going to watch this guy.” And it drives people from the computer to the television. Now, Mr. Leno, Mr. Letterman, more from my generation, not as into the digital aspect of it all. But at the same time, Leno’s No. 1. So as my mom used to say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. They’re getting to the top and succeeding in their own unique ways. You do it your way. I’m probably a little more out of the Fallon mode because, whether I was on late-night or not on late-night, I love the digital world. You know, it’s very exciting. I can’t wait to get back into it. I remember one time Debbie Gibson sent me a fax. And she had drawn a picture of herself holding a microphone. And at the bottom it said, “Mr. Hall, [I] would like to sing on your show.” That was my text back then. I can ask America a question [on Twitter]. I remember Barbra Streisand called me once because she had a Bill Clinton question. She can tweet me now.Interview was edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.