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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, success in the competitive world of late-night television sounded like this.
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MARTIN: That, of course, was the signature shout out from "The Arsenio Hall Show." Arsenio interviewed everyone from Muhammad Ali to Madonna and, of course, there was that seminal pop culture moment when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton played the sax on the Arsenio stage.
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MARTIN: It was supposed to be a younger, hipper version of "Late Night." And it was. Ratings were good for several years until they weren't anymore, and the show ended in May of 1994. Now, 19 years later, Arsenio Hall returns with a new late night show debuting tomorrow night on CBS.
When I spoke with Hall recently, I started off by asking him if he was ready to get back into late night after all these years.
ARSENIO HALL: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I'm ready. From the day I made the announcement and people started calling, giving me the confidence I need. The first phone call I got after the L.A. Times announced that I was coming back was from Prince.
HALL: And he said, save me a night. With the stuff I use, ma'am, how can I lose?
HALL: You mentioned Ali in the intro and I figured I would pull an old Ali quote out.
MARTIN: I mean this the question I'm sure you have been asked dozens of times, and it will not stop me from asking it again, but why? Why now?
HALL: Wow. You know what? I remember talking to Letterman and saying, oh, I'll never do it again, I've done it, I want to do other things. And I have personal desires of balance in my life, Dave. And you know what? I really believe what I was telling him that that I would probably never do it again.
But slowly, my son started to get a little older; he's 13 now. And you know how kids are at that age. As much as you want to baby them and continue to treat them in the way that a loving father treats his son, at a certain point they want you to drop them off about five blocks from the movie theater and get the hell out of here, dad, quick...
HALL: ...before you ruin my swag. And the bottom-line is...
MARTIN: Even if your dad is Arsenio Hall?
HALL: Yes, indeed. He wants one bark and then move on.
HALL: They know who you are now, move on. And the bottom line is we're at that place now. You know, to be a man you got to see a man. And he's seen me very comfortable for 13 years always there at every game - every Little League game, every basketball game, every concert, every PTA meeting, every bake sale. Every Chuck E. Cheese event, I'm sitting there with all the moms.
MARTIN: You're a good man.
HALL: The bottom line is...
HALL: The bottom line is he needs to see this side of fatherhood. He's seen that side of it. He needs to see me fall asleep at night too tired to continue watching "Family Guy" with him. He needs to see a dad who has to leave and can't always make it to things. That's part of being a man, that's part of fatherhood too, and I wanted to have that aspect of seeing me and being me.
MARTIN: I'd like to take a big step back, if I may...
MARTIN: ...to your childhood, as you grew up in Ohio. Performing was always something you wanted to do? And why talk shows? What about that format captured your imagination from such a young age?
HALL: There was a time when I was a magician as a kid. I used to go in this magic shop and the lady eventually gave me a job. And I would do the tricks and sell the tricks in her little shop. And I think when I would do a bar mitzvah or a birthday party, I thought that it was just me making money, it was better than having a paper route. And then I started realizing that someone I really admired started in the same way.
When I would sneak and stay up late at night and watched Johnny Carson, my mother would see the blue light coming from under the door and realize I wasn't sleeping. She'd bust me. Turn that TV off, boy. And I would turn it off, but I was watching Johnny Carson. And as I got older, I just realized that I was on that path. He was a magician. He was a late-night host. He wore cool suits like the Temptations and had his own suit line when I didn't even know what a suit line was. I wanted to be Johnny.
MARTIN: But I did read that, you know, fast forward a few years.
HALL: Go ahead.
You go to college. You graduate. You took a job in marketing for Noxell Corporation, which is the company that makes Cover Girl cosmetics.
MARTIN: First, is that true? It is?
HALL: Yes, that is true.
MARTIN: So what was your plan for your life back then? Did you kind of put the whole performing thing on the back burner, you thought you were going to have this straight and narrow corporate life for a while?
HALL: You know, it's exactly that. I tried to go straight. I had done standup in Chicago on River Road at a Comedy Club and it was in my blood. It was something special about it. I mean as a magician or as a drummer in the band, you have a lot of equipment. Standup allowed me to just take a glass of water and my brain on stage and I liked what that said about the art form.
I loved doing standup and I tried it and tried to quit and take a regular job in advertising. And the bottom line is I couldn't. One night I was watching "The Tonight Show," there's Johnny again.
HALL: And the next day I quit and I moved on and I haven't looked back since.
MARTIN: You finally get your very own show.
MARTIN: And this was a big deal. I mean, at the time this was a very white world. I mean it is today, for that matter.
HALL: Yeah. It's pretty much not only white but you have to be named Jimmy now.
MARTIN: Yeah, so there's that strike against you.
MARTIN: You apparently said that you didn't want to create a black show, but you did want to give your audiences the feeling that they were at a party in an African-American household. Is that accurate? Is that how you looked at it?
HALL: Yeah, because the deal is when you have company at your house, you have friends from work, you have black friends and white friends and they come to your crib and they say: Oh, at Arsenio's house at the party we did the "Soul Train" line.
HALL: The bottom line is when you go to someone's house you learn what they're about. You learn their culture. You learn their language. You see what they like. And usually, you know, they're a product of their environment. So basically, yeah, I am black. That's the obvious thing. That's not going to change. But I wanted to just say, hey, come into my crib and see how I party.
MARTIN: You didn't stray from politics or controversy on "The Arsenio Hall Show."
MARTIN: You famously, as we mentioned, had Bill Clinton on. You also interviewed Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, which stirred up some controversy.
MARTIN: I mean, have you thought about how you'll walk that line with this new show? Is it going to be purely about entertainment or will you push it a little bit?
HALL: Yeah. You know, I said this to some journalists recently. I said the old me was a very, very present when L.A. had its riots and I used the show to try to reach people. This one might just be about fun. And I think that's what the show should be because I think that's what people need at night. You know, I'd love to help but I want to send people to bed with smile on their face and maybe a little hip-hop in their heart.
MARTIN: I can't let you go without asking if the Dog Pound going to be around this time.
HALL: Now, I got to keep that a secret. But...
MARTIN: Oh, really? It's a secret? I thought you were going to tell me.
HALL: Well, let's put it like this, there will be a Dog Pound. And I hope one day - I got 200 seats there every night. I hope one day you will come and hang out.
MARTIN: Of course, I will.
HALL: Because I want to show you what the new Dog Pound looks like, and I will always have a couple seats there for you if you want to come party with me.
MARTIN: Arsenio Hall, his new show debuts tomorrow night. He joined us from the studios at NPR West.
It has been such a pleasure, Arsenio. Thanks for taking the time. And good luck with everything. Have fun.
HALL: Bye-bye. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.