It’s been 30 years since Arsenio Hall took the entertainment world by storm and became the first African-American comic to host his own late-night talk show. Running from 1989 to 1994, “The Arsenio Hall Show” attained white-hot status in the popular culture by providing new blood at a time when Johnny Carson was quitting “The Tonight Show” after 30 years.
The vicious guest-booking war that broke out between Hall and Carson’s replacement, Jay Leno, ultimately helped bring Hall back down to earth. Yet even as he largely seemed to disappear from the cultural radar for long stretches of time, he maintained his razor-sharp wit and an unusually passionate fan base that has turned out in force as he mounted a comeback on club stages nationwide.
Hall will be performing Saturday night at the Ice House in Pasadena, unleashing his unflagging comic energy upon the ever-growing array of celebrity scandals that now extends from President Trump’s endless foibles to include the likes of Jussie Smollett, Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. He’s also gearing up to reteam with his best comic friend, Eddie Murphy, in the long-awaited sequel to their 1988 smash-hit comedy film “Coming to America,” and took time to discuss the whirlwind of activity he’s caught up in again.
“I’ve actually put together an hour and was going to shoot it myself and see what I thought of it, which is how Dave Chappelle did his Netflix special,” says Hall. “When I got the talk show I stopped doing standup, which is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. In standup, you’ve got to get out there and see what they’re laughing at in Orlando or Bremerton, Washington. I hate to travel and when I started making paper in Hollywood I stopped doing it and got lazy.
“But now, I got a little money in my bank account and I’m doing the Ice House as a final test and then next month not sure where, but maybe back to Cleveland to tape it,” he continues. “But Chicago is another option because I started doing standup there after college. I went there to audition for Second City and did my first open mic at the Comedy Cottage in Rosemont there. I went on stage and fell in love with standup ever since.”
Hall has definitely noticed how much the comedy world has changed in his years away, as he observes fellow comedy stars living in fear of even one politically incorrect joke being taped and turning into a viral sensation that can lead to a career-destroying backlash. He notes that amid a Comedy Store appearance earlier this month, he had to implore a man in the front row to turn off his phone when he saw the man secretly filming him from under his table.
“There’s a lot of ‘gotcha’ games now, and I didn’t have my jokes the way I wanted them to be yet, so I asked him to put the camera away and just watch the show,” says Hall. “Technology has made it harder to prepare new material and not come home and find your new work on YouTube already. You want comedy to be reckless, and we have to leave our humorists alone and let them do their thing. Laughter is medicine and if we’re not careful we’re going to be putting Kool-Aid in the medicine.”
That said, the 63-year-old also points out that every comic decides for themselves about where they draw the line on how far to go with their content. He particularly notes: “I may not like what Roseanne said, but I’ll fight a death match for her right to do it. I won’t ever criticize another comic because I don’t want anyone bothering me.”
Of the seemingly endless parade of ridiculous celebrity news that hits daily, Hall notes that R. Kelly’s current legal merry-go-round of issues including late child support payments and allegations of sexual relations with dozens of underage girls is “so painful.” Yet he also finds plenty of humor in the fact that he won a season of President Donald Trump’s former reality competition series “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“As a black man and a father, R. Kelly is so painful on a couple of levels, but my humor allows me to get through the day,” says Hall. “If R. Kelly could fly, l bet he would try right now. I use that laugh to stop thinking of how he destroyed so many young women’s lives. If you’re born poor and black in Chicago you don’t need it made harder by the producer of the ‘Ignition’ remix.
“I never encountered Trump saying the ‘N-word’ personally, but I had a conversation with him on the birther issue one time and that was possibly more intense than hearing the Pope saying the N word,” he adds. “If I was gullible, he would have made me look stupid. He said he had detectives in Africa and would have information soon. He’s like a pimp in Cleveland: he’ll look you in the eye and lie to you.”
Arsenio Hall performs at 8 p.m. Sat. at the Ice House, 24. N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $25. Call (626) 577-1894 or visit icehousecomedy.com.