Arsenio Hall on Leaving Late Night, Hanging With Richard Pryor, and Bringing Laughter to the Masses With ‘Coming 2 America’
Entertainer also opens up about his decades-long Eddie Murphy friendshipMarch 2, 2021
Arsenio Hall, the only son of a Baptist preacher, never quite fit in with the other children in his neighborhood. While they dreamt of becoming Motown singers and N.F.L. stars, he was obsessed with magic tricks and Johnny Carson. As a young boy, he wrote the legendary “Tonight Show” host a letter and later begged his father to buy him the same outfit Carson wore on TV.
“When I was a kid, I was the only brother in Cleveland who wanted a Johnny Carson suit,” Hall told Howard. “Everybody else wanted to be Jim Brown in Cleveland, you know, everybody wanted to be one of the Temptations—I wanted a Johnny Carson suit. My dad, one September, when we went shopping for school clothes, he bought me a Johnny Carson suit that I wore to church every Sunday.”
As an aspiring illusionist, Arsenio specialized in what he called dove magic. Performing tricks may have helped him hone a world-class stage presence, but it didn’t do much for his social life. “I wasn’t the star football player. I was a geek, I was the kid who did magic tricks,” he recalled. “No one came close to wanting to give me no pussy.”
Like with Dick Cavett, Steve Martin, and Carson before him, magic ultimately only served as an on-ramp to Arsenio’s successful entertainment career. Over the span of a few decades he would find fame and fortune as an actor, stand-up, and the trailblazing host of “The Arsenio Hall Show.”
What inspired him to finally ditch the doves and pursue his true calling? Hank Moorehouse, a guy from Ypsilanti, Mich., who caught Arsenio’s act at a magic convention. “He said, ‘Young man, you’re a good magician, but you’ll become famous when you put the birds away and just talk,’” Hall recalled. “It’s exactly what you said, one day you get rid of the birds and the magic was just window dressing for my act.”
Arsenio’s father Fred Hall passed away before his son’s entertainment career ever really took off, but he did get to see him on TV one time as a magician. “They flew me to New York to do a show called ‘Soul,’” Arsenio said. “My dad got to announce at the end of church one Sunday, ‘Uh, watch my son tonight. He’ll be doing magic on television.’ That was kind of cool.”
For My Next Trick I’ll Need a New Career
Whether as an 11-year-old magician or up-and-coming comedian, Arsenio spent a significant portion of his formative years trying to make his way onto Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Unfortunately, everyone kept telling him he wasn’t a good fit.
“Back in those days, [‘Tonight Show’ co-producer] Jim McCauley would come to the Comedy Store or the Improv and watch you. He always said I’m not a Carson guest. The irony is he thought I was a Letterman guest—and I ended up doing my first stand-up shot on Letterman, which was very cool back in the day … but you know how comics are. We wanted to get that from Johnny,” Hall told Howard, explaining his “Tonight Show” breaks actually came by way of comedian and frequent guest host Joan Rivers who booked him when she could.
Speaking of the Comedy Store, Arsenio was excited to see Stern Show co-host Robin Quivers Tuesday morning. The two hadn’t crossed paths in decades since they hung out with model Jessica Hahn and comedian Sam Kinison outside Mitzi Shore’s office at the Comedy Store.
“You two did dueling preachers,” Robin recalled with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe it because you guys just went at it, this was a battle of the preachers.”
Arsenio remembered the evening all too well and revealed the riffing he did that night improbably paved the way for a TV game show concept some time later. “A network tried to do a show called ‘Dueling Pastors,’” he said. “It didn’t work, but it was what we did for Robin that night.”
Hall didn’t release his first full-length comedy special until 2019’s “Smart & Classy,” but the entertainer has found plenty of success on stage over the years and worked alongside many of the greats. Howard wondered if there was any comedian’s act he didn’t like to follow.
“When I was young I wanted to follow the best, but now I want to go on first and go to bed,” Arsenio laughed, though one name did eventually spring to mind. “I hated following Howie Mandel … [he] was a beast. Howie Mandel got crazy laughs … and I hated following him.”
He Be Havin’ a Ball!
Joan Rivers was central to another of Hall’s big late-night breaks as he wound up replacing her in 1987 as the interim host of “The Late Show.” “Joan was kind of upset when I took over her show but dude, I was hungry,” Arsenio said, admitting he probably only landed the gig because of all the airtime she’d given him.
He secured a deal with Paramount soon thereafter and “The Arsenio Hall Show” debuted in January 1989. The show, which featured guests ranging from Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton to David Bowie and Andrew “Dice” Clay, was a ratings success and cultural phenomenon right out of the gate. It targeted a younger, more urban demographic than anything else on the late-night airwaves at that time. It was also ahead of its time in a variety of ways.
“I was Black Twitter,” he told Howard. “I wasn’t a bluebird—I was a blackbird. When Tupac had a problem, he came to me and talked about it … that was the tweet.”
Arsenio had idolized Carson as a kid but after landing his own late-night show they were suddenly competing for the same guests and audience. As cutthroat as the industry certainly was, Hall said Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon would sometimes treat him to a fancy meal and push him to book Black guests like Sinbad and Usher. Taking on guests Carson didn’t want worked to his advantage in the case of superstar Mariah Carey, who made her TV debut in 1990 on “The Arsenio Hall Show”
“That was a prime example of just staying in your lane and things would come,” he told Howard, explaining he first spotted Mariah at a fancy restaurant on the arm of famed record executive Tommy Mottola.
“He sees us looking. Finally, he comes over … and gave me his card,” Arsenio recalled. “We talked and it was good to meet him. He says, ‘The young lady with me is a singer’ … He gave me a cassette tape and on the tape it said ‘Vision of Love.’ I went to car when I left and listened to it immediately and called him the next day and said, ‘She’s not going on Johnny?’ He said, ‘No, Johnny won’t break her. She’ll get on Johnny once you make her famous for me.’ So, I knew my place.”
“The Arsenio Hall Show” also featured memorable appearances from exalted celebrities Prince, Michael Jackson, and even Sammy Davis Jr.
“Prince would always want the whole hour,” Arsenio said of His Royal Badness. “He was amazing because he would come in and kind of produce the show. One time he put reviews in the Baby Grand piano and set the reviews on fire— the fire marshal came.”
The King of Pop, meanwhile, once appeared on Arsenio’s show to present an award to comedian Eddie Murphy. Howard was curious what their off-camera interactions were like.
“He would call me every now and then. Michael’s one of those guys that calls you and … the first time you hang up because you think it’s some children playing on your landline,” Arsenio said. “That’s the thing that’s amazing, if I hung up on Michael, Michael should say, ‘Well, fuck you’ … but he called back and I appreciated that.”
“He would talk about the show and he would tell me about what he liked the night before,” Hall continued. “He came by [the studio] once … he had a carton of orange juice and in his hand and he had a mask on—a KN95, back in the day. Michael was way ahead of the curve with his music and with his facial coverings.”
When it came to Sammy Davis Jr., Arsenio admitted he spent quite some time convincing the famed Rat Packer to come on his show. “When I would see him someplace, he’d say, ‘I’m a Carson guest.,’ And I got what that meant,’” Hall said.
The two started spending time together, though—with Arsenio visiting his house, scoping out his gun collection, and watching “Cocoon” in Sammy’s home theater—and he eventually convinced him to come on the show.
“It was amazing, Howard,” Arsenio said of the appearance, explaining he even stopped by Sammy’s dressing room beforehand and thanked him for coming on. “I go over there … It was Sammy with a stocking cap on and he was doing his own makeup,” he continued. “We have this great conversation where he says all the things that I need to hear from him, how he’s watched the show and supports me … He told me about how things had changed … He told me great stories, but then he said, ‘I apologize for not being here. I should’ve been here sooner.”
Sammy was suffering from throat issues at the time and wasn’t originally slated to perform on the show., but he had a change of heart at the last minute. “He sang anyway,” Arsenio recalled. “Afterward, I said, ‘I really appreciate what you did. You spontaneously got up and did that song,’ He says … ‘I can’t give you less than I gave Johnny. I can’t give your audience less than I give Johnny. I gotta give you 100 percent.’”
Howard vividly remembered Sammy’s appearance as well as his parting words for Arsenio. “He said to you at the end of the interview, ‘Whenever you call for me I’ll be here for you,” Howard recalled, adding. “He was probably the most talented guy who ever lived. He was a drummer, he was a musician, he could sing, he could dance. He could act.”
“He was the original Wayne Brady,” Arsenio agreed with a laugh.
Being the host of an immensely popular show helped Hall make several celebrity friends, but it also landed him in hot water on more than one occasion. For instance, he once reportedly had a public feud with fellow late-night host Jay Leno.
“I remember being the fault in that conflict,” Arsenio said Tuesday. “There was a magazine that asked me about the competition with Letterman and Jay and with Jay I said, ‘I know Jay very well and it’s like the Lakers and the Clippers. The Clippers lose, but they don’t try to lose, they try to win—and I’m going to try and kick his ass.’ Of course, they put a cover out saying I’m going to kick his ass.”
Arsenio also once incurred the wrath of acclaimed director Spike Lee. “Back then we didn’t have the word clickbait, but I think it was all about that,” he told Howard of their tiff. “It was a situation where a movie came out and I didn’t book him quick enough … so he called me out in that way, but I was getting around to him. It was to my advantage to put Spike Lee on. He’s a great director who is very important to Black Hollywood and film, so I was going to get to it, but I think he just snapped too quick.”
In another example, N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube asked him to play their new protest song “Fuck Da Police” but Paramount wasn’t having it. “They were like, ‘You can’t even introduce them. You can’t even say their name,’” Arsenio remembered.
Ice Cube apparently didn’t take the news too well. “He wrote a song,” Hall continued. “I didn’t know my name rhymed with anything, but then I turned on the radio … he chewed me up.”
These days, the two are on better terms. “Now that he’s famous and he’s in charge of making movies and being a producer, we’ve talked. He said, I get it dude. I thought it was you.”
Calling It Quits
As influential and popular as he’d become, Arsenio felt like he was being pulled in several directions at once. “Demographically speaking, [Paramount] would tell me to be a little more conservative because when Johnny leaves you want to inherit that audience,” he said. “They fought me on who I actually became.”
“My thing was, Johnny was doing Steve and Eydie, but there’s an audience in America that doesn’t have a talk show. Let me be that guy,” he continued. “As much as I walked out with a smile and did the show every night, I was tortured.”
“Did you just say fuck it I can’t take it anymore? Did the pressure get to you?” Howard asked.
“At a certain point, numbers eroded a bit. Love acting and wanted to do that more,” Hall responded. “I’m like, ‘Six years? That’s a good run,’ … I wrote a letter [and] said I’m going to move on, and my whole life changed. I didn’t do a lot of acting. I ended up becoming a father and trying to get back into business later on—and it was rough because the business doesn’t wait for you. You can’t take a break from show business.”
“Was that a great regret?” Howard asked.
“Maybe,” Arsenio responded. “Maybe you stick with where people are comfortable having you.”
Hanging With Richard Pryor
Arsenio spoke highly of his relationship with the incomparable Richard Pryor, who passed away in 2005. “Richard Pryor was my hero and I’m proud to say he was my friend,” Hall said. “Richard and I were friends until his last day on earth and, Howard, he taught me the most about understanding this town. At the end of his life, there weren’t a lot of people around kissing Richard’s ass … This town won’t be here in the end.”
The two remained close even after Richard’s health starting failing him, with Arsenio sneaking him out to see the latest Eddie Murphy movie or bringing celebrities and old friends like Steve Harvey and Quincy Jones over for one-on-one chats. “Richard’s looking at [Steve] and Richard said, ‘I think he kind of looks like me,’” he recalled. “[So] I found Steve, put him in a car, brought him to Richard’s, left him in the room, let him and Richard talk for two hours.”
“He was a great dude and he was funny, Howard, to the last day he was on this earth,” Arsenio continued, recalling a specific instance where he cracked a joke after being given a lifetime achievement comedy award. “Somebody in the balcony said, ‘We love you Richard!,’ and Richard said, ‘Well, suck my dick then.’ When Richard was sick, he was still Richard.”
THE KING OF POT
One thing Arsenio and his “Coming 2 America” character Semmi have in common is their appreciation for marijuana. “It’s just so incredible,” he said of legal marijuana, explaining he once needed to hide his weed habit from Michael Jackson. “Now, it’s so cool to walk into a store and have them put out a velvet mat like you’re at Zales, like you’re shopping for a ring or something.”
Since it’s not legal on a national level, the regular smoker noted touring the country as a stand-up can get tricky. “You end up in Alabama and it’s like, ‘Oh shit, it’s not legal here?’ and you have to like buy weed in a Bojangles parking lot like the old days,” he said.
“I love coming out of the weed man’s apartment,” he continued. “The weed man always has like lawn furniture in his apartment so you know he don’t really live there and you walk out and you got the bag under your arm and it feels like, you know, you’re pulling off some kind of El Chapo heist.”
Still, Arsenio assured Howard he only partakes when he’s off the clock, something he learned the hard way after a charity gig with comedian George Lopez. “I went on and I did my set and when I came off George said, ‘What’s wrong? … You were on six minutes,” he remembered. “So, I never smoke before I go onstage.”
BUDDIES OF COMEDY
Arsenio’s friendship with co-star Eddie Murphy dates back nearly 40 years when both were still very early in their careers. “I get him,” he said of their relationship. “We came up at a time where we learned this whole thing together.”
Meeting each other at L.A’s famed Comedy Store was more than by chance as Eddie’s mother had seen Arsenio perform on the show “Solid Gold” and thought they could pass as brothers. “’I want you to look for Arsenio when you get out there,’” Eddie’s mom purportedly said. “The first thing Eddie ever said to me, in Murphy fashion, he looked at me and says, ‘… You don’t look like me.’”
Most people think of Eddie as one of the all-time comedy legends, but to Arsenio he’s also a ventriloquist with a penchant for Paul Mooney impressions. “Eddie has a Paul Mooney ventriloquism doll … There is nothing like smoking a joint and Eddie pulls out the Paul Mooney doll,” he noted. “You just sit there and you talk to the Paul Mooney [doll].’”
While Arsenio likened Eddie’s ventriloquism skills to “me doing a trick and a dead bird falls out of my jacket,” he was otherwise quite complimentary. “He has such a great ear and he does these voices, I mean you start to look at the Paul Mooney doll and you forget it’s Eddie talking.”
“COMING TO AMERICA”
Sometime after that meeting in front of the comedy club, Eddie presented Arsenio with the idea of “Coming to America.” “I thought it was a funny fish out of water script and then I think it was [original director] John Landis who said, ‘You guys should be some of the people you meet when you come to America,’” the actor recalled, adding it was Eddie who convinced him he was capable of taking on the multiple roles in the film. “He talked me into it. He’s like, ‘Yo, when you talk about your dad and you do a preacher, that’s a fucking character once [special makeup effects artist] Rick Baker puts shit on your face.’”
Not only was Eddie right about that, Baker’s work on their barbershop characters Saul and Morris was so realistic that when they walked around the Paramount lot to test their outfits, it drew Eddie some interesting attention. “’How you doing, little dumpling?’” Arsenio remembered his friend asking a much older woman before adding, “he got her number.”
Eddie’s own mother, however, wasn’t so sure “Coming to America” would be a hit. “’I don’t know,’” Arsenio remembered her remarking with disapproval on set one day. “She’s been on the set of ‘Trading Places.’ She’s been on the set of ’48 Hrs.,’ … That scared the hell out of me.”
Also on the set was comedian Louie Anderson, one of the film’s only white actors. As Arsenio explained it, the studio insisted they cast at least one white character. “We had to put him in it,” he said before noting he was happy with the choice. “For me, Louie was this veteran when I was a young comic coming to the Comedy Store and he was always nice to me … He was absolutely funny.”
GOING BACK TO ZAMUNDA
The original “Coming to America” is beloved by many a fan, including Howard who admitted he was nervous initially at the idea of a sequel. Arsenio assured him he wasn’t alone. “A lot of people [were],” he said. “One day we’re getting coffee at Starbucks and Eddie tips this lady $100, which should have made her say the right thing. As we walked out, she said, ‘Don’t fuck up my movie!’”
Ultimately, Eddie was set on doing anything but. “There’s nobody who’s more determined to get it right before they call action so I knew he wasn’t going to do this until it was right,” Arsenio declared, noting it took four years to get to a script from the original development.
Originally, Eddie wanted fellow comedian and frequent Stern Show guest Tracy Morgan to play his son. “It froze me,” Arsenio said of the suggestion. “I’m like, ‘Yo motherfucking Tracy, y’all look about the same age.’ I said, ‘Hey, maybe for number three Morgan Freeman can be your son, we can go find him.’”
While that role wasn’t quite the right fit, it was no question they’d find one that was. “We knew Tracy should be in it because he is as funny as the day is long,” Arsenio said of his co-star. “Tracy is hilarious. He’s great to have on a set. They should hire Tracy even if he not in a movie to just be on the set.”
Such hilarity most likely came in handy when Arsenio went into makeup for up to six hours a day to become characters like Reverend Brown—who is partially based on his own father—and the shaman, an all-new part Eddie declined to play after learning how makeup intensive it was. “I sit and just hold a pillow. It’s incredible, you have to have something on television you really like,” Arsenio said of the process, adding, “Nothing on me is mine. They gave me a shaman’s penis.”
Originally set for a major theater release, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic “Coming 2 America” finally gets its due via streaming this week – something no one could have anticipated. “I always like to say we want our theaters to be like our homes and our homes to be like our theaters,” Arsenio admitted. “I watched this business start to change but I didn’t expect this.”
Even so, it’s something Arsenio is more than ready for. “In a time like this when we’re going through crazy shit, I would love to be the one to make people laugh in March because we all need it,” he noted warmly.
“Coming 2 America” debuts Friday, March 5 on Amazon Prime Video.