Watching last night’s first installment of The Arsenio Hall Show was a bit like having a very fun uncle ramble on about his very fun youth. The show seemed stuck in a haze of nostalgia, with Hall’s heyday, the 1990s, dominating much of the proceedings. He made jokes about AOL CD-Roms, Wesley Snipes, and hosted a roster of slightly historical guests including Paula Abdul and Chris Tucker. Snoop Dogg gave a fabulous rendition of “Snoop Doggy Dog” — and everybody traveled back in time, which was fun, but also a problem.
Sure, some celebration of Hall’s pop-cultural touchstones is needed, but to have a new late-night show so dominated by the past seems a risky strategy for a man trying to reinstate himself in the modern show business landscape.
More than any other talk show host before or since, Hall in his prime was obsessed with staying at the very center of the zeitgeist. In his new incarnation, however, he comes across very differently, interviewing old guests with nothing major to report, sometimes unsuccessfully trying his hand at Kimmel-like video-skits, and never quite settling into his former cool confidence.
Since The Arsenio Hall Show went off the air 19 years ago, the late-night talk show circuit has become a far busier place. Genial Leno and acerbic Letterman must do battle with the arcane Conan O’Brien, frat-boy Jimmy Kimmel, class clown Jimmy Fallon and Scottish-born Craig Ferguson. Even the dour Carson Daly is off doing pre-taped segments (which usually involve an insane amount of driving) that air at two in the morning. And that is just primetime network TV! In such a crowded field, is there room for Arsenio Hall?
If he can adapt, then yes, there is. Hall has an easy-going delivery that beautifully counterpoints his hard-charging wit. And he’s far more topically daring, still, than anyone else on late night. (Would any other late-night host make that Instagram/cocaine joke?) All he needs to do is decide whether or not he wants to celebrate the now. He used to do that beautifully, just by being himself.
Rebecca Harrington is the author of campus comedy Penelope