Other than the fact that he is having a Q-tip stuck up his nostrils every morning, life is good for Arsenio Hall.
He’s got a stand-up comedy special on Netflix, still generating chatter after its 2019 release. He’s developed a large social-media following, about one-million-strong between Twitter and Instagram. He celebrated a big birthday, No. 65, last week. (Yes, 65; you have permission to feel ancient.) And he is co-starring in the long-awaited, much-anticipated, sorta-delayed sequel Coming 2 America, which will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video next month. (Hence those daily COVID-19 nasal swabs as he goes through the media-junket rounds.)
But when you mention the name “Arsenio Hall” to anyone who is not Arsenio Hall, people of a certain age and viewing habit tend to ask the obvious question: Where the heck has he been all these years? Specifically, that nearly three-decade gap between 1994, when his landmark late-night television show went off the air, until this very moment, when you maybe realized just how much you missed his live-wire energy and the fist-pumping cries of “woof-woof-woof!” that would greet him every evening, 11 p.m. local time.
So, where has Arsenio Hall been? The answer is half-easy, half-complicated, all heartwarming.
“I remember a lady on the street coming up to me one day, and asking me the same question. ‘I miss you on TV!’ And it was the week that I won Celebrity Apprentice. Sometimes you have to be on people’s specific radar,” Hall says with a laugh the other day. “There are filmgoers and there are TV-watchers and there are people going out to clubs to see stand-up. In some of those situations, you’ve seen me and know who I am. In some situations, you might not.”
Indeed, if you’ve been paying attention to certain corners of the industry, Hall has been here, there and everywhere: Star Search, Hollywood Squares, The World’s Funniest Moments, The Jay Leno Show, two seasons of the CBS action-drama Martial Law, and, yes, an extended run alongside He Who Must Not Be Named on The Celebrity Apprentice 5. (There was also a short-lived 2013-2014 reboot of Hall’s talk show, which even the most obsessive Arsenio-ite could be forgiven for forgetting.)
But it is also true that Hall has simply not had the omnicultural presence he once enjoyed. The reason? He wanted to be as committed a father as he could be. After Arsenio Cheron Hall Jr. was born in 1999, the performer says he made a decision to step back from one world and lean harder into another.
“My life was all work. All I did was work, all I enjoyed was work. I would throw work into the middle of a date – take my girl to dinner and say, ‘Hey let’s stop by the Comedy Store, I want to do five minutes.’ But what fatherhood did for me was give me a life,” Hall says today. “People talk about show business and legacy. When I was a kid, I loved Earth, Wind & Fire. Maurice White was a genius to me. And when I say to my son now, ‘You don’t know who Maurice White is?’ ... I realized that you can’t make art your legacy. What lasts forever is what you do as a father.”
It couldn’t have been easy for Hall to leave the spotlight. In the 1990s, when late-night television was a blood sport, Hall commanded a good deal of the arena. For some, The Arsenio Hall Show evokes easy-entertainment memories of brightly coloured jackets, Bill Clinton playing Heartbreak Hotel on the sax and the tremendous roar of the live audience. But the show should be remembered for more essential cultural touchstones, too.
Like the 1991 evening when Hall invited Earvin “Magic” Johnson on the day after the basketball star revealed that he was HIV positive. Or the 1992 episode that aired the same evening that Los Angeles was engulfed by riots, stemming from the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. (Hall had actors Edward James Olmos and Sean Penn, as well as L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and Reverend Cecil Murray, of the First African Methodist Church in South Central, as guests.) Or the many, many times that Hall welcomed rising stars from the Black community that Johnny Carson over at The Tonight Show just wouldn’t think of booking. (Hello, Mariah Carey.)
When the late-night wars got a little too heated and his show’s ratings dipped, Hall could have headlined a sitcom or parlayed his small-screen fame into blockbuster territory, like his good friend Eddie Murphy. (Aside from the Coming to America movies, Hall has only acted in two other live-action films: 1989′s Harlem Nights and 2009′s Black Dynamite.) But instead, Hall played the family man.
“I wouldn’t have traded one little league game or school play for anything,” he says. “When I heard fathers gushing in the past, I now know why. There is no greater joy in life than falling in love or being a dad.”
Although there are advantages to being a dad with an Arsenio Hall-esque celebrity, too.
“My son was a big basketball fan in high school, and Kobe Bryant sent him a pair of shoes to play in. My son’s first shot, he hits a three-pointer,” Hall recalls. “Damn, I have to find those shoes now.”
The only reason, then, that Hall is out and about getting nasal-swabbed is because Arsenio Jr. is now college-bound. Oh, and Hall’s old friend Murphy called him up to ask whether he would again play the excitable sidekick Semmi to Murphy’s leading man Prince Akeem of Zamunda in a sequel to the pair’s 1988 hit comedy. There was just one hitch, though: Hall would have to play about a half-dozen other characters under heavy makeup, too, just like in the first movie. (Murphy, obviously a Peter Sellers fan, has a thing for taking on multiple roles. See: The Nutty Professor, Vampire in Brooklyn, Bowfinger and, if you must, Norbit.)
“It’s a tremendous challenge, but it’s like any athlete: you want to get to the Super Bowl, you can’t wait to tackle Tom Brady,” says Hall, who in addition to Semmi plays a witch doctor, a lascivious reverend, an elderly barber-shop hanger-on and one rural-farmer character who proved “too risque” for new-to-the-franchise director Craig Brewer’s more family-friendly version of the Coming to America-verse.
“This is a fairy tale about love and empowerment and changing philosophies, so that scene didn’t quite fit,” Hall says of the character that this newspaper can only describe as a literal animal-lover. “It is a very, very funny scene, but Craig was smart enough to watch it and say, ‘Not now.’”
Just as well. As Hall’s relationship to entertainment and comedy has changed, so has Murphy’s.
“Eddie has 10 kids! I bet Eddie thought his legacy was comedy and Saturday Night Live when he was a young man, but I know for a fact that now it’s his kids, his family. That’s what it’s about when your life is over. It’s not about the art,” says Hall. “On the set of the first movie, if there was a break, we’d go to a night club dressed as Semmi and Akeem. On this one, Eddie was sitting with his daughter. Children change how you work and how you play.”
Like every other big-budget movie in the world, Coming 2 America was scheduled to open in theatres late last year. But then Paramount Pictures sold the film’s distribution rights to Amazon Prime Video – with everything moving so fast that Hall says he only found out about the shift “through the grapevine.”
“It took a moment. It knocked me down. It was like, ‘What does that mean?’ But everything happens for a reason, and this is God’s plan, so let me rock with Amazon to the best of my abilities,” he says. “And I’m happy that for one day in March, people who have been in their houses for a year, I can contribute some laughter to their lives.”
“I love being a little speed bump in everybody’s pain,” Hall adds. “Right now, I’m just happy.”
Coming 2 America premieres on Amazon Prime Video March 5
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