Arsenio Hall: Back in the game

Arsenio Hall returns to a changed, and much more crowded, late-night TV landscape

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Meeting Arsenio Hall at a hotel restaurant in Chicago, several things strike you:

He is extremely polite and instantly likable, good qualities in someone once again asking America to spend an hour each weeknight with him. His Chicago background, while relatively short, was very important: He learned to be a standup comedian here.

And, you learn, he has a lot of famous friends. In the course of a half-hour conversation, the still wiry, now-57-year-old mentioned "Magic" (Johnson), "Quincy" (Jones), and "Jay" (Leno), and still more people by their full names: Stevie Wonder, Alec Baldwin, Billy Bush, Bill Maher, Andrew Dice Clay.

Indeed, ask him about re-entering late-night in an era when there are so many more players in that field than when he left it, in 1994, and he relays what some of those friends have been telling him:

"When a Quincy Jones would say, 'I can't believe that you're not gonna try it again,' I'd always say, 'It's crowded, it's crowded. It's not like it was.' And I always got from people — and maybe it's 'cause I want to believe this — from Quincy Jones to Alec Baldwin, people always said, 'But I still think, "You're not there."' And maybe my taste and personality is different enough to create a 19th late-night show that might find a home."

So Hall will put on the fancy threads — minus those early-1990s shoulder pads — reconvene the "Dog Pound," and once again put himself up for public approval.

Bearing the same name as the show that broke ground during its 1989-94 run, the new "Arsenio Hall Show" will try to win audience away from Jay, Dave, Jon, Stephen, Conan, both Jimmys, Chelsea, etc., or at least to build its own viewership from the hundreds of millions of Americans who don't watch any of them.

That's not a bad bet: No matter how many more names there are in late night than there were two decades ago, Hall, still, will be the only African-American host.

Available in the 50 largest markets and more than 85 percent of the country, the show has a production team including CBS Television Distribution and Hall, and its anchor carrier is Tribune Broadcasting's station group, which means it'll be on WGN-Ch. 9 in Chicago weeknights at 10 p.m. (The Chicago Tribune and Tribune Broadcasting are corporate siblings.)

Hall has done what he can to make the return work. Last year, he got himself cast on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice," in part to get his name back before the public, and ended up winning the thing.

At the same time, some in the African-American community, reacting to Trump's anti-President Obama politics, were telling him not to do the NBC reality show.

"Let's put it like this," Hall says. "Trump is not as popular in the inner city as Kool-Aid. It was a tough bounce to do that show."

He's guested on "The Tonight Show," "Real Time with Bill Maher" and more, and, more recently, he foamed the runway for the show with a summertime promotional tour, including a Chicago stay at the Trump Hotel, where this conversation — edited for print — took place:

Q: Welcome back to Chicago. How long has it been?

A: It all started here. But the last time I was actually here — I try to do something for Father's Day that's cool every year, and maybe two years ago, me and my son flew in. I wanted him to see the Cubs scorebaord because, you know, he's born in the Jumbotron era and just to see a scoreboard where you hang the number, you know?

Q: So how did it all start?

A: I lived in an apartment on River Road. I wanted to be a famous traveling comic. And I'd met a comic in college, a guy named Franklyn Ajaye, who was in a movie called "Car Wash," who came to Kent State to promote the movie. And he told me the downside to being a stand-up: Everybody just hated the travel.

So the first thing I did when I moved here, I moved within walking distance of O'Hare airport. The irony is, I got my big break right there, too. There was a place called the Hyatt and inside a showroom called the Blue Max, and I got to open for a singer named Nancy Wilson there. The jazz singer. Not rock Nancy (of Heart). It just changed my life. She took me on the road, first of all, and eventually told me I should move to L.A. And I moved there and lived with her manager in his guesthouse.

Q: What places did you play here in town?

A: I would do corporate gigs where you end up at the Conrad Hilton on Michigan Avenue. I was the host comic at The Comedy Cottage (in Rosemont). All the comedy clubs then: The Womb, Zanies. I actually found Zanies and found stand up because I went to Second City to audition for Bernie Sahlins, who back in the day was the guy who could make you John Candy, you know? And I did really well in my audition and on my way to my car saw Zanies. And my life changed forever. I was thinking of becoming an actor and trying to do it through the ways that we saw Jane Curtin and John Candy and all those people coming through the improv way. And standup, Zanies gave me an idea and it changed me forever.

Q: And what was the time frame that you were here?

A: I came here right after college so I was here in 1978. And I left here, New Year's Eve, '79. So it was a really short beginning to where I saw a slight future, and Nancy Wilson says, "Come with me." And literally she takes me from here to Carnegie Hall. And all of a sudden now I'm opening for Nancy Wilson and the Count Basie Orchestra.

Q: So what did you learn from your talk show the first time around? What's been on your mind since you left the show?

A: Well, I think I used to battle against that word "broadcasting." No matter how you look at it, there's no way around that first word in that compound word, "broad." No matter how edgy, creative or hip to your buddies that you want to be, you've got to remember that it's America, between the bookends, and sometimes we can get caught creating art for Hollywood. And that's the worst thing you can do. You know, I have a barbershop in my house — and most guys who I know, most of the brothers I know, have that, you know? — so before you know it, you can end up not leaving your house for anything. You know, before you know it, you're calling Rihanna "Robyn" (her given name at birth) and people in Peoria have no idea what you're talking about. You can get too hip for the American room.

Q: So what made you want to come back?

A: I have wanted to come back for a long time, but I had to wait until it was right for my life. It's a lot meaner, crazier a business now with everything that's social, and even with reality shows. The other night I turned away from a basketball game — a great basketball game — during a commercial, and there was a chick named Joseline on "Love & Hip Hop Atlanta," who got up from her table, threw a glass in this woman's face, they started fighting. (Picked) her up. Dress go up. They scramble out private parts (on the screen). And for a moment I forgot Tim Duncan was playing. And it dawned on me: If that's my appetite, if that's what held me, how do you compete against that?

Q: I was going to say: You can't really reinvent the wheel. There is a band. There are guests. So, ultimately, it kind of comes down to the host's personality and tone, doesn't it?

A: Absolutely. Yeah, it's who you want to spend the night with. It's not the desk. It's not band-vs.-deejay. It's who you want to hang with. There are nights, when I've had a long day, and I want to hang with Fallon, because it's gonna be light, and we have the same sensibilities in music, and he's gonna play a game and keep it fun. And then there are other nights when I want my Matt Damon wrapped in a Leno package, you know?

Q: Are these shows still relevant? Let me frame that for you. If I'm going to do an hour a night, I tend to do Stewart and Colbert, just because I feel like there's a little more meat there.

A: I'll be honest with you: Me and my son (now 13) watch Colbert. He got me into it. I agree with you. I like to come out of my viewing feeling like I'm better than when I went in. And if I watch Colbert, I get a point of view. I get smart from him. And I learn some things maybe without picking up — I can sneak around the L.A. Times that day.

Q: So do you bring some of that to the new show?

A: Absolutely. People want to laugh, you know? People want to go to bed happy and with a laugh. But at the same time, you want to give 'em some Jon Stewart, a little bit, you know? But (I) don't want to be Westen Union. If you want messages, you go someplace else. I want to entertain you.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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