Arsenio Hall: Back in the game

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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.

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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