Three hours after “Arsenio Hall Show” producer Marla Kell Brown gave birth to daughter Jordan Rose by Caesarean section, she was on the air live by remote satellite broadcast from her hospital room regaling Hall, her production crew, and 323 strangers in the audience with the difference between C-section and normal delivery.
The bemused Hall turned to the camera and confided, “That’s more information than I needed.”
Several months later Hall recalled, “Yeah, we used it as entertainment…The doctor is, like, ‘We’ve advised her not to do this. She’s told us she has to be on the air at 5:15.’ ”
“I was high from all the medication,” Brown interrupts. “People said, ‘ooo!…you didn’t seem to be hurting.’ ”
The incident illustrates several points about the production of the “Arsenio Hall Show.””We work
as a team…but she is never happier than when I have egg on my face,” insists Hall. “She likes when I’m in hell.”
Brown acknowledges, “I’ve always felt that if the show comes off exactly like the rundown, it probably wasn’t very good.”
“And your official title is?” Hall asks.
“She makes it all happen. All I have to do is dream it, and she can make anything happen,” Hall says.
They first worked together in 1987 when Hall took over from Joan Rivers on the Fox network’s canceled “The Late Show.” The rating unexpectedly took off, and Paramount made an offer that included Hall’s being his own executive producer. Hall brought his then-26-year-old, and relatively inexperienced, producer with him.
Such shared histories with his key personnel explain Hall’s chemistry producing the daily one-hour variety and talk show. Cheryl Bonacci, the VP of operations of Arsenio Hall Communications, was his and Brown’s assistant on “The Late Show.”
Stage 29 revisited
The executive in charge of production, Milt Hoffman, and music producer Sharon Olson go back to when Hall hosted Paramount’s Top 10 musical-variety show , “Solid Gold,” in 1984 from the same Stage 29, as does wardrobe supervisor Sandy Ampon. Director Sandi Fullerton also worked on “Solid Gold” but first directed the comic on “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert” a decade ago.
One of Hall’s current talent executives originally booked him on the Captain & Tennille show. And the show’s warm-up comic, Daley Pike, then the emcee of a little comedy club in Chicago, was the first person to put Hall on stage to do stand-up.
The modus operandi of “The Arsenio Hall Show” originates in his long apprenticeship as a stand-up comedian.
“As a comic I love first blurts. I like that in this situation also. For instance, (sex therapist) Dr. Ruth (Westheimer) wanted to talk to me before the show, but it’s not fresh. I don’t want to really be in a situation where I hug you and say it’s good to see you, and I’ve talked to you and hugged you backstage already.”
He never sits down with the interviewees before the show to set things up, which admittedly sometimes leaves him hanging out on a limb when a guest doesn’t want to talk about what her or his publicist pitched to the show’s bookers. Of course, producer Brown relishes those moments when they draw out Hall’s flair for wringing humor from awkward situations.
“You can’t believe how little of Arsenio’s monologue is actually written,” Brown notes. “How much he goes off the paper. Or how little paper there is.”
Hall adds, “A lot of comics are just good actors with a Rollodex in their mind. When you say, ‘Oil spill,’ they think, ‘Jack Lord’s hair,’ then say, ‘The Exxon Valdez oil spill. At first, I thought it was just Jack Lord taking a swim. Yo.’ That’s how they work. It’s called the ‘mix’ as a comedy writer.
“I try to write one joke and come up with one joke. And the downside is sometimes you don’t hit. But the upside is that when you hit, you know you’re doing the job.”
Hall functions as his own head writer. Throughout the morning the show’s half-dozen writers work on the “packet” for the monologue. “There’s research, there’s intros. When I come in the morning, they bring me articles, and they say , ‘I think this is a good direction.’ And we have round robin discussions and come up with stuff.
“This morning we were talking about Barney the Dinosaur and thinking about what we were going to do as a joke. One guy at the table said, ‘I hate Barney,’ which is an interesting point of view, because the guy with kids said, ‘I love Barney.’ He said, ‘I wonder if Barney is big, and they chose it, what they rejected.’ So we came up with the concept of all the things that didn’t make it.
“My whole thing is that I’m a guy who decided in the beginning that I could not just do jokes on how hard the rolls on the United flights are. I was going to have to do jokes that dealt with racism. When I read about Denny’s, I have to say, ‘What, I’ve been to a Denny’s. They let roaches in there but not black people.’ Now I know there’s a message there, and it got a laugh too.
“Obviously, there are times when I do jokes about my mom and my report card. But the deal is that I read the paper every day, and I also feel that comics do have a responsibility to create laughter in a very painful world. And that’s kind of our job…Basically, as far as my direction and future, it’s just a man who will try to get laughs and at the same time have a point of view and an opinion,” he says.
“The great ones that I idolize… by watching Robin Williams every night for so many years, I can probably tell where he stands on gays in the military. I can almost tell you where he would go with his humor. Watching Richard Pryor all these years, I can probably tell you where he stands on the Tyson conviction. Because the great ones I idolize have had punch lines and points of view.”
Booking is an on-going process throughout the week with a board in the conference room indicating who is lined up for each day. About 3:30 each afternoon Hall and Brown meet with the two segment producers who have done the pre-interviews, written questions and now brief Hall.
‘Look du jour’
By 4-4:30 p.m., they move to Stage 29, where Hall and Sandy Ampon consult on the “look du jour” that has landed Hall on TV Guide’s Best-Dressed Men and People mag’s 10 Worst Dressed lists in the same year.
“He is so timed that he does not see his monologue on cards until five o’clock, and he’s being miked two minutes to air. His back is to the wire,” notes Brown.
“We’re a live daily show, so let’s make it look that way on the air. If not, let’s just tape them all on the weekend. The more we can make it feel live and daily, the better.”
High-tech examples would be the recent live satellite interviews with a grinning Tom Cruise and Sydney Pollack from Paramount’s “The Firm” location in Memphis and a giggling Whitney Houston in her kitchen. Any resemblance to journalism is purely coincidental. They are guests at Hall’s party, not interviewees.
The most major problem is a last-minute guest cancellation. “If you have a stand-up comic cancel, then you can fill with a comic. If you have a lead guest for two segments, then you have a different kind of a problem,” notes Brown.
“If a musical guest cancels, it’s not that you can’t find another musical guest, but there’s so much involved with the production value of it, that it throws you into a different tizzy. It’s kind of what I like the best. It’s a challenge. I like the chaos. I like being exhausted at the end of the day. The times I worked on pre-taped shows or development jobs, I found boring.” The taping begins at 5:15 p.m., and is shot in real time with the commercials in place. The show is quickly checked by Brown, Hall and Paramount attorney Cynthia Teele, alert for anything obscene and libelous on the free-wheeling show to be blipped.
On this particular night a piece of erotic art illustrating Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s latest book that she held up to the camera had to be quickly digitalized, making it less graphic.
But the show was up on the satellite by 7 p.m. to its 200-plus stations, some of which on the East Coast have it on the air within the hour.
Then Arsenio Hall, an admitted workaholic and night person, gets together with the members of his staff to consult on the long-range problems or plans for the show, other future television projects and films.
He frequently is on the phone with producer Marla Kell Brown in the wee small hours of the morning, while her husband, Steve, sleeps through the conferences. “I’m a big Letterman fan, and sometimes I may call her at 1 a.m.,” Hall admits. “I’ve actually had the opportunity to hear her husband snore.”
“I think the most important thing–I tell myself this every morning–if anybody watches the show and knows what’s going to happen, I failed. I need to make it unpredictable. People should say, ‘I want to watch him because I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ That’s my goal.”