The production offices of “The Arsenio Hall Show” at Sunset Bronson Studios in Hollywood have that unmistakable New Show Smell — the gasoline-tinged fragrance of freshly erected cubicle partitions, desktop filing shelves, whiteboards and erasable markers just unpacked from delivery boxes.
In his corner office, sparsely decorated with ESPN on the TV and a few framed mementos on the walls, Hall is still mastering the controls for the air conditioning unit. Finally, his assistant, Brittany, who was probably in preschool when Hall had his first talkshow, comes to the rescue. Her boss is grateful, because the temperature outside is pushing 80 degrees and he is getting more and more animated in describing his yearning to return to the latenight joke-slinging grind.
Hall will get his wish on Sept. 9. CBS and Tribune Broadcasting are betting big that the comedian has enough goodwill with auds to allow an 11 p.m. syndicated latenight yakker to survive in a landscape that is far more fragmented since Hall’s 1989-1994 tenure on the air.
“There’s a 35-year-old female viewer out there who is just money for me,” Hall says. “She was with me the first time around because my show always appealed to women. And I know who the guy (viewer) is too. He and she probably have children now. The people on the higher end of my demo now have children who are 19 or 20. I just want to make a good, funny show (aimed at) those people who were there the first time, but I want to make it friendly for their kids who are 21, 22, 23.”
Hall spent most of the past 19 years raising his son, Cheron, now 13. He kept up a presence in comedy clubs and with a smattering of TV gigs, including a run last year on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
But he never lost his love for latenight. Like so many comics, the person Hall, 57, wanted to be when he was growing up in Cleveland’s rough neighborhoods was Johnny Carson. When his mother would set up folding tables and chairs in the basement to throw rent parties, a preteen Hall would use those props the next day to stage his own talkshow — complete with a studio audience of neighbor kids.
“I’m a TV animal,” Hall says with a wide smile. “I love to make people laugh.”
For years, his sanctuary at home has been a TV room with multiple monitors. After his son went to bed, he’d tune in Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien simultaneously. As devoted as he was to being Dad, he couldn’t shake the desire to get back in the game.
“If I didn’t have that TV room set up, I probably wouldn’t have come back,” Hall says. “I’ve been tortured since my son was about 8. And when I would hang around with Leno or (George) Lopez, the feeling of wanting to be up on that stage again just got stronger and stronger.”
The launch of a five-day-a-week talkshow is a grueling endeavor even for the most seasoned production vets. The rebirth of “Arsenio” is no exception — except that exec producer Neal Kendall and others are quick to note how refreshing it is to work with a host who knows from the start how much work is in store. Motivation is not a problem for Hall, who is hands-on with the smallest details, such as selecting the backdrop imagery for his Twitter page. (“Would you know Johnny Carson if you saw a picture of him?” Hall quizzed a young staffer.)
More than anything else, Hall wants to get back into the business of writing topical jokes and riffing off headlines night after night. It’s the best exercise in the world for a comedian, he assures, and he can’t believe how much easier it is to follow the news and find inspiration in the age of Twitter et al.
“Used to be I’d hit my mark for the opening of the show with a handkerchief in my pocket,” Hall observes. “These days I have an iPhone. Technology makes it so easy to write jokes and check the accuracy of names and quotes and details. Everything now with this show has just fallen into place for me in such an uncanny way. Now it’s time for us to build it and see who comes to laugh.”