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The Happiest Man in Show Biz

December 27, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER

Arsenio Hall Engraved nameplate on a dressing room door at Fox Broadcasting . . .

We Be Havin' a Ball . . . engraved on a nameplate just below it.

Night after night, he presided over the hippest party in town, strutting out in front of an adoring audience and dancing on virtually every racial stereotype around.

Comic Arsenio Hall, who replaced Joan Rivers as the final host of Fox Broadcasting's ill-fated "The Late Show" until it ended Dec. 10, would joke about the size of his rear end, his penchant for discussing clothes with his black guests, the fact that his white producer asked him not to wear his diamond-stud earring, the way the brothers and sisters in his audience shouted at him as if they were attending a church revival meeting and the likelihood that Don King has a white hairdresser with an ultra-Caucasian sense of humor.

As a television interviewer, Hall proved himself at once totally slick, totally vulnerable and totally unpredictable. When guest Gloria Steinem, for instance, protested that there was no reason for him to feel intimidated while interviewing her, he responded that she didn't fully understand the problem: the type of "girls" he dates communicate in phrases such as "take me shopping."

And when author Jackie Collins innocently inquired if 30-year-old Hall had ever considered marriage, he thought for half a second, smiled, and looked straight into the camera. "Yeah," he said, "one time when this girl called me up and told me she was pregnant."

Audiences loved it--and they were astounded when Hall and "The Late Show" were suddenly taken off the air.

However, according to a Fox spokesperson, "The Late Show" was canceled before Hall agreed to perform as host for its last 13 weeks. Though Hall says Fox made him four separate offers to stay with the network--including one to appear on "The Wilton North Report" which replaced "The Late Show"--he was already scheduled in January to start filming "The Zamunda Project," which he co-developed and will co-star in with his friend Eddie Murphy in New York. Thus all the offers were turned down.

In the time since "The Late Show" stopped taping, Hall says he's been busy "doing every charity I thought I could--Comic Relief, the juvenile diabetes telethon, cystic fibrosis" and being fitted with costumes and latex masks for the various characters he'll play in the movie.

"And me and Eddie grabbed a couple of girls and we went to Hawaii for a week," he says. "We want to write a part for (comic) Louie Anderson into the movie. (Director John) Landis has already cast the movie, but we want to add Louie. We think he's really funny." Hall says he's had a field day turning down offers from several networks. "HBO offered me basically anything I want to do, a talk show, a series. There was interest from two of the three (major) networks, but when I signed a contract with Fox to do 'The Late Show' I agreed not to do a talk show for another network for one year."

Lately, he complains, he's had to change his home telephone number because of renewed wooing from the folks at Fox. "Big Fox executives have been calling my house and trying to strike up a deal with me. I want them to talk to my manager."

The Cleveland-born comic says he would love to return to television if the offer's right and calls the period he spent doing "The Late Show" "the best time of my whole life."

Indeed, things got so silly on the show that Hall, who has a bachelor's degree in communication from Kent State University, frequently opened the program with the phrase "We be havin' a ball," which he overheard one night backstage. He swiftly told the white man who uttered it, "I'll be the one in charge of the black English."

He even laughed when some viewers wrote the Fox network to complain that his show was "too black" (particularly after the raucous night he had with Laker Magic Johnson, "Dynasty" actress Emma Samms and heavyweight champ Mike Tyson all singing, "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" with Little Richard).

On subsequent shows, Hall continued to whoop it up--literally--with his trademark "dog chant." The sound, typically accompanied by an arm cranking in a circle, consists of "roooff, roooff, roooff, roooff, roooff" noises, barked in place of spontaneous laughter or applause. "Late Show" studio audiences got into barking to the point of occasionally disrupting the show, and Hall reports that he's heard the chant is now showing up at concerts around the country. "Even white guys like (comic) Sam Kinison have told me people are doing it at their shows," he says.

When Hall suspected the dog chant or race jokes were getting to be too much for certain sub-groups in his national audience, he simply recommended that his armchair critics send their letters to "I Hate That Negro, Box. . . ."

The mail really poured in, however, when Fox began airing promos for the program that would replace "The Late Show. "

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