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FRESH TALK : 'We Be Havin' a Ball,' Says Arsenio Hall. But Can the Talk-Show Host's Hip New Style Succeed on Late-Night TV?

April 16, 1989|ITABARI NJERI | Itabari Njeri is a writer for The Times' View section.

IT WAS 1987, AND HERE he was at last. Arsenio Hall, a relatively unknown comedian with an impossibly toothy grin and mischievous big brown eyes, was sitting behind Johnny Carson's desk in Studio 1 at NBC in Burbank. He was interviewing Cher.

Hall had dreamed of this moment ever since he was a kid in Cleveland. When he was 22, he had thrown his meager belongings into a Pinto and headed for Los Angeles, hoping, as most young comedians do, to eventually land a five-minute stand-up gig on "The Tonight Show."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 28, 1989 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4B Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
As a result of an editing error, the Los Angeles Times Magazine stated erroneously that Arsenio Hall opens his talk show with the greeting "We be havin' a ball." The phrase became his trademark when he hosted Fox Broadcasting's now-defunct "The Late Show," but he does not use it on his present show. --The Editors
For the record By The Editors
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 4, 1989 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8B Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
The profile of Arsenio Hall ("Fresh Talk," by Itabari Njeri, April 16) neglected credit to Ron Rinker Custom Clothing as the designer of Hall's on-air wardrobe.
--The Editors

It had been tough. Carson's representatives, Hall says, kept rejecting Hall's kind of humor, saying it was "too barbed" for Johnny's taste; others told him his style was "too black" to appeal to mainstream audiences.

But now here he was, actually sitting in Johnny's chair, playing the talk-show host , interviewing Cher.

Except that the scene existed mostly in Hall's fantasies. The studio was empty and dark. And Cher wasn't there.

On that night two years ago, Hall had been taping a game-show appearance on another NBC sound stage. When he tiptoed onto the empty "Tonight Show" set, he approached Carson's throne, removed the canvas cover from the desk, sat down and talked to his invisible guest. Then he walked over and stood on the little star that is Carson's monologue mark.

It was, Hall says, "a form of positive thinking. It's like, 'I can do this.' " Arsenio Hall believes in self-visualization. Picture yourself there, and you will get there.

IT IS 1989 AND ARSENIO HALL has visualized himself onto Sound Stage 29 on the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood. He stands on his own mark and delivers his monologue. But unlike Carson's, Hall's low-key observational humor is spiked with naughty sex jokes and references--often irreverent--to black culture and its stars. One night, with an impish grin, he suggests that recently jailed singer James Brown has become "the homecoming queen of Cellblock H. You know, 'James, you're my bitch now.' "

And in response, in addition to applauding, the members of the energetic, racially mixed young audience bark out their approval-- rooof, rooof, rooof-- and crank their arms in circles.

The scene might be a different sort of talk show--it certainly isn't the time-worn, predictable Carson format--but it isn't in Arsenio Hall's imagination anymore. This is the future he planned. In astonishingly quick fashion, the 30-year-old comedian has risen from relative anonymity to become the host of his own fantasy come true, "The Arsenio Hall Show." The show debuted Jan. 3 and is syndicated nationwide by Paramount to more than 153 stations, including Channel 13 in Los Angeles.

After 15 weeks on the air, it's too soon to say how Hall's show will ultimately fare in the competitive sleepy-time slot in which a long line of upstarts have challenged--but never threatened--Carson's venerable television institution. But there's a buzz about the show and its engaging young star, who began to develop a cult following in the summer of 1987, when he was named to replace the fired Joan Rivers on Fox Broadcasting's "The Late Show," another of Carson's failed challengers.

The buzz centers on Hall's fresh approach. Even if he trots out his own nocturnal parade of self-aggrandizing hustlers of books, flicks, Top-40 tunes and miniseries, his show is for many viewers--particularly whites--a new cultural experience.

In what he calls his "mission to bring worlds together on one couch," Hall puts on what may be the hippest--and what is certainly the blackest--late-night party in town, the kind of party many Americans have never been to.

The show's critics, however, charge that its gossipy, in-joke humor, street-wise language and cutting-edge pop-culture references are so hip that the show leaves some viewers feeling like uninvited guests.

Whether Arsenio Hall becomes a household word or the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question ultimately depends on ratings--and whether he and Paramount can expand a cult following into mainstream numbers in an era when TV marketing strategies are changing dramatically.

But he is intent on maintaining the integrity of his cultural style in what until recently had been a medium run by whites essentially for whites. "Yes, I'm black, very black. . . . And I've gone to the same schools as (white people) and read the same books. Now, can we go on and do the show?" he says with exaggerated patience for those who keep raising the "black" issue.

But if he is weary of the subject, he can't escape the pressures that come with it.

'CHILL, BROTHER'

THE USUALLY EBULLIENT Hall, who opens his show with the trademark welcome "We be havin' a ball," is sitting, shoulders hunched, behind the desk in his ultramodern, gray-and-black office on the Paramount lot. His voice is scratchy, resonant, full of bass--the tired voice of a man up since dawn doing coast-to-coast radio interviews.

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