Legendary performer Arsenio Hall, whose first-ever stand-up special is coming to Netflix, said returning to live comedy was a “way to heal” the disappointment of his rebooted talk show’s cancellation.
Hall, 63, rose to prominence with roles in films including Coming to America (1988) and Harlem Nights (1989). He became a household name with syndicated late-night talk show The Arsenio Hall Show, which started its original run in 1989.
Hall left the series in 1994 to pursue other projects, but ended up putting his entire career on hold when his son, Arsenio Jr., was about 1 year old.
“My mother worked two jobs, and my dad worked to the point where I don’t think they ever saw a Little League game that I was in,” he told UPI in a recent interview. “And I wanted to live as a dad a little bit different than my parents were able to live.”
Hall said he “didn’t do much of anything” for 14 years while he focused on raising his son, and even when he returned to acting, stand-up comedy eluded him.
“When you stay away from stand-up, it’s really hard to shake the rust, because you can get back onstage and almost fear it,” he said.
It was only after the 2013-14 reboot of The Arsenio Hall Show was canceled that he was lured back onstage by longtime friend George Lopez, whose first televised stand-up performance was on Hall’s original talk show.
“I had been in the house for like two weeks, just chilling, smoking weed. And George Lopez said, ‘I’m coming to get you,'” Hall recalled.
Lopez took Hall to a venue in Santa Ynez, Calif., where Lopez had a show scheduled for that evening, and coaxed Hall into warming up the crowd.
“That night, I got bit by the bug again, and I haven’t been offstage for more than four nights a week since,” he said.
Hall said returning to stand-up pulled him out of a funk brought on by the cancellation.
“I used stand-up as my way to heal from that experience,” he said. “Stand-up saved my life.”
‘Smart & Classy’
The new stand-up special, Smart & Classy, which streams Tuesday on Netflix, was a way for the comedian to “refocus.”
“I’m free now, and that’s what’s great about my stand-up, and that’s what’s great about getting back to it,” he said. “When I was a stand-up, I was struggling to be famous and rich, so I could take care of my family in Cleveland. Now that I am famous and rich, my voice is different; I’m not afraid.”
Smart & Classy includes jokes about being mistaken for other black celebrities, as well as Hall’s complicated feelings about his former idol, Bill Cosby.
“A lot of people don’t know I do stand-up, and when they come, they’re probably surprised by a lot of things,” he said.
One thing that he said particularly surprises people is learning Hall, who won the 2007 season of Celebrity Apprentice, does not get along with the show’s then-host, President Donald Trump.
“If you win Celebrity Apprentice, people probably think Trump loves you,” Hall said. “He found out I was good on that show, but as a man, I’m probably not his cup of tea.”
Standing for something
Hall said his relationship with Trump soured when he confronted the future president about his claims that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
“I was saying, ‘This makes you sound crazy, and it definitely makes you sound racist to take the greatest black political accomplishment in America and try to make it something that should not exist because he’s not even from here. Do you understand how black people see that?'” Hall said.
“And he gave me the whole thing, ‘Well, first of all, if someone thinks I’m racist, that’s ridiculous, I’m the furthest thing from racist.’ And I start another sentence and he just walks away from me.”
He said Trump called him “disloyal” and “a loser” in a subsequent magazine interview, and his only interaction after their face-to-face meeting was receiving a note from real estate mogul.
“He’s the kind of guy, he doesn’t text you, he will write on a newspaper or something, then he’ll take a photo of it and he’ll have someone email it,” he said. “He was angry at the way I approached certain interviews … but that’s the truth.”
Hall said he doesn’t consider his own political views to be partisan, but Trump’s presidency causes him to “worry about the future of our children and the future of this great country.”
“My dad was a Republican, my mother was a Democrat. My wallet is a Republican, my soul is a Democrat. I go both ways when it comes to politics, but I know this man, and I worry.”
Hall said even his jokes about Cosby, who has been accused of rape by more than 50 women, have struck some notes of controversy with audience members who believe the 82-year-old comedian is not guilty.
“You have to call a lot of people a liar to still go out and buy a Cosby album,” he said. “I just think there’s a certain point where we have to listen to the women in our society.”
He said listening to women led him to pass on a project with Harvey Weinstein about a year before the entertainment mogul’s alleged sexual assaults were exposed by journalist Ronan Farrow.
“Sometimes you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for everything,” he said.
Coming 2 America
Hall and longtime friend and collaborator Eddie Murphy are filming Coming 2 America, a sequel to the 1989 film that followed African Prince Akeem (Murphy) traveling undercover to New York City with best friend Semmi (Hall) to experience ordinary life.
“I’ll say this, he’s still getting into mischief,” Hall said of Semmi’s role in the sequel. “He’s still single, and living the opposite life of Akeem. But they’re still close. Semi loves women, Akeem is a settled-down, wonderful man. Semmi’s a nut.”
Hall said he’s probably finished with the talk show format. He now considers the reboot season to be a “victory lap” in which he performed some of the last televised interviews with beloved figures including Prince and Maya Angelou.
He said the niche his show filled in the 1990s has largely been taken over by YouTube and social media.
“I think now, the Arsenio Hall of our society is Charlamagne tha God,” he said. “That’s morning New York radio that you can get on YouTube anytime you want.”
Hall recalled how rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, would come on his show to make announcements and respond to media reports.
“When I think about Tupac calling me and saying, ‘Yo, man, they got me hemmed up in some [expletive], can I come on the show and talk?’ Tupac used to use my show like you use Twitter.
“So maybe I was the Twitter of that era. But now, I think if Tupac were alive and had something he needed to get off his chest, he’d probably fly to New York and run up to Charlamagne.”