Brow Beat

Why Arsenio Hall Was Late Night’s Best Interviewer

Arsenio Hall

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The Arsenio Hall Show, which debuted in 1989 was, at one time, appointment viewing for young audiences. This was thanks not only to Hall’s charm and the star power of his guests and musical acts, but because of the show’s relative unpredictability. While most late night shows rely on giving you exactly what you expect, The Arsenio Hall Show depended on surprising moments: candidate Bill Clinton playing the sax; a loud protest by Queer Nation and Hall’s impassioned response; Michael Jackson making a rare cameo appearance.

Best of all in this respect were his interviews. As the comedian Paul Scheer—who recently began re-enacting Arsenio interviews word-for-word—explained to Splitsider last week, there are specific reasons why Hall’s interviews were consistently better and less predictable than his rivals’:

Number one, he is the only talk show host that I feel, and whether or not it’s true, was also out with the celebrities that he was interviewing. I feel like it’s been pretty much well documented that Conan and David Letterman and Leno, they’re not out and about. But it appears to me that Arsenio was 100 percent in that mold. Like he would say, “You were at the club last night and you said blah blah blah,” and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I did say that.”

… And you notice that on Arsenio, he never has cards. Every talk show host has cards with questions and stuff like that. Arsenio never had them. So I don’t think even he knows where the interview is going. He’s just going to ask questions he finds interesting. Like, he’s going to ask Tupac Shakur, “Now, is cocaine out? Cocaine is out, right?”

In light of Hall’s return to the late-night TV circuit after nearly 20 years off the air—his new show premiered last night—we decided to look back at some of Hall’s best and most memorable interviews. Reviews for the premiere have been mixedTime said that Hall, who waxed nostalgic about his old show and trotted out Paula Abdul and Chris Tucker as guests, is stuck in the past. But we hold out hope that a few of the interviews to come are as engaging, candid, and surprising as these were—and still are.

Ike Turner

Some accused Hall of “sucking up to a parade of minor celebrities,” but he could actually be quite confrontational in his interview style. And sometimes the apparent sucking up prompted guests to be more frank than they might have been otherwise. Dramatic case in point: Hall’s interview with Ike Turner. It was a few years after the musician’s ex-wife, Tina, revealed in a memoir that he was abusive. Hall first asks about the effect of those allegations in I, Tina, but later, after some candid discussion of Turner’s numerous drug busts, Hall is blunt: “You did hit her at one point, didn’t you?” Turner’s ultimate response is startling: “If she stayed there, and we fought for 18 years, man, she must be one of those people who likes to be beat.” After a short pause, he adds as a caveat, “If it’s true what they said.” This is not the most comfortable viewing, but it’s more revealing than just about any late night interview you could compare it to.

Vanilla Ice

When Vanilla Ice invited Flavor Flav on stage at The Arsenio Hall Show, everyone in the studio appeared to go wild—everyone except Hall, who greeted the Public Enemy hype man somberly before politely asking him to wait off stage so he could conduct the interview. A few minutes into a heated Q-and-A session, Vanilla Ice points out that he and Flavor Flav are “homies” and other black rappers are just envious of his success. “Is that why you brought him out, just to show you have a black supporter?” Hall asks. Ice is clearly caught off guard, and the host continues, “I didn’t see a purpose, it seemed like an unmotivated walk-on, and I wondered why you did it.”

Tupac Shakur

In just under nine minutes, Hall and Tupac, promoting his movie Poetic Justice, cover a wide range of topics. Tupac opens up about his legal troubles, discusses his tenuous relationship with the police, and makes an impassioned defense of his marijuana use. When Hall asks Tupac, “Coke is out, right?” the rapper responds, “That’s what we should be cheering. We not talking about doing no coke, you know … if anybody do coke, they ostracized in this business.” The rapper also expounds on a behind-the-scenes controversy: Co-star Janet Jackson reportedly insisted that he get tested for HIV before they kissed on screen. (Director John Singleton has since claimed that it was a publicity stunt.)

Magic Johnson

Arsenio Hall was the first person Magic Johnson called for an interview after announcing, in November 1991, that he had been diagnosed with HIV. (The two were close friends.) The 15-minute guest spot that resulted is incredibly personal, with Johnson recounting how he learned about his status and how he informed his wife of the news. He also urges viewers—and in particular, the black community—to practice safe sex and abandon the then-prevailing myth about HIV regarding homosexuality. “I came on just to let the people know what time it is,” the basketball legend says. “And please get your thinking caps on, and put that cap on down there, and then everything’ll be all right.”

Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna

While filming A League of Their Own, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna became close friends; while making the publicity rounds, they insisted that they appear on Hall’s show together, and the result is almost as entertaining as the movie itself. It isn’t so much an interview as it is a gabfest, a sort of look into the fascinatingly odd dynamics of the self-deprecating comedian and the foul-mouthed singer. (Asked whether she saw the movie Lovers, Madonna replies: “I had to go home and fuck my boyfriend”). There are plenty of playful teases and jabs among the three, with Arsenio taking a moment to remind everyone how he felt about a certain white rapper (“You’re as cold as Vanilla Ice,” he goads) and Madonna responding emphatically in kind: “Speaking of pussies,” she quips, in one of her many bleeped-out moments from that night.

Louis Farrakhan

Hall’s interviews didn’t always go over quite so well—see his non-interview with a silent Jason Vorhees, e.g. He was also highly criticized for a long interview he did with controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The interview, in which Farrakhan denied involvement with the assassination of Malcolm X and defended Michael Jackson (then facing his first sexual abuse allegations), took up so much air time that remaining guests were awkwardly squeezed into a few minutes at the end. (The full interview doesn’t appear to be online, though there are clips here and there.)

Farrakhan’s appearance has occasionally been pegged as the moment The Arsenio Hall Show’s fate was sealed: It went off the air three months later. Hall himself has denied this, saying his desire to start a family and explore other career options were the main reasons he left the show. In a recent interview with Wendy Williams, he insisted that, unbeknownst to the public, he had already resigned prior to the interview. And, in any case, the episode came in the midst of lower ratings and lawsuits against a staff writer.

What’s more, late night had become newly crowded. When The Arsenio Hall Show entered syndication in 1989, its only real competition was the older-skewing Johnny Carson on NBC; after Carson retired and Jay Leno took over, David Letterman signed a deal with CBS for his own talk show, diminishing the number of affiliates carrying Hall’s show. (As a syndicated series, The Arsenio Hall Show was sold on a station-by-station basis.) Fox then got in on the game with the short-lived The Chevy Chase Show, while MTV targeted younger viewers with The Jon Stewart Show.

There are even more late night options now, of course, but that’s because cable has provided plenty of room. Here’s hoping Hall once again finds his footing as an unpredictable interviewer and sticks around for a while.