Decked out in a blue blazer and stylish white hat, he bounded onto the ballroom stage at the Beverly Hilton as if he could barely contain himself, beaming at the audience of TV journalists from around the country.
After being almost off the showbiz grid for much of the last 19 years, Arsenio Hall was clearly thrilled to be back in the spotlight, touting his new nightly show that marks his reentry into the late-night talk-show arena, which he once turned upside down with an electric mix of hot music, comedy and banter geared to younger viewers craving a hip alternative to Johnny Carson.
And although the 57-year-old comedian will be diving into a flooded field occupied by Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Chelsea Handler, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, et. al., he told reporters that his syndicated show would bridge a new generation of viewers with older fans who fondly recall his trademark fist-pumping and his barking "Dog Pound" audience section.
"I'm coming back because I love to make people laugh," he told the Television Critics Assn. in July. "I'm about sending you to bed with a smile on your face."
The prospect of incorporating new technology was particularly exciting: "I can't wait to write jokes and do comedy and prepare interviews in this digital world. It's incredible." He boasted about his era-spanning reach, noting that while he interviewed Alan Thicke on his prior show, "This time I'll have Robin Thicke."
FOR THE RECORD:
Arsenio Hall: In the Sept. 8 Calendar section, an article about Arsenio Hall said that his talk show will air on 17 Tribune stations in roughly half the nation. While that is true, the talk show will air on a total of 180 stations, making it available to virtually the entire country.
Producers said the show — which debuts Monday — will sample the past. "Arsenio wants it to look like he stopped on a Friday night in 1994, took a long weekend and came back on a Monday night in 2013," executive producer Neal Kendall said in an interview. "It's a 21st century version of what he did so well the first time around."
But Hall and his producers are downplaying several aspects of his legacy that clouded his five-year tenure and may cast a shadow over his chances in an even more competitive environment. They are positioning him like a triumphant champion returning to battle rather than an under-the-radar entertainer whose star power had greatly dimmed by the time his once-hot show flamed out.
Obscured are the factors behind his gradual decline: A puffy interview style. A Hollywood and viewer backlash following his booking of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who had made statements that suggested he was prejudiced against Jews. Difficulty in getting good guests. Declining viewership in the face of increasing competition. A poorly received sitcom that lasted only seven episodes three years after the talk show, followed by more than a decade of low-profile stand-up and hosting gigs.
At the press tour and in subsequent promotional appearances, Hall has mostly sidestepped those difficulties, attributing his departure to his decision to bring more balance to his personal life. Even though he has presented an open cheerfulness in recent TV interviews, he remains prickly about the media; he once complained that several reporters had it out for him back in the early 1990s when his show was showing signs of strain, and he declined to be interviewed for this article.
Those elements, plus the jampacked late-night field, are prompting some to question whether Hall can make lightning strike twice.
"It's a lot more crowded environment than it was when Arsenio first arrived on the scene and Johnny Carson was the only game in town," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. "The Farrakhan interview didn't help — there was a lot of backlash. But that illustrated the various weaknesses the show was already displaying. It was already getting long in the tooth and tiresome by the end."
Brad Adgate, an analyst for the ad firm Horizon Media in New York, called Hall's chances iffy.
"It's going to be difficult for him to break through," he said. "It's not impossible, but he's been under the radar for so long. Younger viewers are watching Stewart and Colbert and 'Adult Swim.' Older audiences are watching Leno and Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel is very competitive. I don't know how much space is there for him."
Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, is using the show as its initial entry in providing original programming in late night instead of reruns of network series. The company is teaming up with syndicator CBS Television Distribution — which used to be Paramount Domestic Television Distribution, the producers of Hall's old show — to produce the new show, which will air locally at 11 p.m. on KTLA-TV Channel 5. The show will air on Tribune's 17 stations, making it available to more than half the country.
The first week's guests are scheduled to include Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Mark Harmon, Magic Johnson, Lisa Kudrow, George Lopez, Earth, Wind & Fire, Nas and Emblem 3.
Hall will face off against several local news broadcasts and a crush of celebrity-driven talk shows. He won't even be the only African American host this time around; comedian W. Kamau Bell will have a nightly comedy-talk show produced by Chris Rock on FXX, the spinoff network of FX.
But producers say Hall's name recognition combined with a nostalgic appetite by older adults may give him an edge. They also point to his being "hired" over several other celebrities by Donald Trump on last year's edition of "Celebrity Apprentice," saying the exposure serves as a launch pad for his comeback.