Arsenio Hall on Why He Prefers Stand-Up to Talk Shows

Arsenio Hall performs at Arlington Improv Friday and Saturday.EXPAND
Arsenio Hall performs at Arlington Improv Friday and Saturday.
Courtesy of Traci Harper

Few people can command the attention of a room more easily than comedian and talk show icon Arsenio Hall. He can make a room of complete strangers crank the lower part of their arm in the air and "Woof" simply by walking out on a stage. 

He makes it look easy, but Hall says it's the result of years of practice that started long before he even got into comedy. 

"I learned to talk to audiences as a 12-year-old magician," Hall says. "It's how I first got on stage, and on TV as a kid in Cleveland. I tried to get on The Tonight Show as a kid. It took Coming to America to finally get me on Johnny's couch."

These days, Hall spends the majority of his time touring the country and performing stand-up for his fans, including multiple shows this Friday and Saturday at the Arlington Improv. 

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Hall says he enjoys the immediate feedback and emotional outlet that only stand-up comedy can provide him. 

"I hate when I'm not doing stand-up," Hall says. "And the longer you're away from the mic, the harder it is to return. This wall of fear forms and gets taller every year. Most brothers don't go to therapy, so stand-up keeps me sane too. Instead of one doctor listening to me, I get a diverse bunch of people listening. Sometimes twice a night."

Doing stand-up is also very freeing for Hall, because he's not bound to any censorship rules enacted by a room full of suits. 

"It's also the closest audiences get to knowing the real me," Hall says. "No 'standards and practices,' lawyers or censors."

Hall hosted his self-titled, syndicated talk show from 1989 to 1994 — just before the start of the famed late night TV wars that turned Jay Leno and David Letterman into comedy rivals — and became one of the first big, breakout hosts leading up to The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson's retirement. He returned to his syndicated talk show in 2013 but it was canceled after one season. 

His talk show delivered several memorable moments to the late night landscape such as presidential candidate Bill Clinton's infamous saxophone recital during the 1992 presidential campaign, his interviews with rapper Tupac Shakur and sit-downs with actor and longtime friend Eddie Murphy, who wasn't known for making many talk show appearances. 

Hall says he doesn't miss having a talk show as much as some might think, because the field is so crowded these days between the three networks, the rise of cable and even the advent of digital shows like Chelsea Handler's, which moved to Netflix. 

"There are so many talk vehicles," Hall says. "There were only two other late-night guys back in the day. Now there are two guys named Jimmy alone. More talkers than guests. One night I realized all my guests had their own talk shows: Bill Maher, the ladies of The Talk and Eric Andre. I've had a few talk opportunities come my way in the last year, but nothing's felt like the right fit. I sat in with Kit Hoover on Access Hollywood a couple mornings to see how it felt. I was much happier doing stand-up for charity at the Saban Theater with Ray Romano and Bill Burr."

Hall's comedy changes from night to night, but it all comes from a very personal and honest place, whether he's relating a story about his time with Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice or being a tech addict and a father. 

"My stand-up reflects who I am: a news junkie, a father, an Apprentice winner, a hoverboard and Samsung Note 7 owner, a Cleveland native, and unlike Jay-Z, I have exactly 100 problems, and I use every one of them to relate to my audience and make them laugh," he says. "It's the stuff you don't get on TV."

Hall says he prefers to focus on his comedy and acting, and he recently got the chance to do both with Adam Sandler for one of his upcoming Netflix comedies called Sandy Wexler. 

"Adam Sandler is doing some really fun and funny stuff at Netflix," Hall says. "It's an amazing place to be funny and creative these days. His film titled Sandy Wexler is a period piece about Hollywood in the '90s. He wrote me in and there are a ton of funny stand-ups in it. Sandler is like a comedy Sara Lee treat. Nobody doesn't like Adam. Everybody funny showed up for Sandler. [Chris] Rock, [David] Spade, on and on."

The freedom he has on a stage and in his other various projects has made him much happier and Hall says he's most proud of the work he's doing right now, just being himself in front of an audience. 

"Everything happens in life for a reason," Hall says. "I'm having a great time on stage. I'm free there. Because I've done a lot of living, I feel at my age I've got more to offer as a stand-up also."

Arsenio Hall will perform four shows at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, and 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Arlington Improv located at 309 Curtis Mathes Way, Arlington. Visit improvarlington.com to purchase tickets and for more information about these and other upcoming shows. 


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