Hall thought he'd changed, too. He had a son, took a break from the party scene, and enjoyed having a life outside of the breakneck rhythms of late-night television. "You're either reading somebody's book or watching somebody's movie," he sighs. "I'd do things like, 'Have my assistant check on my mom!' I wanted to get away from that for a while."
Then two summers ago, David Letterman invited Jay Z and Eminem to perform on the rooftop of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Watching from home, Hall was envious. "It was literally the best thing I'd seen on late night in 10 years," he gushes. "It made me want to come back -- it reminded me of how I used to shake it up."
On Sept. 9, Hall returned to late night with a syndicated show overseen by CBS Television Distribution that will appear mainly on The CW-affiliated Tribune stations. And he's bringing back the Dog Pound, the section of fist-pumping audience members who even got Julia Roberts barking in Pretty Woman. "But it will kind of manifest itself in a different form," he adds cryptically.
One other big change? The Internet. When The Arsenio Hall Show launched in 1989, the host was forced to rely on the Paramount suits and their mysterious polls for feedback. "They'd come to me with everything from, 'People don't want you to have ripped jeans,' to 'They don't like the open shirt,' to 'They don't like when you say brother,'" Hall says. Today, he can check out the conversation himself online. "I'm the guy that doesn't like cocaine but I love Twitter -- I'm addicted."
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Hall is scheming how to integrate Twitter into late night. His first idea was the Tweet Seat, a special chair where he'll park a person from the studio crowd and ask them to live-tweet the show. But the three-hour time zone delay might spoil his surprises before they air on the West Coast, and Hall values secrecy as much as the producers of Breaking Bad do. For now, he's somewhat content to designate a giant stand-up "A" next to the stage as his official Instagram photo op.
As for his guests, Hall knows it'll be hard to top his track record of pinpointing the next big thing. The unknowns he once introduced to the culture, like a teenage singer named Mariah Carey or soon-to-be superstar MC Hammer, have since made (and lost) millions. "He introduced himself to me as Stanley. That's how long ago it was," Hall says of meeting an unknown Hammer outside the Comedy Store in L.A.
Hall is eager to seek out the next generation of artists, though he admits he doesn't go club-hopping with his boys as much as he used to. (Talented? Tweet him a video.) But there are a few celebrity friends he's determined to get on the show: Prince, Jay Z and Beyoncé ("I'll take the baby!" he begs), Jay Leno after his February retirement, plus a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
"If Hillary would just stroll in front of me while I'm doing the monologue with a soprano sax in a pantsuit, I'm cool," Hall grins. "I'd like her to sit in with the band. I truly mean sit in: Don't play, don't talk, don't sing. Just sit on a stool with a saxophone."