ON THIS DAY IN 1989…
Picture this: It’s around 11 pm, you’re in your pajamas after a long day, and you turn on the TV for something to watch. Of course, late-night TV was at its peak, with folks like Johnny Carson and David Letterman taking over the top of the ratings. They were both a safe bet on late nights, perfect for Middle America. However, they lacked the connection to Black American audiences. There was a void that the top 3 networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) didn’t feel comfortable with reaching out to that audience.
The void would be filled on January 3, 1989, with the premiere of The Arsenio Hall Show. Airing on the then-newly-established FOX network, the show was led with a hip-hop sensibility that was lacking on television. With the comedian/actor having already established a well-received reputation in Hollywood (not to mention, a very impressive guest host run on FOX’s The Late Show after Joan Rivers was fired), Hall seemed to be made for the late-night circuit.
As the first African American to host a successful, syndicated nightly talk show, Hall was a hit in the ratings and a go-to for any and everybody in pop culture, especially Black pop culture. Throughout its initial 6-year run, there have been moments that are now sketched in the brains of those who were fortunate enough to be around during that time (or those who were able to find clips on YouTube).
Due to popular demand over the years, The Arsenio Hall Show would be revived for a one-season run in the 2013-2014 season, as well as a special for the Netflix Is A Joke festival. However, nothing quite matched the magic (and the chaos) that defined the original show.
Take a look at the clips below, and you’ll see what we mean!
1. Magic Johnson Discusses His HIV Diagnosis
In 1991, the sports world was shocked upon hearing the news that LA Lakers icon Earvin “Magic” Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, forcing his early retirement from the NBA. One day after revealing his status to the world, Hall (a close friend) had Johnson on the show. This marked the beginning of Johnson’s second act as an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and education.
2. Eddie Murphy & Michael Jackson Give Each Other Their Flowers
Murphy paid a visit to his “Coming to America” co-star in November 1989, and the excitement was already high. And then without warning, the “King of Pop” gracefully walked onto the stage to present Murphy with a special award from MTV for being “the greatest comedian of all time.” Not to be outdone, Murphy turned around and gave an MTV award back to Jackson, acknowledging his “Thriller” music video as the greatest music video of all time.
3. Bill Clinton Exhales…Into A Saxophone
Back when we honestly thought that there was no way in h-e-double hockey sticks that we would have a Black president, many considered Bill Clinton as the “next best thing,” so to speak. What solidified that honorary title was this clip from 1992, when the then-Governor of Arkansas decided to give his presidential campaign a much-needed boost by throwing on his Ray-Bans and sitting in with the band to perform a rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” at the show’s opening.
The move worked, as he would go on to win the 1992 presidential election.
4. Arsenio Defends His Show To Queer Nation
In a fiery exchange from a December 1990 episode, members of the LGBTQ+ organization Queer Nation interrupted Hall’s opening monologue, asking why the host has never invited gay guests on the show. Hall initially responded neither he nor the show’s producers brought that up since the majority of his guests were not discussing their sexuality openly. After the protesters persisted in causing chaos, Hall went to confront them in the audience to set the record straight about how he books his guests.
5. Vanilla Ice Addresses Criticism
As one of the first white rappers to hit the mainstream, the “Ice, Ice, Baby” MC had a lot of naysayers on his back…with Arsenio being one of them. In this 1991 episode, Rob Van Winkle made the brave decision to address the criticism and how you can be “down” as a white guy in rap.
Not quite sure if it worked, but hey…
6. Luther Vandross Surprises Arsenio On Final Episode
To kick off the final episode of the show in May 1994, Vandross decided to surprise everyone with an impromptu appearance during Hall’s opening monologue. Since Vandross was the show’s first musical guest, he felt it was only right to perform a little of “If Only For One Night” to an ecstatic crowd.
7. Prince Takes Over The Entire Show… Well, Almost.
In this special 1991 episode, the Purple One gave fans a rare treat, performing throughout the entire episode with some classics and some then-new hits from his Diamonds & Pearls album. The episode was also memorable because of the fact that Prince dodged the interviewing couch like the plague. Therefore, guest host and good friend Patti LaBelle filled in the blanks.
It’s worth noting that Prince finally did make it to the couch during his appearance on the show’s revival in 2014. It would be his final talk show appearance.
8. Minister Louis Farrakhan Causes Backlash
In one of the most controversial interviews of the show, Hall invited the longtime Nation of Islam leader to talk about his teachings, racism, and if he had any ill feelings towards Jewish people. It was so controversial that many considered that this interview was the reason why the show was ultimately cancelled.
For the record, it wasn’t.
9. Queen Latifah’s Big Finale Surprise
In a major thank you for putting hip-hop on late-night, Queen Latifah managed to pull off a major performance to close Hall’s last show, featuring a who’s who of MCs who were impacted by the platform. From Naughty By Nature and MC Lyte to KRS-One and Wu-Tang Clan, there was no expense to paying tribute to a show that gave the MTV generation a major voice.