By Guest Contributor Monique Jones
Late night’s only black guy is gone once again. The Arsenio Hall Show, the recent iteration of the groundbreaking late night talk show hosted by Arsenio Hall between 1989 through 1994, has been cancelled. The cancellation of the show is bad enough, but even worse was the underhanded way in which Arsenio was let go.
CBS initially renewed the show for a second season. But then CBS decided to reverse their decision, cancelling it quite out of the blue. It’s undoubtedly a sad day for late night television, a virtual landscape which has not been kind to hosts of color.
George Lopez’s Lopez Tonight, which debuted in 2009 and saw the former ABC star become the first Mexican-American to host a late night English-language talk show in the U.S.was let go by TBS in 2011. Progressives were particularly upset when W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which featured real-but comedic-talk on today’s issues affecting America’s minorities, was moved from FX to FXX and eventually cancelled.
We can even go back to the 1956, when variety/late night show The Nat King Cole Show was eventually cancelled, mostly because he was kissing a white woman entertainer on television and, because of the “progressive” nature of the show—Cole was the first black person to host a show like this—national sponsors were hard to come by.
However, the impact of the show was something that affected many black Americans across the country. As NPR reporter Karen Grigsby Bates reported, “Except in the roles of slapstick comedians like Amos and Andy or sly house servants like Rochester and Beulah, ‘50s television wasn’t black and white—it was white period. So, given the scarcity of blacks on television until then, to have a black man without a chauffeur’s cap or a butler’s jacket smiling his way into America’s living rooms each week was a distinct culture shock.”
Arsenio’s show follows in Cole’s footsteps as far as addressing race and culture on a national scale. Whereas Cole addressed race simply by being a black man hosting a television show, Arsenio addressed race head-on, sometimes interrogating his own guests about the issue. A prime example is when Vanilla Ice was a guest. During the interview, a hard-hitting Arsenio pointedly asked Vanilla Ice—his day’s Justin Bieber or Macklemore—about not just some of the controversies that surrounded his image, but also about white privilege and his place in the rap industry as a white rapper.
Interviews with icons like Maya Angelou also brought cultural awareness to many people who might not have otherwise thought about the society in which they live in. When she talked to Arsenio about working with Martin Luther King, she gave the young people watching the episode a quick and effective history lesson, a type of history lesson that wouldn’t be taught to them in school.
Arsenio was also the only place audiences could get a crash course in rap thanks to the mind-blowing performance of West Coast rappers including Ice-T, Eazy E, NWA, Digital Underground, MC Hammer and many others. The show was also the first place many people saw Snoop Dogg for the first time.
During his second late-night run, Hall revisited his original show’s greatest asset: putting performers of color in the spotlight. Arsenio used his stage like he always did—highlighting non-white performers and icons and making hip-hop a known quantity to audiences who probably weren’t keeping up with MTV or BET.
With The Arsenio Hall Show 2.0., Hall set out to give shine to television and film stars that don’t get it on the regular: Stephanie Beatriz, Michael Ealy, Taraji P. Henson, JB Smoove and Orlando Jones, among others. Once again, Arsenio was holding it down for the minority actors and actresses who need to be represented in the mainstream.
Community star Yvette Nicole Brown defended Hall, pointing out on Twitter that Hall and Lopez (and Bravo’s Andy Cohen) were the only late-night talk shows to have her on as a guest. She also wrote on her Facebook page about the double standard put upon minority late night hosts and the important platform Arsenio’s show provided.
“To those critiquing the quality of Arsenio’s show in their eyes, allow me to add this…Every other late night host is allowed years to find their groove,” she wrote. “…Somehow poor initial ratings are never due to something lacking in their ability or worthiness to be a late night host. But somehow, that all comes into question if it’s an Arsenio or George Lopez. In those cases, it’s all about a Kanye shrug and a sad-faced, ‘Welp, we tried!’”
When addressing a comment posted to her page about the “irrelevancy” of Arsenio’s guests, she wrote about how Arsenio had “launched the careers of irrelevant actors, singers and comedians who were ‘irrelevant’ or unknown, as I prefer to respectfully call them only because they hadn’t received the PR push that others receive just by merit of skin tone.”
“This is a serious problem in this industry and I was going to stay PC and quiet,” she wrote. “But the playing field is not level and anyone who doesn’t see why a show like Arsenio is needed in the late night landscape is viewing the issue [through] privileged eyes.”
She also wrote on Twitter about how discriminatory the booking process for late night actually is.
And let me say one more thing. The hosts of late night shows don’t always know what their bookers are saying about prospective guests…
— yvette nicole brown (@YNB) May 31, 2014
Or the reasons publicists are given for why a particular person is not welcome though almost every other cast member has been…
— yvette nicole brown (@YNB) May 31, 2014
So don’t blame Dave, Jay, Seth, Conan, Craigy and the Jimmy’s when you don’t see certain folks on their couches…
— yvette nicole brown (@YNB) May 31, 2014
All in all, The Arsenio Hall Show is a cultural touchstone that could be replicated again and again. But those in charge of late night are either happy to keep minority faces out of the landscape. Or they are too uncomfortable to have a late night show—the type of show seen only as fluffy entertainment to send you off to bed—actually expose the truths about society. To paraphrase Biggie Smalls, it would seem that a sustainable late night show hosted by a minority is all a dream.
There might be a sentiment that Arsenio is too old to grasp today’s times or that he was irrelevant. However, Jay Leno and David Letterman are prime examples of late night hosts that are allowed to age and still be thought of as “relevant.” But, while age isn’t a factor, learning how to engage a 21st century audience is.
While David Letterman and Jay Leno are (or, in Leno’s case, were) hosts that are older than Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, they also were allowed to stay on the scene for years, seeing—and adapting to—the pop-culture waning and waxings as they went. Meanwhile, Arsenio had been out of the late night business since 1994. His show wasn’t allowed to change and progress with the times like other shows. So, to go back to Brown’s statement, not giving Arsenio a chance to catch up and find his footing is highly unfair. Arsenio wasn’t out of touch; he was simply rusty, out of practice. I think the best place for him to get back in the swing of things—and to really make some effective change—is the web.
The conventional wisdom is for Arsenio to be picked up by black-owned or black-centric stations, like Centric, BET, OWN, Bounce, etc. But these channels don’t fit Arsenio or (weirdly enough) the mission behind his show. With the internet, Arsenio can get out of the television system and make his own name on his own terms.
If I was Arsenio’s project advisor, my first piece of advice would be to get writers who are comfortable with writing for the web. One person I would be greatly interested in getting on the writing staff is Issa Rae, who has made a serious name for herself with her web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Her demographic—young, hip, black viewers looking for entertainment that speaks to their issues and interests—is exactly who Arsenio should be aiming for and by getting Issa Rae as a senior writer would be awesome. Of course, Issa Rae might be working on her own show—even though a pitch she and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes worked on was passed on by ABC, she is still in talks about developing a project for HBO.
I would suggest for Arsenio to feature internet celebrities from minority communities. Vloggers like Galo Frito, JusReign, Ryan Higa, David So, German Garamendia, Werevertumorro, Kingsley, Kid Fury, Ann Le and, Miles Jai and Tré Melvin and have the young audience that Arsenio failed to cull while on the air. Having segments with these internet celebs would be really bring Arsenio out of the ‘90s and firmly into the 21st century.
So now that all of this has been written, what is the resolution? Well, for one, it’s sad to see Arsenio go from TV again. It’s even sadder with how he was basically duped by CBS, who will forever be wrong for dropping him the way they did. However, in this day and age, never say “never”—It’s just been announced that Paula Deen is coming back through the internet. If Deen, who seemed like she wanted to relive Gone with the Wind at a wedding, is eyeing a comeback through the web, surely Arsenio can (and be better at it).
Monique Jones is a freelance journalist and writer for the Miami New Times. You can read her newest articles about Miami’s arts and culture weekly in the Miami New Times and online at cultistmiami.com. Monique also runs entertainment site Moniqueblog.net and will be launching WhatWouldMoniqueDo.com, a site focusing exclusively on the race-crazy world of Hollywood, September 1, 2014.When FX’s Tyrant premieres, you can read Monique’s recaps of the show at Entertainment Weekly.