It’s been almost two decades since Arsenio Hall said goodbye to his late-night talk show and his fist-pumping dog pound of an audience. Now, after years of angling for a comeback, he’s finally getting his wish: The Arsenio Hall Show, syndicated nationally, premieres in late night on Sept. 9, with actor-comedian Chris Tucker as the inaugural guest. (The first week’s lineup includes Ice Cube, Lisa Kudrow, Magic Johnson, Nas, Penn & Teller, Angela Bassett and Mark Harmon.) Who else is on Hall’s wish list? How’s he planning to tackle the competition? And does he have the legal rights to Mariah Carey? We ask, he answers…
First off, why did you leave your original talk show?
I needed balance in my life, not only personally, but professionally. I wanted to try other things as a comic and a performer. And there might have been a part of me that wanted to leave while I’m ahead. I chose to work on my relationship, and I chose to go down the path of trying to have a child. My son’s 13 now, and he’s having me drop him off a block from the movie theater, you know. That’s usually the sign that you can go back to work comfortably.
I’m starting at the bottom. I’m back on the bottom because that’s what it takes.
Why was it important to you to prioritize your personal life?
I was a latchkey kid in Cleveland. My mother had never seen me play Little League baseball. It’s not that she didn’t want to. She would go from one job to the next. My brother was in jail all my life. I saw him twice. I believe one of the most important things in this country, especially for minority men, is the aspect of fathering, I wanted to be there. It’s not just because of commitment. I enjoy being a dad. I’m kind of an old-school dad. I’m a little conservative.
What did winning Celebrity Apprentice last year mean to you?
I went there hoping that I could make it to the fifth week. I just wanted to beat Penn Jillette. Then I’m sitting there at the end with Clay Aiken. It was the greatest time of my life. In that moment I don’t even remember what Donald [Trump] said. I’ve been No. 2 at everything I’ve ever done. And to win something felt really good. The best feeling was my son on the phone the next morning. Before I left, he said, “Dad, we could win this.” The fact that he said “we” sent me in with a whole different kind of attitude.
So why was this the right time to come back? Late night is a lot more crowded now, and there’s also competition from other sources that weren’t around yet in the ‘90s.
Yeah, it’s a huge challenge this time to bring people to the television. There’s a huge audience out there that isn’t watching late night. They’re doing other things. I’m going to be reaching and trying to get them to come. You don’t have to go after Chelsea’s fans or Leno’s fans to be in the game. And that’s what I’m going to do this time around, try to find those who don’t have a host.
How do you see your style vs. other hosts’?
I’m probably a little more of the [Jimmy] Fallon mode, because I love the digital world. Fallon seems like a guy who’d do it if there weren’t a check involved. He seems to love it. It doesn’t seem like a job. I’m not coming back for the money. I’m coming back because I love it.
Who are some of your favorite guests from your original show?
Bill Clinton—that appearance changed the way people campaign. I think I’m most proud of the night Magic Johnson made his [HIV] announcement, mostly because he’s my friend and it was the most important night of his life, and I didn’t want to mess it up.
There is even more competition for guests now. Who’s on your wish list?I would love Beyoncé there. Hilary Clinton, but I’ve been away and Fallon and Letterman and Leno all have developed a certain kind of cachet. I’m starting from the bottom. I’m back on the bottom because that’s what it takes. You can’t walk in and say, “I put Mariah Carey on to sing ‘Vision of Love’ and therefore she’s mine.” I’ve got to come back, be good, and work my way into it.
What’s the tone of the new show?
I’m coming back because I love to make people laugh. If you’re looking for a message, you can go to Western Union. I’m not really that guy. I’m about sending you to bed with a smile on your face.