Arsenio Hall hosted a hit syndicated late-night talk show from 1989-1994 and other than that moment where Bill Clinton played saxophone on the show, The Arsenio Hall Show will be remembered for the way that he handled the 1992 riots in LA.
During the riots, which started after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers for violently beating Rodney King, Hall interviewed L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, who pleaded for calm, opened one of his shows with an excerpt of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and had guests on including Edward James Olmos and Sean Penn.
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Here he talks with Deadline about how he managed to get the show on the air during the riots, moving it from the Paramount to a South Central church, the similarities and differences between those riots and the current unrest, following the killing of George Floyd, and his hope for change.
He also speaks of his own experience with the police and racism and about his arguments with Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice.
DEADLINE: Arsenio, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Firstly, how are you?
ARSENIO HALL: It’s been a hell of a 2020. There’s been so much madness this week that I forgot about the pandemic. I was watching Al Sharpton preach and I saw some spit flying and I said “Oh, wait we’re in a pandemic.”
DEADLINE: Take us back to 1992. You were hosting The Arsenio Hall Show as the riots kicked off. What was that like?
HALL: It’s interesting. I remember Paramount calling me and at that time they were on Gower and Melrose. You could see the smoke out of my office — I call it south of Wilshire as you go towards the ‘hood. Paramount said they were going to cancel the show until further notice. At that point, I remembered that Chuck D used to have a line about Public Enemy being the CNN of the ‘hood and I thought it was really important that I do the show. At that point, there was no Twitter, there was no IG Blackout Tuesday, I felt like I was the blue bird.
I went to the offices of Lucie Salhany and Frank Mancuso, and I begged them. They made me do a couple of things. One of their problems was if someone got hurt coming or going here, because the riots were on and it was crazy. I booked the guests and I got the audience because that’s what they were really afraid of. I called my pastor, who at that time was Reverend Cecil “Chip” Murray, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, and asked if we could get as many people in the audience for my taping tonight from the church. I filled that audience from my church and people outside because they came anyway. I called Sean Penn and Edward James Olmos and the mayor, they were my guests.
Edward James Olmos came up with something that night that I thought was a tiny bit of history that a lot of people forgot, and the other night I saw it being repeated [in Santa Monica]. After the looting, people came outside and started sweeping and picking up stuff. I saw a little white kid and a black [trooper] carrying a piece of something and it was just the perfect picture. Back then, Edward James Olmos called me before he got to the studio and said he had a great idea: let’s get the city sweeping, let’s say it on the show. That started and caught like wildfire. Basically, we started cleaning up the next day. Our meeting point was First AME Church and started all over the city. People were directing traffic themselves because some of the lights were out. The best of us comes out when the worst of us come out.
DEADLINE: What made you want to do a show on April 30, 1992?
HALL: I wanted to do a show because there was no Twitter or smart phones — you talked to people and galvanize people. Now, it’s completely the opposite, this smart phone is the new Jesse Jackson, it’s the new H. Rap Brown. When I was growing up and something went on in your neighborhood, you tried to call Operation Push and get Jesse Jackson to come to your town to prove that your son was assaulted. Now everybody has Jesse Jackson power in your pocket. The greatest thing to happen to civil rights is technology. But there’s also some negative uses of it as well. I was in Santa Monica when things went bad; I watched kids use cell phone technology to find each other and avoid the cops. Whenever you have something that amazing, it affects society negatively and positively.
DEADLINE: How significant was it for Mayor Bradley to come on the show and appeal for calm?
HALL: You don’t realize that when you’re doing a monologue situation and you’re looking at Tom Bradley. As a kid in Cleveland, I knew who Tom Bradley was. There was something surreal about that. Sean Penn was obviously amazing, but the next day when you’re watching the Channel 9 news and people are out sweeping and you see a clip of Edward James Olmos, that’s when you realize the power. You can affect people for positive change.
DEADLINE:Your show reached a younger audience than other shows at that time. How important was that?
HALL: It’s important to try and speak to this younger demo. Obviously, Bill Clinton came on the show [in June 1992] and that was a historic night with a saxophone. It’s good that Bush didn’t come because he wouldn’t have had an instrument. I always say, “If Bush played harmonica, it would have been a different week.”
DEADLINE: You covered the riots differently than the other late-night shows. Why do you think that was?
HALL: I want to say this without making it a criticism of the hosts who weren’t men of color. You are a product of your environment and your show is a product of the engine in your soul. I’m a different guy than Jay [Leno] or Dave [Letterman] and I had different experiences, so it’s really important that I bring those experiences to my comedy, to my interview and to my overall approach to what a show should be. When you talk about my show, it was a shared experience of a whole different America. Like it or not like it, it’s going to be a different show.
DEADLINE: How did your own experiences impact the show?
ARSENIO HALL: You’re dealing with a guy from the streets of Cleveland. When you look at Tamir Rice, who was killed holding a toy gun, that’s my neighborhood. The bottom line is that I lived in a neighborhood full of little boys that looked just like Tamir Rice. We remember dummy guns, when you’re a teenager, you’re real cautious to watch when the cops search your car, that they don’t leave a dummy gun. I saw videos the other day of cops trying to give someone their nightstick and get their fingerprints on it and then bash their hands and make it look like a struggle. Those are things are online now. There’s thousands of them on Shaun King’s feed because of cameras.
DEADLINE: Can you speak about your own experiences with the police?
HALL: Everybody talks about the talk if you’re a black father. I didn’t even give the talk when I wanted to give it; you don’t even choose when you give it. I remember driving home in a Porsche and my son got that talk when he was 7 years old because of what happened on the way home that day. I had to explain what had happened. Kids at 7 are very smart, he knew the policeman wasn’t very nice. The policeman started saying some rude sh*t to me, he was a young cop. But then he calmed down and I looked out of my window and there was my angel because there was an older cop and I had done a show for CBS where they had a lot of cops as creative consultants. He knew me. The young guy was pre-New Kids on the Block but when that happened, I was able to show my son there was two cops and they’re not all bad — one diffused the problem.
DEADLINE: I’m sure you’ve got other stories like that.
ARSENIO HALL: The first Dodgers game I ever went to, Magic Johnson hooked me up so I could sit in the front row, right by the net, and my son was really little and I wanted to turn him on to baseball. There was a lady behind me who called an usher and said to the usher, “Should they be in this row,” and I started talking to the usher and I was hot, but the point is you’re assuming because of the color of the back of my neck, and I’m not as tall as Magic, that I shouldn’t be in this row. She thought it’s not possible that this black man and his black son have these tickets. So, you don’t always get to choose the time when you educate your son.
The funny thing is that young man sitting in the back of the car and sitting at the Dodgers game is peacefully protesting all over this city as a 20 year old.
DEADLINE: Have things changed since 1992?
HALL: It hasn’t changed but I’m encouraged. The Drew Brees example shows that difference is going to be education. A lot of people will never trust him again but he got educated because he spoke out. I don’t want white people to keep it inside; say what you’re thinking, because if you say what you’re thinking, we can have open educated dialogue, then we can talk. The reason that there’s so many white people on the streets right now is because they’re educated, even if it’s not from the library or history lesson. Some people need to admit they didn’t listen when Tamir Rice was killed, but they’re starting to listen now. We need to take more men like Drew Brees in this country and say there’s another experience going on in this country and we need to share that with you.
DEADLINE: You’ve had your own experiences with Donald Trump. Can you talk about that?
HALL: I was the Celebrity Apprentice [in 2012]. I remember being around Trump and we had an argument about Obama because he was kicking that stuff about him not being from here. It’s really surreal to say that as a black man in America, I had a one-on-one conversation in a hallway with Donald Trump about birtherism. I said, “You think I’m smart enough to be the Celebrity Apprentice, but not smart enough to diffuse this bullsh*t you’re telling me about one of the greatest black accomplishments in America and you don’t want him to want to be in America, you probably don’t even believe I’m from Cleveland, you probably think I’m from Zaire too.” I couldn’t believe he was looking me in my eyes and arguing that with me. He looked at me like he believed it and unfortunately maybe he did — maybe he’s just a con artist.
Don’t forget if you’re Sway Calloway on morning radio in New York, you’re aware that Trump took out an ad about the Central Park 5. If you’re me in Hollywood, sitting at the Ivy, maybe you didn’t know that. Trump’s name was very popular in rap records, so when I talk about us being educated as a nation, I don’t just mean white people because all of that stuff existed on Trump then and black people didn’t know. There are people who tell me I shouldn’t have done Celebrity Apprentice because there are people who knew who he was then. But NBC asked me to Celebrity Apprentice; for me it was a job and I was trying to support my family.
DEADLINE: You mentioned your son. What are the conversations you’re having with him?
HALL: There are times when I’ll go to one part of the protest and he’ll go to another. We had a conversation about how officers can do bad things and still get their pension and live very well for the rest of their lives. If that wasn’t the case, people might behave a little differently. We also talk about how much money, how much of the city’s budget, goes to police, and defunding. He’s talking to me about issues like that, much deeper than I did. He’s deeper. My thing was “We got to vote.” He says we’ve got to vote in every election.
DEADLINE: Do you wish you had a late-night talk show now to discuss these issues?
It’s a new day, we have more platforms. That’s the great thing. I also believe that the civil rights movement is a lot like pop music, kids want to listen to Shawn Mendes and Chance the Rapper because they relate to those people, their ages and their experiences. There’s a place for guys like me but I also think there are young voices, like Greta Thunberg and Killer Mike, that young people will listen to, and we have to allow those kids to take these shows and these mediums and lead the way and we have to support them.
DEADLINE: Despite all of this, you sound quite optimistic about the future.
HALL: My son sent me a picture, it was him and his boys and what seemed like the Osmond family reunion behind him because it was all white people around him, his homies. When I was young, if you saw Tony Bennett or Peter Lawford with Martin Luther King and Sammy Davis Jr, you knew it was getting through. I’m telling you that unless everybody hears the message and joins the fight, nothing happens and nothing changes. If the receivers for New Orleans are on one note and the quarterback is on another, you have a horrible team, and America is the same way. We need our quarterbacks to get on the same page in every aspect of society.
DEADLINE: Is Joe Biden the right quarterback?
HALL: I did a joke on my last Netflix special (right) about Hillary Clinton versus Donald trump. That’s like asking me who my favorite Menendez brother is. The bottom line is that I’m a Republicrat. I don’t believe in any politician because I’ve seen so much in my life. The bottom line is it’s time for the average man to educate himself and get into politics. If we don’t like our politicians, let’s become our politicians. A lot of people want to complain, but don’t want to lead. It’s time for these young people to educate themselves and push the politicians aside. Some of our brightest Americans are not in the Oval Office. We have brilliant minds in America building things and creating things, but our smartest are not in the Oval Office. When you watch Obama talk, and don’t get me wrong Obama is not a perfect man, but when you watch him speak, at least we were closer to having our smartest in the Oval Office.
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