Cleveland native Arsenio Hall was talking about his upcoming stint on Celebrity Apprentice, and how the way to get good television is “to throw the real world at somebody from Hollywood.”
The real world has very much been in focus for the Kent State alumnus lately. While promoting his TV project, which begins a new season at 9 p.m. Sunday on NBC, he was dealing with the recent losses of two friends, singer Whitney Houston and producer and Soul Train host Don Cornelius.
The blow was even sharper, Hall said, because he imagined the best person to put together a tribute to Houston was Cornelius. And he had known both of them for many years; YouTube is laced with Houston’s appearances on Hall’s syndicated talk show, and he more than once hosted Soul Train specials.
Hall, who turned 56 on Sunday, was known mainly as a comedian when his talk show began in 1989. (It ended in 1994.) Houston was a huge star, but she began appearing with Hall early in the show’s run.
“Whitney has always been such a great friend,” Hall said, fondly recalling “the things she did for me in the early days of the talk show, because she was so supportive. And then we became buddies …
“The first time we ever did anything, I remember, her father called me and said, ‘Hey, Whitney’s in town, and she’s not promoting a record or anything now … but she really wants to do something.’ I said, have her come on and walk out during the monologue. And she shows up. I’m doing the monologue, she walks out, and for me and this new, young show, it was amazing.” The studio crowd roared, even more so when Houston joked she was pregnant with Hall’s child.
“You can imagine the press it got,” Hall said. “And she knew what she was doing for me by doing that.” As for the baby talk, Hall said, “It couldn’t be further from the truth, because I think she was dating Eddie [Murphy] at the time.
“I miss her,” he said. “She was a lot of fun, a lot of fun.” But he added in reference to her many problems, “It just got to be too much fun.”
Cornelius, meanwhile, had made an impression on Hall long before he got into show business; he “was a Soul Train viewer as a kid in Cleveland. And it was the first time I saw a black man with [a TV credit saying] ‘created by,’ ‘executive producer.’ I had dreams from that point on: you know, that can happen …
“When I came out here, he became my mentor,” Hall said, “a guy I could call and ask about anything I was doing. … It breaks my heart to think that he was so unhappy that he didn’t want to be on this earth.
“I laughed with Don. As dry as Don can be with his personal cool that he projects, I’ve got a clip of me and him on Soul Train talking for about eight minutes, totally out of his Cornelius thing, and being very silly, actually, and it’s one of my favorite pieces. I think I tweeted it the day he died.” (You can find Hall on Twitter as @ArsenioOFFICIAL.)
Hall said one of the greatest experiences of his career was hanging out with Cornelius and Michael Jackson when the producer was making a tribute to the star, with Hall hosting. Of course, Jackson is gone, too, but Hall did not get maudlin.
‘Nice to be here’
Told that these must be tough times, he said: “These are good times, man. With what we just saw with Whitney, it’s nice to be healthy and it’s nice to be here.”
“Here” does not include a talk show — the entertainment world has changed too much from his heyday — but might involve more stand-up touring, including a return to Northeast Ohio.
And he’d like to try a Larry David-style TV comedy he dubs Curb Your Arsenio. But right now the big job is Celebrity Apprentice, a move back into what he called “the front of the show-business bus” after some relatively low-profile years concentrated on raising his son Arsenio Jr., now 12.
Indeed, on Celebrity Apprentice, host and judge Donald Trump says to Hall: “I loved your show. I watched that show every night. What have you been doing lately?”
“Taking care of my son,” Hall replies. “Doing stand-up here and there.” Still, I asked him if Trump’s question stung; after all, the talk show ended almost 18 years ago and Hall followed it with, among other things, an ABC sitcom, co-starring in a CBS action-drama and hosting a revival of Star Search.
But Hall said, “If they don’t ask, you don’t get to say what you’ve been doing lately.”
And he’s glad to let people know what he has been doing, since he had passed on some entertainment jobs to be more of a father, and even on Celebrity Apprentice, his son was on his mind.
“There are times when you’re in the boardroom and your phone is vibratin’ and I think Trump is about to fire me, and I think my son just got suspended, and I’m in hell right now,” he joked.
But he had long thought Celebrity Apprentice would be a good fit.
“I watch Dancing With the Stars and that’s not for me. There are people who dance and there are guys who are supposed to write jokes about people who dance. And I know some of my comic friends have done it, but comics aren’t ever supposed to put on a ruffled shirt and dance. …
“I don’t want to be in a loincloth on an island trying to lift something. I don’t want to fish with a spear. But I’ll work for Penn Jillette,” said Hall, referring to another member of the latest Celebrity Apprentice crew. (It also includes Adam Carolla, Debbie Gibson, George Takei, Tia Carrere, Victoria Gotti, Clay Aiken, Dee Snider, Lou Ferrigno and others.) And he is playing for the Magic Johnson Foundation, which is marking its 20th anniversary and is a favorite Hall charity associated with his close friend. (Hall will also be seen in The Announcement, an ESPN documentary about Johnson’s making public his HIV diagnosis; it’s due to air in March.)
The outgoing Hall stays out of the line of fire on the Celebrity Apprentice premiere.
“I felt like you would never play a team in any sporting situation without vetting the team, and watching film, so let me find out who is here,” he said, taking his cue from appearances by previous players Holly Robinson Peete (who finished second her season) and Piers Morgan (who won his). “They seemed like good observers of the environment.”
And he said what you see on the air is “very real.”
“It makes sense when you understand the environment,” he said. “You take all these divas and alpha males and you throw them in together. They usually can choose their friends and environment and they tell people what to do. They’re never told what to do. … [And] sometimes it’s too hot. Air conditioning goes off. I don’t know if it’s a plot, a Trump plot, but sometimes it’s very uncomfortable where you’re at. The food doesn’t arrive, your blood sugar’s low, and after a couple weeks, there’s something that just inherently happens.
“And I don’t care what you think you’re going to do — people start off saying ‘I’m not going to fight’ — it just happens when the toilet’s clogged up and there’s four of you on a bus and it’s raining out. It just happens. The environment breeds conflict. You don’t need to fake it.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels. ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.