TheBacklot Interview: Arsenio Hall

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Nearly 20 years after his hip, rowdy talk show left the airwaves, Arsenio Hall is back, ready to chat again, and raring to explore what he deems a more tolerant political climate. The 57-year-old late night legend kicks off a new syndicated talk show this September 9, and while he won’t spill on who the first guests will be, he’s perfectly willing to pick out his dream interviewees. Good call, Arsenio.

We spoke to Arsenio about the gayest moments on his old talk show (Bill Clinton and his spirited sax solo don’t count, I guess), remembering his heated, on-air argument with rogue members of the radical LGBT group Queer Nation (They’d accused him of not inviting gay guests on the program), and the nice things his former Celebrity Apprentice castmate Clay Aiken says about him.

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Your old show is full of great interviews.  Which guests do your gay viewers tend to ask you about more often?

Well, a gay woman just brought up one guest to me — and I know this woman, so I know she’s gay — but she brought up, “Do you remember Lea DeLaria?” She was the first openly gay standup comic [to break the "late-night barrier" on Arsenio's show].

Yes! She’s on Orange Is The New Black now.

Lea DeLaria. I got death threats over her! It was bizarre because we were so ass-backwards then that I put on a comic who said, “I’m openly gay!” and did a couple jokes about f*cking Hillary Clinton, whatever it was — “I can schtup the first lady” —  and there were letters! Calls, death threats. It was like, you’re going to kill me because the comic I had on last night was openly gay? It was insane.

Your on-air argument with members of the Queer Nation must come up all the time. Do you still think about that moment?

That legendary battle. That’s one interesting thing of coming back. I went through a lot of things, and now I get to do it in a different climate. When I analyze the Queer Nation battle now, I think about why it bothered me so much. It’s because I knew who I was. I knew a lot of my friends didn’t come to my defense when everyone was in the closet. I can give you 20 guests on my show in a month [who were gay], but they weren’t talking about it. Luther Vandross ain’t talking about it. He can’t at that time. Louie Anderson can’t then. Ellen can’t then. Rosie can’t then. They couldn’t even say, “Leave [Arsenio] alone!” Only that writer in New York, Harvey Fierstein [repeats Fierstein's name in an incredible impersonation], was sitting on my couch and talking about issues. I had to let the world be what it is and catch up to the moment, but I knew what I was doing.

Even the gay celebs who’ve been out of the closet for decades, it’s not like they were all doing sit-down interviews about it in 1990. 

I don’t think people knew Luther Vandross was gay either. I hated so much that I was taking the sweat for it, and my friends couldn’t come out for me. It’s not like at that time you introduce people like, “Ladies and gentlemen, balladeer and gay male Luther Vandross.” One of the first things Clay Aiken and I talked about was the Queen Nation thing when we first met on The Apprentice. He said, “Do people still ask you about that?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “You know, I’m glad that people know you.” Like, when I met him we were friends immediately. He knew that just because someone was angry at me didn’t make him right.

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Which guests are you most looking forward to bringing back onto your show? Any old favorites?

I just talked to Robin Williams. He said, “I’m coming.” I could hear crazy in his voice. I’m waiting for it. He was on my show, and he’d had someone make him a drum pad suit. You could play drums on yourself. Each pad was a different drum — a cymbal, a hi-hat. But it didn’t work! He came on and said [in Robin Williams voice], “Watch this! This is wonderful! Now… just hold on … OK, this isn’t working.”

Any completely new guests you’re excited for?

I’m also excited to interview people who were a bit too young for the old show. Like, I’ve never interviewed Usher even though I know him. I’m coming back and get to do those kind of things. Here’s something that’s exciting for me: I used to go over to my friend’s house, and he had this little white kid about this big. Whenever I went over to my friend’s house, his kid was there and he’d say [in dorky voice], “Hey, Mr. Hall. How are you?” He was always asking me about singers, and in fact he was always asking me about black singers. I was trying to figure it out. Does he have jungle fever? What I realized was that this kid was destined to be the white Marvin Gaye. The kid was Alan Thicke’s boy! He and his brother were in baseball caps running around. It’s crazy that Robin even then knew what he wanted. He was asking me about Johnny Gill. He’d ask me about R. Kelly. That kid was into R&B, but I couldn’t believe how deep it was. I thought, “This kid is going to be a mad motherf*cker one day, and I’m going to come back and put him on my show.” That’s the kind of stuff that excites me. I’m going from leaving the business and talking to Alan Thicke and reemerging in late night and having his son. It’s kind of cool.

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I’m looking forward to Madonna’s return. She was always so funny and wild on your show. 

Every time Madonna came on, she blew it up. When she came on with Rosie for that baseball movie? A League of Their Own? She was amazing. She came to my 1,000th show at the Hollywood Bowl, and she brought Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They sang “Fever.” One time she walked out in a white suit behind me while I’m doing my monologue. The audience goes crazy, and I turn it around, and it’s her. I can’t wait for that again, because she’ll blow it all up again. She’s the hottest grandma on the planet.

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