For a generation of habitual late-night television viewers seeking an alternative to Johnny Carson, Arsenio Hall was a breath of unexpected air. The actor and comedian is best known for The Arsenio Hall Show, the early 1990s talker that had the host in relaxed conversation with some of the biggest stars of the era. Hall was also a standout in 1988’s Coming to America, where he and co-star Eddie Murphy travel from Zamunda to New York City to find Murphy’s Prince Akeem a bride.
The delayed but anticipated sequel, Coming 2 America, is now on Amazon Prime. If you’re curious about Hall after tuning in, keep reading for some facts on his stand-up career, his famous on-air arguments, and how he helped Bill Clinton win the presidency.
1. Arsenio Hall broke into television talk shows as an announcer.
Arsenio Hall was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on February 12, 1956 to Fred and Anne Hall; his parents later divorced. Hall has said he sought out attention he wasn’t getting at home from audiences by performing magic shows and working as a DJ. After graduating from Kent State University, Hall went into advertising before pursuing a stand-up comedy career in 1979. He was eventually recruited to be an announcer for Thicke of the Night, a short-lived 1983 late-night talk show hosted by Growing Pains star Alan Thicke. That, in turn, led to a guest-hosting role on The Late Show following host Joan Rivers’s departure. Paramount was impressed with Hall's work and signed him to a deal to finally put his name on the marquee with The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989.
2. Arsenio Hall didn’t really have a rivalry with Johnny Carson.
The entertainment press enjoyed contrasting the institution that was The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson with Hall, who often booked guests—like his friend Eddie Murphy, along with other notables like Prince, Madonna, and Tom Cruise—who were perceived as much more contemporary than the show business veterans Carson enjoyed having on. (Hall even once welcomed Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series to his couch, hardly a stunt Carson would have gone along with.) But Hall said Carson didn’t perceive him as competition; in 2021, Hall told Esquire that Carson extended an olive branch to him via sidekick Ed McMahon.
“[McMahon] said, ‘Not only does he not hate you, he wants me to start giving you names,’” Hall recalled. “Ed said, ‘There’s a kid named Usher Raymond who was on Star Search. When he’s a star, we’ll put him on for an interview, but tonight Johnny’s got Robert Goulet.’” Hall realized he could stand out by looking for fresh faces. He later booked Mariah Carey for her television debut and also helped introduce MC Hammer to a wider audience.
3. Arsenio Hall may have helped Bill Clinton get elected president.
In June 1992, Clinton appeared on Hall’s show for an interview and jam session with Hall’s band. Donning sunglasses, Clinton played the Elvis Presley hit “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone, which some political observers used as fodder to dismiss the candidate’s chances in the 1992 presidential election. But his appearance on both Hall’s show and on MTV two weeks later coincided with a sharp rise in his popularity in polling. Clinton eventually defeated incumbent George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot in the election.
4. Arsenio Hall wasn’t afraid to get confrontational.
While some critics derided Hall’s talk show for being too gentle and fawning with guests, Hall was often eager to get serious. His 1991 interview with Vanilla Ice, where he grilled the rap star over an inconsistent and embellished background of hardship, was hardly flattering. Hall also had a serious talk with Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who had just disclosed he was HIV-positive that same year. And in 1990, Hall aired a fierce 10-minute exchange with protestors from gay advocacy group Queer Nation, who appeared in the crowd and chastised Hall for not featuring more gay guests. (Hall insisted he had, but not all of them were willing to disclose their sexual orientation.)
Most notably, Hall used the show—which was shot in Los Angeles—as a kind of town hall during the LA riots on April 30, 1992. Hall invited mayor Tom Bradley as well as Reverend Cecil Murray and took questions and comments from an emotional crowd. Actor Edward James Olmos made a plea for people to help him clean up the streets of the debris left in the wake of the riots. Many viewers showed up to assist.
5. Arsenio Hall released a comedy rap album.
In 1989, Hall released Arsenio Hall Presents Chunky A—Large and in Charge, a hybrid rap and comedy album that cast Hall in the eponymous role of a rapper and spoken-word lyricist. “Chunky A” was ostensibly Hall’s younger brother. While most of the songs were intended to be comedic, Hall also included the antidrug theme “Dope, the Big Lie,” which featured Paula Abdul and Ice-T.
6. Arsenio Hall starred in his own sitcom.
After ending his talk show in 1994, Hall took some time off before reappearing in Arsenio, a short-lived 1997 ABC sitcom where he played Michael Atwood, a sports anchor with a new wife (Vivica A. Fox) and a freeloading brother-in-law (Alimi Ballard). The following year, Hall joined the cast of the CBS action series Martial Law, starring martial arts star Sammo Hung. Hall portrayed a press agent for the police force who clashes with Hung’s Sammy Law.
7. Arsenio Hall helped convince Eddie Murphy to make Coming 2 America.
Coming to America, which was released in 1988, was one of Eddie Murphy’s biggest hits. The actor played Prince Akeem of Zamunda who becomes a fish out of water in a hostile New York City. Hall played his best friend Semmi. According to Hall, the two agreed not to pursue a sequel. But decades later, Hall noticed fans were posting about Coming to America themed parties and other events on social media and dressing as characters from the film. He showed the pictures to Murphy, who started to believe there was an audience for a follow-up. Murphy has also said director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther) had pitched him on a sequel that would have featured Michael B. Jordan as Akeem’s son. Murphy passed on the idea, but it got him thinking. The film, which is now on Amazon Prime, was directed by Craig Brewer, who worked with Murphy on 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name.