For some, the name Arsenio Hall is synonymous with his stint as a late-night talk show host. For others, it's as a comic actor in movies like Coming to America. For others still, Hall is a stand-up comedian or Celebrity Apprentice winner—but no matter how you know him, it's impossible to argue with how funny he is. We spoke with the legend ahead of his upcoming stand-up show (8 pm Friday Sept. 21. $29-$49. Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, 20 Buffalo Thunder Trail, 455-5555) about his return to the mic, sequel rumors and his favorite joke of all time. (Editor's Note: The writer was laughing so much during this interview that we thought someone was in his office tickling him.)
Why come back to stand-up now?
I had gotten away from stand-up, and there's something strange about when you get away from it—there's this wall of fear that seems to grow, and you forget what you used to do and forget how good you were at it. You think, 'I could never do an hour like when I was a young man.' But there was always this thing in me when I'd go into a comedy club; I missed stand-up, talking about your life, having the unbridled freedom and that cathartic thing that goes along with stand-up.
So one night I went with George Lopez to one of his gigs, and you know how comics are … they wanna share it—comics and weed smokers are the most generous people on the planet—and when we got there, George turned to me and said, 'Why don't you go out and do five minutes? I guarantee the bug will bite you.' He said, 'Just go out and talk.' I went out there and did seven minutes, and he was absolutely right. I started talking about my son who was going away to college … I talked about winning The Apprentice and being the first black man to win, and by the time George came off [after his set], I looked at him and I said, 'I'm in.' Before you knew it I had an hour and I was out on the road again.
What would you say you've learned from hosting a talk show that's applicable to stand-up?
There are commonalities. I mentioned George Lopez; we flew to do the Mark Twain [Prize for Humor] when they gave it to Eddie Murphy. We're in Washington, DC, and I had just started doing standup again, and we meet with the producers and the writers, and we sit down and they take me through the dialogue that's gonna be on the teleprompter—and y'know, it was cute. And after I went on and read it, George went on and he ignored it. He did minutes of his act. Sometimes you don't learn something new in life, but you're reminded of old lessons. The biggest lesson is to be as close to you as possible in life. You've got to always fight for our own truth. I read that crap, and it wasn't my words. Without lawyers, without standards, without the approved writers. I think that's … something you can learn for every job you take. I took an acting job recently, and the writing was horrible. I did the gig knowing the stuff sucks, but I took the bag. The bottom line, when I'm doing stand-up, I never take a bag I don't deserve. When I take the stage, I always give 100 percent. Life is funny. How can you not be funny when Omarosa has 200 tapes?
Speaking of which, you worked with Trump on The Apprentice. Is there anything you can tell us that might surprise us, given that you knew him more intimately?
Interesting thing is, I know Hilary too. I always say I'm a republi-crat. When the election went down, that was like asking me who my favorite Menendez brother is. And that's how I approach my stand-up. When I first met [Trump], I actually thought we had a lot in common. We like sports, we both really like his daughter—him more than me. I like to talk to people about the things behind the scenes they don't know. When you watch and you see it come down to me and Clay Aiken at the end … I remember a night being mad because George Takei from Star Trek said he saw Aubrey O'Day leave the hotel the night before and come back with Donald Trump Jr.—and I'm like, wait a minute, Aubrey is sleeping with the host of the show's son? How can you win if she's doing that? I said, 'The only way we're gonna win, George, is if you sleep with Eric.' I remember the specific response. He looked at me and said 'Oh, my.'
I'm hearing rumors about Coming to America 2. Is that real? And if so, what was the holdup?
There have been so many rumors, and they've all been lies—until about six months ago. Eddie had never wanted to do Coming to America 2 because he'd thought sometimes they do a sequel and they just rehash the jokes, but it's one of this favorite movies on his dossier. And he came to me and said he took a meeting with Paramount, and they understood what he was saying. What has happened is that now it's no longer a rumor, and it's with Kenya Barris—he's the writer and creator of Black-ish and he did Girls's Trip, and he's a wonderfully funny writer. And Eddie called and said, 'Let's do Coming to America 2.' We've seen two drafts that are very funny. I joked and said, 'I'm glad you finally decided to do this, and if we wait much longer we won't need makeup to play the barbers.' We're going to do a lot of characters. He even wrote in a new character. I wanna do all of my old characters and one new one. I don't want to do the transvestite again. Once in my life I wanted to put on pantyhose and say, 'I'm gonna tear you apart,' and that's it. Bottom line is, it's going to be exciting. Life is really good right now.
I'm running out of time, and I was going to come at you with something about Louis CK, but maybe we should stick to something lighter …
Everybody I know is in trouble. Like Kathy Griffin. The people have spoken and she does great in clubs, but she can't get on TV. I'm one of these people who thinks one of the greatest things in America is that we forgive. And maybe she went a note too far, but our jobs are to push the envelope. I also think we treat women differently when they make mistakes. I was watching the other night, Sacha Baron Cohen, sodomize a Donald Trump dummy and taking dildos and stuffing them in the dummy's mouth. And I'm saying, Kathy put ketchup on a head—she didn't fuck the head. I'm not saying what's right or wrong, but what are the rules? If Kathy is blackballed, then the people who sodomize these dummies should at least lose a couple hours' pay. I don't get what the rules are anymore. I understand when you're dealing with Cosby or CK. … When you abuse women, that's always gonna be wrong, but when we're talking about taste and what punchline is wrong or right, I have to say I feel bad for Kathy because I've seen men do worse. And by the way, I have to support her, because I want to be supported in my freedom of speech.
Right. OK, so here's that light one: Do you have some favorite joke of all time?
I can think of many times when I think I hit it on the head. Sometimes it's an ad-lib. I think you can write a joke, craft a joke, work it out in the clubs and you'll get credit, but I think when you come up with a great ad-lib when you don't know you'll have that moment, that's what separates the men from the boys. I remember, I'm standing next to Clinton and he's playing the saxophone, and the line that came out of my mouth, I said, 'Finally, we got a Democrat blowing something other than the election.' Because it was an ad-lib, I say that was a great joke. If I wrote it and put it on a teleprompter, that [would have been] a good joke. My fave joke of all time is a Jerry Seinfeld line. He says, 'I have a canary and canaries are really stupid. I watch my canary fly directly into a mirror and fall to the ground almost unconscious, and you'd think if the canary thought it was a window, he'd try to avoid the other canary.' That's one of my favorites. I can appreciate other people's witticisms.