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Arsenio Hall: After Nearly 20 Years, It's Like He Never Left

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It's been 19 years, but at the "Arsenio Hall Show," it still feels like 1994.

The set was similar, the announcer was similar, and the band, his entrance (the backlit hands clasped, feet-apart "A" stance that's a part of the logo), and even the low couches that make it look like a living room instead of an interrogation, all echoed the original show.

His interview style is the same. Without the desk between host and guest, the vibe is chummy. Chris Tucker and Snoop Dogg were relaxed and ended up dancing like they had mistakenly wandered onto the set of "Ellen." And even when guest Paula Abdul labored through a joke about Simon Cowell being a butthead, it still came across as friendly and not businesslike. She did, however, get the line of the night: "Now that you're working again, does that mean you can move out of my pool house?"

See Abdul's appearance on "Arsenio":

The jokes are the same. He spent much of the first show going through near-20-year-old monologue jokes interspersed with some fun sketch pieces ("Downton Abbey," a food truck competition in which he re-created Quentin Tarantino's profanity-laden tirade from "Pulp Fiction"). And they're still connecting: A meme is already making its way across the Internet with his joke, "Leave it to the first black late night host to take 19 years off."

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And the audience was the same. Though the camera took pains to pick out the youngsters in the crowd, by and large the people waiting in line looked like they remembered watching the show live 20 years ago.

Back then, Arsenio's show was a bracing alternative to the late-night landscape. Even considering all the other shows that sprang up around that time (Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase, Jon Stewart), Arsenio stood out. He brought on guests who appealed to a younger generation. Can you picture Jay Leno or David Letterman bringing Tupac on their show? How about Ice-T's punk band Body Count? Megadeth twice? They might today, but if they did, it was because Arsenio did it first.

[Video: Watch 5 Classic 'Arsenio Hall Show' Moments

Today, late night is filled to bursting with talk show hosts who already do what he does. Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Carson Daly — and then there's the cable hosts: Jon Stewart, Colbert, Chelsea Handler, W. Kamau Bell. All of them, in some way, took the baton Arsenio dropped and ran with it.

Can he keep up with the competition? He has two things going for him. One, he's black. With the exception of Bell (who's on FXX — there are probably more eyeballs in Arsenio's studio audience than there are watching FXX), he's the only splash of color on the white wallpaper of late night. And two, he's the original. Yes, everybody is doing what he did. But would you rather watch Daly be Arsenio or would you rather watch Arsenio be Arsenio?

[Related: Woof! Woof! Arsenio Hall Explains the Origins of His Late-Night Barks]

His first show back was the top-rated program for 18-49 and 25-54 demos and though Leno beat him overall, he trounced his competitors in the big city. Even if he doesn't maintain those big numbers, it looks like he'll still have a place in late night for as long as he wants it.

Watch Leno on "Arsenio":

 

 

"The Arsenio Hall Show" airs weeknights. Check local listings for time and network.

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