Just a few minutes before the TV taping is to start on this sunny Tuesday afternoon, an earthquake strikes San Francisco. But the only tremor felt by ) the crowd filing into a Paramount sound stage 350 miles to the south is one of anticipation. Two women from New Orleans are congratulating themselves on getting into the show twice in three days (they stood in line for tickets at 7 a.m.). A couple of teenage guys from Orange County are making time with two girls they met in line. A twentyish blond from Los Angeles sings the praises of the young comic she is waiting to see: "He's young, he's hip, he's personable, he's humble. He's just himself -- that's the biggest compliment you can pay him."
Arsenio Hall, at the same moment, has no inkling of the earthquake either. (The news reaches him later, midway through the show, though he doesn't mention it on the air.) With minutes to go before his 5:15 deadline, he is in his dressing room, slipping into a stylish double-breasted jacket, glancing briefly at his cue cards and getting some final dabs of makeup. With only seconds to spare, he bops downstairs, wades through a phalanx of enthusiastic staffers, then darts behind a blue translucent curtain. The band blares, the announcer wails. Hall sinks to one knee for a few seconds of silent prayer. Then he slides over to his mark and assumes his opening pose: head bowed, legs apart, hands pressed together.
And suddenly the earth really rocks.
Hall raises a clenched fist and rotates it in a circle, inspiring the crowd to respond with its trademark barking chant: "Wooh! Wooh! Wooh!" He races over to bandleader Michael Wolff and greets him by touching index fingers. (No old-fashioned high-fives on The Arsenio Hall Show.) He bounds in and out of the audience, paying special attention to the folks in the bad seats behind the band. By the end of his opening monologue, the crowd is wired. Johnny Carson signals the start of his show with a decorous golf swing. Hall launches the proceedings with a cry of "Let's . . . get . . . BUSY!!"
We are seeing the future of the TV talk show, and it is, well, funky. The Arsenio Hall Show, a weeknightly joyride on 167 stations nationwide, is less a talk show than a televised party: hip, hyperkinetic and hot. The host can't sit still, and the crowd can't get enough of him. At any moment, Hall might race into the studio audience in response to a shouting fan, or sidle over to his five-piece house band ("my posse") for some impromptu jamming. Meanwhile, as late-night's first successful black talk host, he has turned his guest couch into TV's liveliest melting pot. Rap groups get as much attention as Hollywood legends; George Hamilton or Glenn Close might find themselves rubbing elbows with one of the Jacksons -- Jesse or Bo. And when things get slow, Eddie Murphy or Mike Tyson could drop in unannounced. Man, this show is loose!