I usually write a black history month column in March—largely because I don’t like people telling me when I, or others, should celebrate my history. I decided to write the piece early this year, because a point needs to be made, when it happens—not after it happens.
So, Happy Black History Month. Truth be told—every month is black history month, because American history is black history, and vice versa. Society just refuses, many times, to tell it correctly—or tell it at all. There is no America without black people—who helped build this country, bled and died for this country—and have been the source of every major conflict.
All the great African American writers of story and prose, in the 20th and 21st Centuries, have said it in all the ways one can say it. Still, it has to be said.
Black America hasn’t just put a fingerprint on America society—it’s made a major imprint on the society and the culture. A huge footprint that few—if any—can match.
Which brings me to the source of this commentary. If you paid attention to the news last week, pop culture icon, Jimmy Fallon, took over a staple of cultural Americana—The Tonight Show, America’s first late night variety show. It is a huge accomplishment for the “pop culture” generation. A huge culture shift for the Gen X & Yers that are now putting “boomers” to sleep.
Congratulatory responses came from all over the world, including from Brian Williams of the NBC News division that sought to try and capsulate the moment in drawing parallels of the universe of late night hosts Fallon was about to join, by simply moving up an hour in his time slot.
Williams forgot one person. The person most responsible for the 21st Century late night television format. It should’ve been obvious to most that the person who created it was omitted.
That person, now back on late night, is Arsenio Hall.
Arsenio didn’t let Williams forget it either—and he shouldn’t have. His footprints are all over late night television. As important as The Tonight Show is, The Arsenio Hall Show was just as important. Obviously Brian Williams didn’t think so—until he was forced to apologize, half-hearted as it was. If we don’t tell history correctly—somebody will tell it for us. Or not at all.
The Tonight Show, as cultural significance, goes up there with baseball, apple pie and the flag (patriotism) as beloved cultural sentiment goes. As part of the pioneering programming of the dominant medium, television, The Tonight Show was the first of its kind in seeking to deal with America’s cultural insomnia.
When The Tonight Show began, it was the last thing you saw at night before the playing of the Star Bangled Banner and the “test pattern” was put up on your screen until the morning.
Yes…there was a time when television actually went to sleep for the night.
Those days are long gone. Television is now all night and so is its programming.
People watched The Tonight Show because they weren’t ready to go to sleep at the “anointed hour” of 9 or 10 p.m. when Americans were a sleepy bedroom community nation. The Tonight Show was the show you went to sleep by—or fell asleep on. And most nights you did. If you got past the monologue, you had real insomnia. But the world changed and so did late night.
And who had the greatest impact on the change of late night?
A little skinny comedian from Cleveland, Ohio, named Arsenio Hall. In 1989, when the Arsenio Hall Show premiered, late night television was dead as a door stump. There was Johnny Carson, and everybody else. Watching Johnny Carson was okay—but the format was drab and the “guest” couch looked like your grandmother’s living room furniture. Arsenio brought a high energy, high octane format with his flat top and his “whoo, whoo, whoo” audience and young America finally had something to do at 11:30 pm.
This was the making of “pop culture” television and Arsenio was its new prince.
It’s commonplace to see politicians, athletes and celebrities on late night now. Even Presidents and Presidential “hopefuls” run through late night shows for “exposure” and reputation management. Controversy sells and traditional late night ran for controversy.
Well, Arsenio Hall brought the “edge” to late night when a tarnished Presidential hopeful, in the middle of a sex controversy, came on the show in June of 1992—wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone. That was the remaking of candidate Bill Clinton into President Bill Clinton.
Earlier that same year, the city of Los Angeles burned to the ground in the largest civil disturbance in the history of America.
For five days.
The other talk show hosts acted like nothing was happening. Arsenio didn’t. In my own personal Arsenio Hall moment in which I learned to appreciate him, I was one of five people in the room at First AME Church when he decided to cancel his guests for the night and give the whole hour to then Mayor Tom Bradley for him to be able to appeal for calm throughout the city. The nation watched.
It was huge, and that was the power of Arsenio.
Hip Hop, and Gangsta Rap also made its debut on The Arsenio Hall Show. They are on every night now—somewhere on American television in this country. In five years—many people forget it was just a five year run—Arsenio changed late night television, and he changed it forever.
When late night legend, Johnny Carson, the name most invoked for late night success, retired in 1992, everybody jumped in the game and competed for his slot—mainly Jay Leno and David Letterman. Only they didn’t bring Johnny’s late night format with them (except the monologue and the desk). They brought the high energy band and the high energy audience. They brought Arsenio Hall Show to the Johnny Carson crowd—without the Arsenio part.
The footprint that Arsenio left on late night permanently is one of the things that made Jimmy Fallon popular—and probably contributed to him getting the coveted late night spot. Jimmy Fallon made history last week when he debuted the grios of hip hop, the legendary Roots Crew.
That was unheard of…until twenty years ago. Until Arsenio did it. He put Hip Hop on late night when everybody was afraid to touch em. Arsenio opened his show with his “Posse.”
Now everybody has a posse. The Roots crew is Jimmy Fallon’s posse, but they had a whole international following of their own. When he brought them in…they blew Jimmy up. So now Jimmy Fallon has the most coveted spot on late night. And in congratulating Jay Leno—he forgets Arsenio Hall—and gives a half-baked, off-the-cuff apology that he wasn’t the only thing omitted in the previous night’s broadcast. It was so condescending, it was insulting.
And you can’t defend it. That’s why we must defend Arsenio Hall’s contribution to late night and all other black contributions to history Americans selectively (often) choose to forget.