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Few Talk Show Hosts Understood Wrestling Like Arsenio Hall

YouTube is choked with videos of Arsenio hamming it up with pro wrestlers. There's a reason for that: he was good at it.

Some people just get wrestling. Regis was one of them, and pioneered the wrestler talk show guest model with the likes of Fred Blassie and The Destroyer. The formula was a tricky one, and many interviewers just didn’t grasp it. Regis’ formula worked: lightly sanitizing a wrestler’s persona for the morning show crowd, while not losing the element of spectacle. In the late 80’s however, a new late night show emerged that would need no such sanitation, and even edged out mainstream wrestling programming of the era: Arsenio.

Aresnio Hall got his start on comedy stages, and found himself on television due to his style, good looks, and quick wit. And while he became very recognizable for his role in Coming to America, it was two major sea changes in entertainment that he rode to become a major television phenomenon.

The Joan Rivers Show was the sacrificial lamb that disrupted Johnny Carson’s talk show monopoly. Rivers offered an irreverent, hip show with guests like GWAR, Beastie Boys, and Hulk Hogan making boner jokes, but it was a short-lived experiment. Hall filled in as a well-received interim host, which led to him being offered his own syndicated show, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

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In 1989, black stars were receiving unprecedented mainstream attention, Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey dominated television, and hip-hop in particular had its biggest breakthrough year. A culture shift was happening, and while Johnny & Ed looked like a relic from yesteryear on NBC, Arsenio’s syndicated show felt like the freshest thing on television.

Arsenio’s run came during a wonderful time in pop culture late night hosts could interview Madonna one night, Maya Angelou the next, and Jason Vorhees the night after that – but still feel like the same show, while featuring intense, real-life confrontations and exciting musical performances (“from radio, to the video, to Arsenio!”) that you’d never see on the competition.

Arsenio Hall Enters the Ring

The WWF at the time was still benefitting from their mid-80’s surge of popularity, but the programming itself had shifted to aim towards younger viewers and no longer had the cool cache that brought the likes of Andy Warhol to WWF events. However, Arsenio was a wrestling fan, and knew from watching Regis interview the Macho Man, or Letterman hosting a chaotic confrontation between Jerry Lawler and Andy Kaufman, that embracing the spectacle of wrestling makes television magic. It also helped that his audiences were not afraid to boo guests.

A recent clip of Macho Man on Arsenio made the rounds recently, and for good reason. He was the perfect guest, and seemingly the first wrestler on. Randy maybe didn’t know all the hip slang of the day, but when you pair an insane level of confidence with a colorful bodysuit made of spandex, sequins, AND fringe, you can say just about anything.

Arsenio’s young urban audience created an interesting sink-or-swim scenario for WWF wrestlers he welcomed on the show. He had fun chats quick-witted guests like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and the tandem of Bobby “the Brain” Heenan and Rick Rude, who debuted personalized Arsenio tights and yelled “let’s get biz-zay” with his clenching butt cheeks.

He questioned if Virgil played with The Pips in a tense interview with Ted DiBiase, struggled with aplomb trying to interact with a snarling Ultimate Warrior, and reacted as anyone would when Sensational Sherri put the moves on him.

Some of the most fascinating guests in particular were the black wrestlers that appeared on the show. Vince McMahon is not known for nuanced characters, particularly in this department, but on Arsenio’s show, these wrestlers could be a little more than white gaze-minded caricatures. We learned that “ZEUS! WAS FROM COMPTON” moments before chasing Arsenio out of the studio, and years before Tiny Lister appeared as Deebo in Friday. And a constantly-standing Bad News Brown had more character development criticizing the “rabbit food” offered by Arsenio’s craft services than he had in his entire WWF run (before Arsenio dumps a live snake on him).

And finally, manager Slick and his “future black World Champion” Akeem the African Dream got the appropriate level of ????????????, in a segment made even more uncomfortable by a confederate-flag sporting villain Big Boss Man repeatedly calling the host “boy,” which had the in-studio audience ready for a fight. Still, Arsenio kept things from derailing too much with charm and wit, reminding the villains of the beatdown they were gonna get from the then-beloved Hulk Hogan.

The Hulkster

Hulk Hogan Arsenio Hall

Let’s talk about Hulk Hogan shall we? Before he let down several generations of wrestling fans with racist sex tapes (still weird), he was once a popular star generally perceived as a nice dude, brother. But his first public disgrace came on Arsenio’s show. Not long after Hogan dressed up in his Suburban Commando costume for a goofy shout-chat, a more somber Hogan (wearing his more somber neon-hued Gold’s Gym shirt) appeared on the show to address the steroid scandal that had made wrestling an increasingly-derided topic for news pundits.

Hogan appeared on the show after his name had shown up on documents obtained by physician and steroid distributor Dr. George Zahorian. While some thought he would simply address the controversy, he instead pulled a Hulkster and flat out lied, claiming he does “not do steroids,” despite looking like, well, Hulk Hogan in the early 90’s. Arsenio made a few last-ditch attempts to coax a confession out of him but it wouldn’t come until he had to testify in court years later. Hogan, in his autobiography, would call this “the biggest mistake of my life,” a phrase he’s used a lot for all sorts of things since then.

Arsenio’s producers slowed down on the wrestling guests after this but saved the best for last. “Mean” Gene Okerlund, Jimmy Hart, Jake “the Snake” and Ollie Woodson of The Temptations(!) joined Arsenio for Mo’ Better Bruise, a full match (sorta) on the talk show between The Legion of Doom and The Nasty Boys.

Arsenio would remain on the air until 1994, where the late night scene was now full of hosts, from Leno to Conan to Chevy (and his bebop jazz eggs) all vying for attention. Arsenio would return for a one-season revival in 2013, which included, among other things, Nikki Bella playing harmonica in a Divas talent show.

This show is from a bygone era, and a lot of this stuff doesn’t age terribly well, but it’s all fascinating to watch. So open up YouTube, throw up a fist to “woof woof woof” and LETS! GET! BUSY!

Rick Rude Arsenio Hall tights



About the Author

Brett Davis

Brett Davis is an Andy Kaufman Award-winning comedian best known for a series of misguided projects like The Podcast For Laundry, The Special Without Brett Davis, and currently hosting WFMU’s Wrestling Club with Darren & Brett, a podcast about the thing.