It’s kind of amazing how little the culture refers to Arsenio Hall anymore. Hall, to remind you, was a well-known actor and comedian who appeared in such films as HARLEM NIGHTS, COMING TO AMERICA, and the funniest segment of AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON. He voiced Winston on THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, and had guest appearances on shows like CHEERS, BLOSSOM, and DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D. He was notably upbeat, wonderfully charismatic, and was able to hold his own against the likes of Eddie Murphy.
Most notably, from 1989 until 1994, Hall hosted his own late-night talk show THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW, which threw a monkey-wrench into the then-ailing late-night talk show scene. The 1980s, although experiencing a stand-up comedy boom — comedy clubs were opening all over the country, and a new generation of comics was infiltrating the scene in an unprecedented fashion — was also seeing a slow fade in a lot of late-night TV. THE TONGHT SHOW was one of the longest-running late-night talk shows in TV history even at the time, and its format, pioneered by the late Steve Allen, is still the setup we see in operation today. By 1987, however, THE TONIGHT SHOW saw the end of the 30-year tenure of the beloved Johnny Carson.
Although he was eventually replaced by Jay Leno (following a heated fight with David Letterman), and Leno was pretty popular, THE TONIGHT SHOW was, in the late 1980s, seen as something of a relic. THE TONIGHT SHOW was a brand that had, in the minds of some critics, outlived its usefulness. It’s still going strong with Jimmy Fallon as its host (following a hurtful debacle with Conan O’Brien, if you recall), but 1987 was a dark time for late night TV. The ripples of Johnny Carson’s retirement were felt everywhere.
THE LATE SHOW was feeling the crunch, and was also looking for a host, as it had recently seen the departing of Joan Rivers. Rivers was expecting to host THE TONIGHT SHOW as well, having substituted numerous times, and being a close friend of Carson’s. When she was passed up, she left THE LATE SHOW in an understandable huff, a young comic named Arsenio Hall stepped in and hosted 13 episodes. He was amazingly popular.
Thanks to this, Arsenio Hall, a younger, sprier, more energetic late-night talk show host whose show was hipper, more devoted to music, and — importantly — reached a younger audience, was able to launch his own show. THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW debuted on January 3rd 1989, and shot to the top of the late-night rating pretty quickly. He featured hotter cultural icons, and reached out to more than just the usual white audience, featuring Latino comedians, black comedians (Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence among them), and numerous WWF wrestlers. Arsenio Hall was turning late-night talks shows into a broader, funnier, more friendly place. They had previously been too cosmopolitan for their own good.
It was Hall’s show that famously featured a campaigning Bill Clinton playing the saxophone. That appearance probably reached more young voters than any other presidential appearance before or since.
How does all this link up to Jason Voorhees? Well, FRIDAY THE 13th PART VIII: JASON TAKE MANHATTAN opened in theaters on July 28th, 1989, the year THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW debuted. The Jason films, while perhaps flagging in importance and quality — this was on the dying edge of the studio slasher — were still making big business, and kids everywhere were still eager to see the ongoing exploits of Jason Voorhees. JASON TAKES MANHATTAN was the slickest of the productions yet, and while critically reviled, opened to pretty big numbers.
Hall, eager to bank in on whatever was hot with the kids, figured he’d tap into the market by hyping JASON TAKES MANHATTAN on the show. The problem with this tactic is that no one involved with the movie was an enormous or recognizable star. The director, Rob Hedden, hasn’t emerged as a major Hollywood force, and the only actor of note seems to have been Kelly Hu, who was briefly in the limelight after appearing in one of the X-MEN feature films. In 1989, though, the cast was essentially a bunch of teen nobodies, and having them on the show would not necessarily attract a big enough audience.
The one celebrity in JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, then, was Jason himself. I’m unsure of this was Hall’s idea, or the idea of a publicist at New Line Cinema (the company that released JASON TAKES MANHATTAN), but the conclusion was reached that Jason Voorhees should be the guest on the show. As such, we were treated to one of the more bizarre talk show appearances this side of Crispin Glover.
The entire segment is, luckily, available online, and it’s every bit at awkward as you might think. Hall introduces Jason (he never says “Voorhees”), Jason walks past him, sits on the adjoining couch, and proceeds to not talk at all for the entire segment. Jason doesn’t appear to have been played by Kane Hodder (as in the film) but by an unidentified actor. It could have been a stagehand for all I know. Hall is very frank and professional, and asks Jason questions. The only time Jason reacts is when Hall mentions that Jason’s kill count is lower in JASON TAKES MANHATTAN than in his other films. Jason looks down, shy, seemingly embarrassed. At the end of the segment, Jason takes Arsenio by the hand, and yanks him somewhat violently. Hall laughs it off.
Slasher films at the time were, as I mentioned, contracting. Freddy Krueger was becoming moribund (we were about to see the release of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD) and had already become something of a “gag” character, having released a rock record. The old slashers weren’t so much scary as silly. In a weird way, the Jason appearance just as much New Line trying to get in on Hall’s audience as it was Hall trying to reach out to the young lovers of slasher films. It was the perfect marketing synergy.
Of course, the “live appearance” of Jason cast a weird light on the fictionality of the character. Jason was presented as a real-life person who worked in movies, but who also really killed people. Hall took Jason halfway into reality, and for one glorious night, slasher fans could kind of pretend that Jason was a real person. Had someone like Jay Leno pulled this stunt, it wouldn’t have worked. Leno was too square. Too mainstream. Hall had exactly the right amount of hipster cred.
Arsenio Hall’s show went off the air in 1994, and was resurrected briefly in 2013. It failed a second time, as attitudes had changed toward late-night talk shows, and there were now younger, hipper people than Hall running the show. Jason, meanwhile, has been living through some reboots and remakes and the usual sequels. 2017 is set to see the release of the 13th Jason Voorhees film, which will be another damn reboot of the mythology.
1989 may have been the high point for both Jason Voorhees and Arsenio Hall. It seems that, despite their quality, this was the time when they would be at peak popularity. It’s fitting that they should enjoy it together.