Six nights a week he offers an after-hours lesson in Cool 101. C’mon America, he seems to be coaxing. Can you say “hip”? Can you say “bad”? Can you say “def”? In one short year, Arsenio (last name no longer needed) has proved himself late night’s hippest, baddest, most definitely def talkmaster. Sajak might be wittier, Letterman will always be weirder, and Carson is still king—but when was the last time any of them made you want to kick off your bedcovers and dance?
Mixing a wide-eyed awe of celebrities with a spicy street sensibility, Arsenio, 33, has turned his syndicated talk show into a cross-cultural encounter session. Where else can you find rapper Tone-Loc sharing a couch with Fergie’s father? Or Bo Derek and Ursula Andress chatting amiably about a man they’ve both known in bed? Sure he strokes his guests with powder-puff questions, but isn’t that the point? Everybody’s relaxed. Add a backbeat and soon even the squarest viewers feel they’re part of a TV version of Studio 54.
While getting a precocious start on his career by interviewing other kids in his basement when he was a child, Arsenio was warned that it couldn’t be done. Cleveland ghetto kids do not become talk show hosts. He clung to his ambition, majoring in speech communication at Kent State, but even then, he recalls, “My guidance counselor was like, ‘Come on, wake up!’ My mom was even telling me I was crazy.” How could they have guessed that in 1989 Arsenio, in $1,000 Italian suits, would be the one to finally give the MTV generation a reason to stay home at night?
Although his show has passed both Sajak and Letterman in the ratings, someday, Arsenio realizes, his rocket ride may end. But maybe not tomorrow, and maybe not soon. “If Johnny can have a party for 27 years,” he says, “why can’t I?”