Review: 'Arsenio Hall: Smart & Classy'

I don't like Arsenio Hall.

My personal feelings about someone generally don't influence how I write about their work. I have some close friends whose TV shows I won't cover because there's just no ethical way to distance the person I know from the show. But I know a lot of people in the industry at least casually and it's not uncommon for me to rave about a wonderful series starring an actor whose personal failings are substantial. In other words, even dicks can do great work.

But there are the rare cases when I find it difficult to separate the performer from the person. Sometimes the person brings out such a visceral loathing in me that I know I'm not the best person to review their work. Unfortunately, most of the time those people tend to be the performers who are able to project a public image that is likeable and kind. If I were a better person, I'd ignore my impulse to also describe this behavior as mildly sociopathic. Still, it's awkward to take shots at a performer that the average person thinks kindly of and wants to see. It's like being Gandhi's ex-roommate and trying to explain to friends that "Yes, he's a pacifist that changed society for the better and all of that. But he also wrote me bad checks and skipped out without paying the rent."

Did I mention that I don't much care for Arsenio Hall? I barely know the guy and in fact it's probably been 30 years since I've seen him face-to-face. But some people's dicktitude is so impressive that it resonates decades later. 

I was a stand-up comic from the late 1970s through the early 1990s and when I was just starting out I lived in Chicago. My main outlet was a long-defunct club in suburban Chicago called the Comedy Cottage. It was one of the few stand-up clubs in the Midwest and when I met Arsenio Hall he had been working there awhile. It was an old-school showcase club. Even on weekends, there would be 6 or 7 acts per show and Hall was one of the most popular acts. Personable, slick and he burned with a desire to "make it." He was a nice enough guy, but you only had to meet him once or twice to realize every conversation, every interaction with him was transactional. He was going to interact with you in whatever way he needed to in order to extract your maximum worth to him and his career.

Now while this behavior isn't pleasant to experience, it's also not uncommon in show business. It's also not egregious enough to encourage a decades-long loathing of the guy. But in the same way you can judge a person's character by the way they treat waitresses and other support staff, you can determine a lot about a comedian's character by how willing they are to screw over fellow performers in order to get ahead. If you have done stand-up for any length of time, there will have been times when you could have screwed someone else over in order to advance your own career. And even the most determined performer will generally decline to jump completely onto the asshat train.

But not Arsenio Hall.

I had only been working the Cottage a short time when there was an epic blowout between Hall and one of the other comics who worked the club. John was a pretty funny guy who had a day job as a Chicago garbage man. And when Hall made his first television appearance (I believe on "Solid Gold," but it might have been "Soul Train"), Hall did a very funny bit which was also the core of John's regular act. It's not just that Hall did the bit on television, eliminating the chance for John to ever do it in his act again without running the risk of an audience member yelling out "you stole that." It's that Hall's reaction was essentially, "sorry, my bad." At one point a shouting match broke out after a show one night between Hall and several other performers over the theft. Hall initially sheepishly admitted to stealing the jokes and made a very minimilistic attempt to apologize. But eventually Hall got mad and just told John that "I'm going to be a star and you're going nowhere. So you don't need those jokes anyway."

Hall left the club to go on the road with Nancy Wilson (which is a story for another day). But over the years, I've heard from other performers who've had their run-ins with Hall over the years and let's just say that being a self-centered dick was a common thread in a number of the conversations.

Still, being an asshat doesn't mean you can't still crank out a funny stand-up special. Even in the best of circumstances, comedians can have difficult personalities and if I only reviewed shows by people who were nice, honest folk, I could review a year's worth of releases in a single afternoon. So despite my admittedly severe feelings about Arsenio Hall, I still suspect I'm capable of recognizing when he's performing at a high level.

Sadly, that's not the case with his new Netflix special "Arsenio Hall: Smart & Classy." Most higher-profile stand-up specials are recorded in a theater or larger venue. In part, it's a subtle way of letting the audience know the performer is indeed a force in comedy. And also, if you're funny enough, the laughter coming from a larger audience just sounds more impressive. The laughter rolls across the screen and that infectiousness just make every punchline sound more impressive. 

Weirdly, this special was recorded as the San Jose Improv and it's fair to say that the large belly laughs are about as common as a drunk unicorn. Hall's energy level is club casual and he meanders in and out of bits in a way that is friendly but not especially effective. Even when he does stumble across an actual premise that works, he mines it past the point of no return. At one point he does maybe five minutes on ugly little toes and keeps arriving at the same punchline from different routes. Beautiful women's little toe, his girlfriend's little toe, Hallie Berry's little toes. 

It seems as if every comic with a special on Netflix now needs to have a bit discussing things you can't say or how comedy's changed. Arsenio dives into Bill Cosby, OJ and a few other topics in a way that provokes more snickers of recognition than actual laughs. Even worse, he's developed the bad comic tic of adding "motherfucker" or "nigga" to every punchline. And if the laughline is especially flaccid, he'll add both.

"Arsenio Hall: Smart & Classy" isn't especially either smart or classy, but it's not a disaster. It's the type of act that you'd probably by happy seeing at the San Jose Improv on some random Saturday night. But it's not memorable or distinctive, which is a weird place to be for someone who has been doing stand-up on-and-off for thirty years or so.

"Arsenio Hall: Smart & Classy" premiered Wednesday, October 29th, 2019 on Netflix.