You probably think of Arsenio Hall as a TV host or a comic actor. Most Americans first got to know him as the star of the late-night “Arsenio Hall Show” that ran from 1989-94. Since then, he’s been most visible as a comic actor from such films as “Coming to America” and “Harlem Nights,” and from guest spots on TV comedies.
Hall himself, though, has always thought of himself as a stand-up comedian.
“Here’s the thing about stand-up,” he said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. “You say something in a movie and a year later someone says to you, ‘That was funny.’ With stand-up, you hear the laughs. And with television, you always have to deal with lawyers.”
He’s been doing a lot more stand-up lately, and you can catch him Friday and Saturday in Sarasota when he performs four shows at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre.
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It was actually stand-up that gave him his start in show business. He grew up in Cleveland, and when he decided to pursue an entertainment career, he drove to Chicago and started performing at open-mic nights at comedy clubs.
“There’s wasn’t a comedy club in every city back then,” he said. “Cleveland didn’t have its own comedy club. If you wanted to do comedy, you had to go to New York, Chicago or L.A. I went to Chicago because there was less competition. I remember I took a number and stood in line with Bernie Mac to get a chance to go on stage. ”
He’s constantly working on his stand-up act, always trying to keep it fresh. When he has two minutes to wait before his next phone interview, he turns on CNN to see if there’s anything in that hour’s news that he can turn into a joke.
“Stand-up lets you be lazy,’ he said. “You can sleep until noon and then go out and do your five minutes. I try not to be lazy. I’m always changing it, always updating.”
He used to do jokes about Bill Cosby, whom he knew as a comedy icon. Now he does jokes about Cosby as an accused sexual predator. Hall was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” so he used to do jokes about Donald Trump as a reality show host. Now he does jokes about Donald Trump, the president.
So his humor is political, but he doesn’t just take sides.
“I know Donald Trump and I know Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Asking me to choose between them is like asking me to pick my favorite Menendez brother. I don’t like either of them.”
No matter what the subject matter of his local shows might end up being, Hall says it won’t be family-friendly, and he tells one of his jokes about Cosby to illustrate his point. It’s far from the kind of joke that would be appropriate to repeat in a newspaper.
“Don’t bring the kids,” he said.
Stand-up may be his favorite medium, but he still relishes his chances to act in film (there’s a sequel to “Coming to America” in the works), do a guest spot in a TV sitcom or do voice-over work for an animated movie.
“I’m just grateful to show business for all the various ways it has afforded me to make America laugh,” he said.