From Arsenio To Queen Latifah, Familiar Faces In New Talk Shows

Sep 18, 2013

There are some familiar faces coming to the syndicated talk show line-up this fall.

Already, Arsenio Hall has made his return to late night after a 19-year hiatus. On Monday, Queen Latifah made her return to daytime with “The Queen Latifah Show.” Reality star Bethenny Frankel is also hosting her own talk show this fall.

Here & Now speaks with TV critic Neal Justin about why old faces are suddenly new again in TV talk.


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ARSENIO HALL: Yes. Go, boy. Go, boy.

CHAKRABARTI: Listeners of a certain age will remember that sound, the trademark audience whoop from the old "Arsenio Hall Show," the late-night talk show which ran from 1989 to 1994.


HALL: We'll take a commercial. I'll be right back. I promise I'll never leave you again.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, eventually, he did leave. Hall took a 19-year hiatus from television. Now, he's back with a new syndicated late-night talk show called - drum roll, please - "The Arsenio Hall Show." But Hall isn't the only familiar face returning to the talk show circuit this fall.

Joining us now to explain why old faces are suddenly new again in TV talk is Neal Justin, TV critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Welcome to the show, Neal.

NEAL JUSTIN: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's start with the man who's been grabbing all the headlines when it comes to talk shows, Arsenio Hall.

JUSTIN: You look back in the history of talk shows, and Arsenio's rise was really one of the three or four biggest moments in talk shows. The fact that he was the first one to take a dent at Johnny Carson, that he was a minority - I mean, those are both sort of unknown at the time. This time around, based on at least the first week, he seems to be taking a trip down memory lane, which is kind of interesting for people like me. At 45, I grew up watching Arsenio.

It's a little sad, though, right now. I'm not sure the younger generation - which is the audience that everybody wants in late night - really cares.

CHAKRABARTI: Because he took 19 years off from television. So I'm sure there's a lot of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds are saying: Who is this guy?

JUSTIN: No idea what he's talking about, and sort of patting himself on the back for all the groundbreaking moments he had, which was great. But that doesn't make a talk show.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we've got a cut from the opening skit from Arsenio Hall's new television show this season. So let's listen.


HALL: It's such a great time in my life, though. I'm coming back to late night. I should be excited. I should be happy. Instead, I'm full of anxiety all the time. But I keep telling myself: Do a good show every night, make funny jokes and work really hard, then I'll get to number one. And once I'm at number one, I should be able to stay in late-night forever, if I want to. I mean, that makes sense, doesn't it?

JAY LENO: Yeah. Good luck with that. Let me help you.

CHAKRABARTI: Of course, that last voice was Jay Leno, touching on that little bit of sadness you were talking about, Neal. But on the other hand, Arsenio had really strong ratings for that first broadcast.

JUSTIN: Well, that's a curiosity factor. I mean, you cannot base anything on the first night, or even the first week or the first month, especially in late-night television and morning television. It really becomes: Is this somebody I want to spend every night with?

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So let's talk about someone else who's returning to talk television, Queen Latifah. She had a talk show. She's back now with "The Queen Latifah Show" once again. So what's happening with her?

JUSTIN: Well, the fact that you remember that she had a talk show before shows that you did your research. Most people...

CHAKRABARTI: Or it makes me sound really old.


JUSTIN: Well, most people don't remember that show. And that's telling. Queen Latifah has very high popularity mark. She is one of the most well-known, well-liked personalities in show business. And she has a rolodex of very, very famous friends. However, I think it's very difficult to succeed in talk television if you're not a comedian or you're not a journalist. And Queen Latifah is neither of those. And...

CHAKRABARTI: Even some of the journalists have had trouble. I mean, Katie Couric...

JUSTIN: Oh, that's right.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Her show hasn't really gotten off the ground all that much.

JUSTIN: It really hasn't. And it's difficult enough for a journalist or a comedian to succeed. When you don't have either one of those in your background, I think it's exponentially even more difficult. In talking with Queen Latifah and her producers, it's very unclear what this show is. She's not going to have a big comedy monologue. She's saying that it's not going to be a kind of gotcha journalism. It's going to be very warm and friendly. She's going to sing, from time to time. That's interesting. But I don't know people are going to tune in for it.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, for people who did tune in on Monday, Queen Latifah did, in fact, kick off her show with some singing. Let's listen.


QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Well, you can tell by my set and how I walk, I'm a daytime host. I'm here to talk. The lights are hot, guests are cool. I've been dreaming this since Catholic school. Hope I don't slip on my new floor. I never sound this happy before. I'm feeling good, I got no fear, you know that John Travolta's here.

CHAKRABARTI: You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

Well, before we talk a little bit about what this all means for talk television, there's one more name I want to mention. This one is a newcomer to talk: Bethenny Frankel. We've got a cut. So let's listen.


BETHENNY FRANKEL: Many of you don't even know who I am. And hopefully, we'll get to know one another, and we'll spend every day together. And maybe some of us will spend every night together. I don't know.

CHAKRABARTI: So that's from the show - the new show "Bethenny." I have to say when the name first crossed my desk, I was like, who is this?

JUSTIN: Right. Bethenny is a reality star. And she is a very frank personality, particularly about sex. That seems to be a calling card for that show. Look, again, I go back to what I said about Queen Latifah: not a journalist, not a comedian. Ellen DeGeneres is one of the producers. Ellen sees something in her. I don't quite get it. But, you know, you never know.

CHAKRABARTI: So you mentioned Ellen DeGeneres. I mean, she's someone who's doing well...

JUSTIN: Very well.

CHAKRABARTI: ...and, you know, possibly because of what you said. Like, she comes from a comedy background. But, you know, in talking about Queen Latifah and Arsenio Hall, here are old names returning back to television. Bethenny Frankel, out of reality TV, trying to make the crossover into talk television. It seems as if there's this - the ground is shifting, and there's just a lot of uncertainty in terms of how to find that next big television talk star.

JUSTIN: Look, I think one of the problems is everybody on Earth thinks they can host a talk show. Oh, I'm a funny person. I'm a personable person. I could sit down and chat with my friends, and it'll be a great show. It's a lot harder than that. And I think that's why we see so many failures.

You know, you look at the people that are successful - I'm thinking about Jimmy Kimmel, Kelly Ripa, Jay Leno, Letterman - these guys work really hard. They work around the clock to put together a product. And it's not something you can just come in and do because you're a likeable fellow. It looks like the easiest gig in the world, and it might be the hardest.

CHAKRABARTI: So you mentioned some names that are in the morning talk area and also, of course, the late-night talk area. But I'm wondering about that middle, daytime set of slots. I mean, how important are those shows for the television companies, the television networks?

JUSTIN: Well, they're important because they're cheap. I mean, they're much more inexpensive. You know, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, daytime was populated with soap operas and game shows. Both of those were much, much more expensive than talk shows. So that's why we're seeing so much talk right now. If you have a talk show, you - your big money is really on the host. You know, Katie Couric is doing OK, but you have to pay Katie a lot. You don't have to pay Bethenny that much.


JUSTIN: That's a very cheap show compared to what Katie's making, and that's why they're willing to take a gamble on some of these people.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Neal, I've got to ask you, though: You know, we were talking about how you said just about everyone thinks they can host a talk show. But, on the other hand, you'd think that production companies would know the formula: finding a warm, personable host that makes a connection with an audience. I mean, is it that hard?

JUSTIN: You know, the talk show format is maybe the last format where you can't fake it, you know. Somebody can put on a good act for maybe a couple of weeks. But after that, audiences are pretty savvy. On paper, yeah, sounds like a great idea. But you don't know until you put them on the air.

CHAKRABARTI: Neal Justin is the TV critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Neal, thank you so much.

JUSTIN: Thank you. Pleasure.


LATIFAH: (Singing) I'm gonna live till I die. I'm gonna laugh instead of cry.

CHAKRABARTI: And a little more there from Queen Latifah's show. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.