It took something special for Arsenio Hall to decide to leap back into films after almost two decades of living large on the small screen. But how could he resist shooting a blaxploitation comedy with his favorite comedy friends—especially when writer-producer-star Michael Jai White cast him as a pimp named Tasty Freeze. Hall talks to B OXOFFICE about his fashions—and his heroes—as a child in the '70s, and why Jay Leno needs to advertise in Compton.
How excited were you to get into costume for this?
I was actually a little nervous. Michael Jai White—I always joke that his nickname is Sara Lee because nobody does it like Michael Jai White—he's a really cool guy. When he called me, I said 'Whatever you want.' Usually it's 'Uh, I need to see my wardrobe the day before, and where are my sizes?!' I was like 'Yo, man!' He told me about a character called Captain Kangaroo Pimp, and being my age, I grew up on Captain Kangaroo. I’m not sure if you know what that is...
You bet I do.
Captain Kangaroo. Mr. Green Jeans Bunny Rabbit, all that. When Michael told me he had Captain Kangaroo Pimp written into this—there's one white pimp with a blonde pageboy—it made me laugh so much I was like, 'Just give me a call time. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.' I got sized in the chair that morning while they put that stuff on me. He says, 'I’m going to get one take of this, and then the director’s gonna just let you all play.' I'm like, 'Cool,' and I just sat there and let them create it. I don’t think it was pre-created because the lady had a couple things: a couple mustaches, she had some sideburns. And me and John Salley and Tommy Davidson and Brian McKnight came in, I remember we were sitting in a row, and they just started having us together creating these four different pimps, and then four more pimps in the next sitting in the makeup trailer. It's like they knew the names and they created these looks. Actually, as I was sitting there, I thought mine was kind of coming together a little urban pimp boy. It was like a cowboy, there was the suede and the hat. And then they brought the big bizarre glasses.
You gotta have those. You don’t have a choice, you gotta have those.
You gotta have those. And then, she tried on another one and put it with the sideburns. Like Mr. Potato Head Pimp, she put me together.
I can’t believe that was left out of the movie, Mr. Potato Head Pimp.
She just started really putting me together. Somebody came in and they held up a gold suit, then they brought a green suit. I wanted the green one, but I think Brian McKnight was gonna wear the green.
What a jerk.
I know this pimp, Bishop—
Bishop Don Juan?
Yeah, who hangs out with Snoop. He always says, 'Green is for the money and the gold is for the honey.' I wanted a green suit, but I took the gold one, for the honey.
Was your fashion sense much better when you were in the early '70s?
I had the stack-heeled shoes. I actually had a suit in high school, for graduation pictures, very much like the one I wore in Black Dynamite, because that’s what was happening. The lapels, I had all that stuff. The only thing I never had, that I heard about, was shoes with goldfish in the heel. You know, with water and goldfish in the heel. I always wanted a shoe like that.
It’s never too late.
Never too late. Too late. Wow.
This film is so incredibly deadpan—how on earth did you guys keep it together?
I hope in the DVD there is outtake stuff. I mean, when you give John Salley the pimp name Kotex, there are gonna be jokes. A room with me and Brian and Tommy and we all know each other—it was just a fun room. And here’s the thing: in some of these black exploitation movies, you can see boom shots, cords going to lights—there's those mistakes where you’ve got one take and, 'Eh, we’ve got to live with it.' Well, in this, there was a point where Tommy Davidson has his stack heeled shoes on and he falls against the wall. But he’s over behind the camera, he’s in my eye line, and I’m doing my scene. You see me do this flinch thing when he almost falls, and they keep that because there was that kind of stuff in these old movies. They could only do one take—they don’t even have a permit to be out here, one take and they're out, you know.
It felt like it was subtly off, like the editing was a different style of editing.
Yeah, yeah. And I think, I think that was intentional in that sense.
Do you think blaxploitation films went away, or have they just mutated into other genres?
I’m much older than all my friends. And I didn’t know the economics of that era—that the black exploitation films saved Hollywood in a sense. It was a time when things were really tough and these movies were dirt cheap to make, and if they were hits then the profit margin was huge. They actually saved Hollywood when you go back and look at the numbers. They were these profitable little movies, and of course from that came these terms like exploitation films because then they start pumping them out. But the interesting thing about these movies is they mirrored my neighborhood exactly. I grew up in a neighborhood where my landlord was a pimp—that's how he bought the building. He was a pimp who then bought real estate and got out of pimping.
That’s smart, at least.
He was Sweet Lou. Sweet Lou was my landlord. He still drove his Lincoln Continental and wore his green suits—money green—but he was my landlord and no longer pimpin.’
Then he bought the store next door to the complex and it became Lou’s Delicatessen. When I'd go to the barber shop, my uncle and Don King—and I don’t think I’m telling stories out of school, but they'd come into the barber shop and run numbers, you know, it’s like an illegal lottery. Richard Price would say he used to book the numbers without paper nor pencil. As a kid I remember getting a haircut, and they’d say like “What you got man?” “Put 247—10 dollars on 247.” And he’d say “Got you. And what you got?” “Uh, 399, I’m a play my cousin’s birthday.”
And they’d just keep it in their head?
Keep it in their heads. Whether you cash it, whether you win, they know who won. There was never a “I said 485!” There was never that, never fights over that. But there were fights, because Don King eventually killed a man in a fight and went away and came back and became a boxing promoter. But when I was a kid, Don and these pimps were my idols. The first time I saw a Cadillac, a Lincoln Continental. The first time I saw a Rolls Royce, Don King got out of it. At that point, he was back from prison and he was driving Ali around because he became a boxing promoter and then Ali came to fight in Cleveland. I also was a Cleveland Browns fan, and it’s a strange, Kevin Bacon-like connection, seriously. Probably the biggest exploitation actor was Jim Brown [ Pacific Inferno, Three the Hard Way ]. So when he left football from the Cleveland Browns, he was my neighbor. He went into these movies and he became my hero a second time. I remember Patch of Blue with Sidney Poitier, and Lilies of the Field. But until you saw Three the Hard Way, Shaft, Super Fly, Hell up in Harlem, you never saw male black actors being Clint Eastwood-type heroes and fighting for what’s right. Sometimes they made what’s right and wrong a little more exaggerated to make it more interesting. Like, Black Dynamite is about shrinking the penises of black men, and as absurd as that sounds, in one of my favorite exploitation movies, Three the Hard Way, the white man was putting something in the water to kill all the black people in three major cities. That actually was a movie with Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Jim Kelly. One karate guy and two football players.
Who do you think like kids today are looking to for their representation of black heroes?
See that’s the interesting thing cause even though these movies saved Hollywood, now we eventually got to an era where we want to hide that element of the culture—we want to push forward the brothers who graduated from Morehouse a little more than the pimps that was what was coming out of the neighborhood. When I grew up, it was either Jim Brown as a football player or Jim Brown fighting pimps. That’s the males I saw. There was no Barack. There was Martin Luther King, that was it. Now, the question you ask is very interesting because I think the 'exploitation stars, formerly football players' have been replaced by 'actors and movie stars, formerly rappers.' 50 Cent, T.I., LL Cool J—that's the black actors and people on the screen. My son, he’s like 'Dad, can I see that movie Atlanta ?' 'No.' T.I. is in it, but I remember my dad was a Baptist preacher. 'Dad, can I see Shaft?' My dad is deceased, and he will find out if he’s listening in Heaven right now that I went to see Shaft anyway—we snuck in through an exit—but I wasn’t allowed to see any of that stuff. I never saw some of these movies until I had to look at them for Black Dynamite. My dad didn’t want me looking at none of that for the exact reasons you’re talking about—he didn’t want those to be my images. It’s a different day now. A kid can say, 'Okay, never put your hands on a woman like Chris Brown,' but they also have Barack. I was raised by three women: my mother, my godmother and my grandmother. My mother worked a lot. My first crush was on Barbara Eden, I Dream of Jeannie. You know, her tummy was showing, she had little cute cleavage. That was my first crush. Didn’t see black women on television or in films. When you saw Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field with a group of nuns, that was the closest you’d see to a group of women and a brother. All your images from movies was a black maid,or Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson with Shirley Temple. I remember those images. My son has it so good now—he gets to see it all, and he gets to see it realistically, You see Chris Brown and his music is great, but you don’t put you hands on a woman. He has Barack Obama. Little girls can see Michelle.
Big girls can see Michelle.
Exactly, and of all colors. When I was a kid, white people were only getting negative images of black people. When they'd see these movies, they’re, 'Is that what the ghetto’s like?' So it’s important to everybody. Just like it’s important for me to know that there are three guys in Congress totally different than the three white guys on the Three Stooges. If the Three Stooges was your only image of white men. The exploitation era, these are all the images we have. If there were other movies, that title might not have stuck. There was always a negative image and connotation attached to these movies, that they were showing the worst side of black humanity. But there weren’t enough Patches of Blue with Sidney Poitier to balance Hell Up in Harlem.
We’re in an interesting moment. If you look at the talk show world right now, Jay Leno’s new show has three black comedians on it and everybody’s astounded. And it's because they’ve been so underrepresented in the last 10 years .
Jay called me yesterday and said, 'Hey, come by the office today.' I go over to Burbank and he goes, 'You got to do a couple of pieces for me.' I’m like, 'Oh yeah, cool—you know I’ll do anything for you.' I came to this town because Jay told me to. I met Jay in Chicago. He saw me do standup, and he’s like, 'Why are you here? You won’t know unless you come—you're a big fish in a little pond. Come to LA. I’ll help you find a place.' I ended up on a motorcycle looking for an apartment. He’s an old friend, mentor, big brother-type person, so I’m gonna do some pieces for him in the coming months. But somebody said to me the other day when I said, 'You watching the new Jay show?', he said, 'No, no, I don’t watch that shit.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'You know it ain’t for black folks.' I said, 'What are you talking about—it's the only show with a black guy there every night with him?!' By the time we finished talking, he was like 'You know, I should watch it.' I had said, 'Well what would you want on the show to watch?' I was curious—this is my friend, you know. And he said, 'Yo man, you know, look how big hip hop is.' I’m like, 'The first night was Jay-Z, Rihanna and Kanye.' I guess Jay’s face has to be on buses in Compton or something, because somebody is not getting the message. Actually, I asked him 'So if he had Kanye, Rihanna and Jay-Z on, you’d watch?' Hell yeah. They were on the first night—the first night. It’s about getting the word out and everything. But Wanda Sykes, George Lopez, look at the shows that are coming out right now.
I just found out that of the other big nighttime talk show people, there’s not a single woman on their writing staff—that's amazing to me.
Does Jay have any female writers?
Not him, Letterman or O’Brien.
I used to have female writers. It might be that grandmother, godmother, mother thing, but I’m used to the sensibilities of women. I also know it balances me a little bit. I’m a real guy's guy, and it’s nice to have female writers. Some of my old writers write now for Bill Maher. Those women that wrote for me kept me from being too masculinely annoying, if that’s a term. If you have women in your writing room, then you’ll get that side. I had a lady, Marla Kell Brown, who was my partner. Having a Jewish woman from Wilmette, Illinois next to me balances me so I can do a show for everybody instead of just a show in my black head and my male head.