It’s been a long, strange journey for Arsenio Hall. At 63-years-old, he takes a San Jose stage in a return to public consciousness after having been largely absent from it—for the second time. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been working, hasn’t been entertaining. Arsenio is, first and foremost, an entertainer. Whether he’s a thirty-something pumping his fists to a “whoop-whooping” late night crowd or providing insight to his personal life in a northern California theater, Hall knows how to command his audience’s attention. He is, now, at this advanced stage of life, merely looking to enjoy himself, which is exactly what he seems to be doing. His joy is infectious, and his lack of hard-hitting commentary on the pressing socio-political issues of the day, comes as a welcome surprise. That’s sort of what Smart & Classy is—a welcome surprise. Just not a whole lot more.
Dressed like a man thirty years his junior, Hall takes the intimate stage, pacing around in front of a brick wall bathed in blue light, his neon signature proudly displayed upon it, as if to announce his celebrated re-emergence. If anything is classy about this special, it’s the slick aesthetic. Hall himself isn’t necessarily smart or classy here in this performance. He’s far from dumb and trashy, but the adjectives he’s chosen to grace our queues, ironic or not, aren’t the first that come to mind when describing such a show.
Hall’s special is respite from the vitriol. That’s not to say he doesn’t have material on Trump and Bernie and some of the other stuff that keeps us at the throats of one another, but it’s not the crux of this show. And it could have been. Here’s a guy who once won The Celebrity Apprentice. He had campaigning candidate Bill Clinton play the saxophone on his late night show. He’s a man who’s been in the thick of the hot button issues and with lightning rod movers and shakers over his many decades in the limelight. When one thinks of Arsenio Hall, who are the other names that come to mind? Besides Clinton and Trump, there’s Magic Johnson and Eddie Murphy, rounding out a Mt. Rushmore of diversely impactful individuals. And yet, Arsenio is most interested in finding the funny in a western world more and more concerned with the things that upset us. He admits, these are hard times for comics. When even Jerry Seinfeld is offending people, Hall says, you know it’s not like it used to be.
Thus concludes the the “woe is me” appeal he makes to his fans, if that’s even a fair assessment of what he’s doing. Hall doesn’t want our sympathies. If anything, he’s self-deprecating, recognizing success is a rare thing in the business he’s thrived in more than half his life. Even when he comments on hardship, it’s with a smile. If he’s as sincere as he claims, Hall doesn’t let things fester. He’s been called nasty names and endured social media abuse—on Twitter, not Instagram, he he clarifies—and he’s come out of it all with a grin, because these are petty things.
So what does bother him? This is where he’s at his best. Baby toes and frequent urination are the banes of Hall’s existence these days. And harmless, observational comedy is his comfort zone. He’s not here to sharply deconstruct the polarizing opinions of culture’s most influential. Trump says incendiary things and Bernie is old. He doesn’t dive beneath the obvious. Either it’s not his place to, or he doesn’t care. And at his age, between the revitalization of his career and the mentoring of his adult son, there are more important things than speaking on behalf of whatever group wants to claim him.
People will not be talking about this special like they were Dave Chappelle’s. Perhaps that’s part of Netflix’s strategy in giving a diverse swath of comics with varying perspectives a chance to be at their best, because their subscriber base is as broad as it comes. If Anthony Jeselnik is too dark, there’s Nate Bargatze to clean things up a little. If Chappelle’s takes are too bitingly challenging (or insensitive, said his detractors), there’s Arsenio Hall keeping things on the lighter side.
Hall would like to remind you of the misbehavior of Bill Cosby, Jussie Smollett, Tiger Woods, and R. Kelly, but he need not thoroughly break down their disgraced descents. We already know this stuff. His point, merely, is that when black role models fall, it hurts bad, because there aren’t enough of them as it is. So he drops the grenades for a quick laugh, then scurries away, bringing the focus time and again on his own life and its minor annoyances, like needing excess lotion because his skin is dry and ashy. Stand-up fans will recall that Bill Burr also had a bit on this very same subject. Burr’s was longer and funnier because, like the rest of Hall’s new content, he doesn’t commit much time to any one joke. He sets it up, gets the laugh, and moves on.
With some solid cracks at O.J. Simpson, Oscar Pistorius, and Otis Redding, Arsenio proves he still has the ability to dish out the insults like he did on his eponymous program so many eons ago. Ultimately, however, he’s less interested in going after others as he is looking inward at the plight of a senior citizen (yes, he is officially that) whose crippling smart phone addiction is among life’s more intense anxieties.
The special ends just as abruptly as it begins. There are no callbacks to previous jokes, no pure story structuring of the act as a whole. His bits fly one to the next, most inducing at least a chuckle, but this is not laugh-till-you-cry material. Perhaps he needs a little time to hone his craft. Arsenio is, after all, mostly famous as a talk show host and an actor, not a stand-up, though he’s been performing in Las Vegas for a while now. And he does indeed remind us on stage that a sequel to the beloved Coming to America is on the way, called Coming 2 America.
In all, Smart & Classy is a decent piece of work that remains consistently—and broadly—humorous over its sixty-plus minute runtime. You probably won’t rush to recommend it to friends, and you’ll be hard pressed to remember any of the jokes when citing the special. The most indelible takeaway is that if you happen to see Arsenio Hall in the flesh, try not to confuse him with Wesley Snipes. And definitely don’t mistake him for Dennis Rodman; he really doesn’t like that.
Smart & Classy is now streaming on Netflix.