In the late 1980's I was invited by the new FOX Network to become Associate Director on The..
Late Show. The Late Show star, comedian Joan Rivers, had been fired even though her ratings were okay, but the executives at FOX couldn’t deal with her former producer husband, Edgar Rosenberg who had become impossible to work with. Shortly thereafter she divorced him and he committed suicide. Later, it was rumored that Edgar might have been suffering from a brain tumor. Shakespeare could not have written a darker tragedy.
At first, FOX gave several up and coming male and female comics the opportunity to guest host The Late Show, but finally we all agreed that Ross Shafer, a talk show host from Seattle, would be our new star. There would be live music performed by current rock 'n' roll bands, celebrity interviews, and assorted remotes in various parts of town which I would have the opportunity to direct.
The Ross Shafer Show had some success, and I had the opportunity to work on several wonderful remotes including one at Harrahs resort in Lake Tahoe working with the very funny comedian, Bill Cosby. Of course, Cosby now has had a complete reversal of fortune and he sadly joins Robin Williams and Joan Rivers in strange company.
Ross was easy to work with, and he had some success with a show that featured a memorable reunion of all the characters from the ABC-TV Batman series on ABC. I also remember another high rated reunion show with all of the cast from Gilligan’s Island.
Eventually, Ross Shafer’s ratings fell below the other networks’ ratings and FOX got desperate as David Letterman, with his off beat style of humor, rose to the top in late night TV.
In a secret deal, FOX executives thought perhaps they had made a coup when they acquired Letterman’s producer away from the Letterman Show. They incorrectly assumed the producer was responsible for Letterman’s success.
The producer came over to FOX with the understanding that he would be given total creative control over a new and very different format he would create for them. It would be based on the news of the day which he somehow thought could be terribly funny. FOX awarded him a large sum of money and a fancy car to do just that, but in the meantime, while he was creating, comedian Arsenio Hall was given the opportunity to host The Late Show.
Executives at FOX were astonished when stand-up comedian, Arsenio Hall took off like a rocket in the ratings!
Our show made a few set changes that may have contributed to his success. For one thing, I had suggested that we get rid of the old desk and couch set design that had been begun so many years ago on NBC for the Steve Allen Show.
In those days, a desk was required because most commercials were done live, using props, like boxes of cigarettes, that could be easily stored out of sight before they were needed. Also, there was room on the desk for a microphone, which could permit guests sitting on the couch to be miked with a single boom microphone. However, the host who sat behind the desk, towered over his guests who were seated on the couch. This strange relationship of the show host, sitting high above the guests, was intimidating and not helpful to conversation.
So I suggested to the producers that we have Arsenio sit on a couch right next to his guests. If he required a separate chair I suggested it should be at the same level as the couch and that that would produce a more intimate relationship. Further I suggested that Arsenio might want to even lie on the floor with his guest or use some other device that suggested intimacy.
It was a hard sell but I finally got everybody to go along with my idea and the set change was made. To this day Arsenio uses this same device.
When I first met Arsenio we were traveling up in an elevator together at FOX headquarters. On the way we chatted about comedy and comedians. When I told him I had worked on the Ernie Kovacs shows, Arsenio was duly impressed. He was a big fan of the off beat comedian.
I had a ball working with Arsenio. He was not only terribly funny, but very flexible and easy to work with. For almost every show we would do a remote somewhere in the city of Los Angeles just interviewing folks on the street. It was amazing how very funny these encounters could be. Although we rarely used more than one camera, we still made a fairly large presence when we did anything. First, there was our bus which carried all of our equipment and members of the engineering staff. It was necessary for someone to get written releases from everyone who would be used on the show. There also was an audio crew as well as the camera crew. Certain other members of the production staff would be take notes about our locations and what we were doing for future use by the producer.
It wasn't very long before our show was soaring in the ratings! Soon, we were number one in the late-night slot!
On a couple of our shows I managed to get the astrologer, Farley Malorrus, booked for the show. Farley was a friend of mine and had made some very astonishing and accurate predictions of West Coast earthquakes. When Farley was interviewed by Arsenio, Farley told Arsenio that he was going to be a giant success on late-night television and that there were many great things in his chart. He even told Arsenio that he would be making movies. All of this proved to be very accurate even though there were many obstacles to be overcome regarding contracts, and the fact that — regardless of our success with Arsenio Hall—he was going to be canceled to make room for the new show that was being created by David Letterman's former producer.
David Letterman's former producer had no interest in retaining any of the staff who had worked on the highly successful Arsenio Hall Late Show. This did not work out well for the staff, but frankly I was happy to leave because I was still working at ABC and I had become committed to 100 hour work weeks. Sometimes, I never had the opportunity to get home even though FOX would generously allow me to use a limousine so I wouldn't have to drive the 30 miles to my house.
My workday began at 3:30 AM at ABC working on Good Morning America and ended around 11 PM or 12 midnight at FOX working on the Late Show. On a good night I could maybe get three hours of sleep.
In one of the great ironies of show business, the new show on FOX that ended Arsenio's career there… The new Late Show… The new Late Show, that was supposed to be be based on funny (?) news, was a total and complete disaster. It was canceled after only 3 nights on the air!
The Producer FOX had cleverly hired away from David Letterman at great expense, after just 3 nights on the air, was able to drive to the bank carrying a load of money in his brand-new sports car, paid for by FOX, as he waved goodbye from his parking place with his name on it. He must have had a big smile on his face.
Regarding Arsenio: he did, of course, continue his rise to fame when he moved his show over to Paramount with a brand new high dollar contract. Still later the show went into syndication, and many of these shows are still on television.
Arsenio also made movies just as Farley Malorrus had predicted. Farley later reported to me that he had run into Arsenio at a baseball game and that Arsenio didn't seem to remember him at all.
Ahhh, show biz… Egos won’t atrophy in that nurturing atmosphere.