Arsenio Hall is a living legend. Growing up, The Arsenio Hall Show was appointment television, even if I was too young to be staying up for his late-night shenanigans. It’s the program that Bill Clinton played sax on before winning the 1992 presidential election. It’s the place where a number of my favorite WWE superstars, Hollywood stars, and more visited to promote their movies and have a gang of fun. Hall was also so hip-hop that on his final broadcast (of that initial run), he basically let all of my favorite MCs get busy. Dude’s been an icon, especially for Black kids like me who made sure they tuned in when they saw themselves on TV and in movies.
Hall’s a stand-up comedian, and an actor, and while his IMDb might not be as dense as his homie Eddie Murphy‘s, he shined bright in 1988’s Coming to America, playing Semmi, Akeem’s scheming right-hand man. Arsenio could have never touched a Hollywood set ever again; his comedy cred is certified off of what he did in that classic alone. Not too many can say they kept up with Eddie Murphy, in multiple roles, being just as hilarious as the GOAT. Just take a look at some of the barbershop clips from Coming to America, or as Reverend Brown.
On March 5, 2021, Arsenio and Eddie, among a number of their original Coming to America castmates will be joined by Wesley Snipes, Tracy Morgan, KiKi Layne, and many more in the long-awaited sequel, Coming 2 America. Armed with some exclusive photos from the film—which take us back to the barbershop—Complex got a chance to chat with Arsenio, who spoke candidly on how he’s dealt with the COVID quarantine this year, any doubts he may have had initially about going from Paramount to Amazon for this film, and working with Coming 2 America director Craig Brewer (who also directed Dolemite Is My Name) and Kenya Barris on this film. Be sure to also check out what Eddie Murphy has to say about Coming 2 America, along with an exclusive first look of him in the film.
Before we get into the film, I wanted to ask: How’s your 2020 been?
It’s been a mixed blessing, because there’s one element of it where we’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s horrible in the sense that… I’m a mama’s boy, so I visit my mother as often as possible. Here is a disease that actually tells us, “f you really love your mother, stay away from her ass.” I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, what a twist of reality.”
I came home from doing Coming 2 America and I was like, “I’m going to chill for all of February,” because my birthday is February 12. “I’m going to chill for all of February, then I want to start working on a new standup hour.” Because, in my mind, there’s so many standups in the Coming 2 America cast, I wanted to come up with a new hour and then talk all these guys and girls into doing a Coming on America tour. I probably can’t name it that, but I made Eddie and Leslie laugh.
There’s been talk that Eddie’s supposed to be doing a standup special for Netflix at some point. Have you heard any of his new material?
I have heard a lot of the material. Obviously ,this pandemic put a kibosh on that also. My thing was, I thought it would all work together, because I know most of the guys who were in the movie have not been out. I figured this opportunity would be cool for Eddie to pop up because he can start working on his in the course of this little thing I wanted to put together. A standup tour of all these people would be an incredible marketing tool for Coming 2 America.
Then things start changing. We went from Paramount in December to Amazon at home in March, and things started … There’s an old saying grandma used to say, “When man plans, God laughs.” That started to be so apparent, because every month, the president was saying, “We got this. We’ll be ready by Easter.” My thing was, “Just sit back and see how this goes. See what happens,” because I realized all plans were off.
As a matter of fact, it was funny, because I remember going to Paramount one day, and I was like, “This is my last day at Paramount.” You know what it’s like? It’s like when an athlete goes to clean out his locker. It was so weird, because I was in the New York Knicks locker room one time when I was young, and I watched a player clean out his locker because he had just been traded. That’s how it felt. It was like you don’t know your new team. You got to find a new apartment in a new city. I don’t know who runs Amazon. I didn’t know. All of a sudden I felt like I was cleaning out my locker at Paramount because I had gotten traded to Amazon. Bottom line is, I’m calling you because I’m playing for Amazon now.
The landscape of releasing films has changed. When you heard that Coming 2 America went from Paramount to Amazon, was there any trepidation there, or are you just on the side of, “We’ve made this project. It needs to be seen by the people that need to see it”?
Life is all about pros and cons, and the hand that you’re dealt. God dealt us this hand for a reason. There have been a lot of interesting, good things with this COVID pandemic, too, because I’ve learned to appreciate the life I had. A lot of us didn’t appreciate 2019 and 2018, but 2020 made your ass look back, and you start to appreciate things you never even paid attention to. I was doing a motion picture in Atlanta, and I wasn’t appreciating the moment the way I was. If I knew Trump had a memo on his desk in January, I would have thought about it all differently. There is that, where you appreciate what you have.
Look, I don’t have tremendous amounts of money. I just read where somebody gave $5 million to someone. I see people, everybody, we’re all trying to help. I do what I can with the different charities I’m associated with and the different Zoom benefits that you can do. But really the greatest gift that God gave me is the ability to make people laugh. I thank Amazon for this solution because in March, it’s not much, but we’ll be able to give people this movie and have them laugh. The best way I know how to help people and heal people. I think we’re going to need it in March. It’s going to reach more people, not only in America, but in the world. Now that I’ve gotten to know Amazon and I’ve heard them talk, they want to make this the streaming event of our life. I told them, “We definitely need the streaming event of our life.”
The one thing I’m proud about with this movie, the story is great, and the way it’s been threaded from the first is really masterful by Craig Brewer, and Kenya Barris, [Barry W.] Blaustein, and [David] Sheffield. What I love most is we didn’t lose the main agenda, the humor. It’s a funny fucking movie, and I’m proud that we hit all those bumps and checked all those boxes. It’s funny—it does everything you need it to do, but it’s also funny, and I think people will love the additions to it. There are some surprises here that will surprise people who don’t get surprised.
It’s awesome to hear that Amazon is treating it that way, because, I think, especially for Black folk. When it comes to Coming to America, you’re almost looked at weirdly in some circles or some rooms if you don’t know certain bits from the film. When you first heard that you guys were going to be going back to this story, was there any fear of not getting it right?
When you do something like this, it’s really all about storytelling. The story, the continuation of the story, is really perfect and wonderful. I love that.
I’m a big social media nut. Eddie’s not so much into social media. One day we’re sitting at his house, and I’m looking at something. I’m reading different stuff. I guess I said something like, “Wow.” He said, “What?” It was somebody tweeting saying, “Don’t y’all fuck it up.” I was like, “I never thought about it that way.” I never thought [about it like that]. Here’s what I got out of the entire tweet: “That’s our movie. My daddy used to make us watch that once a year like The Wizard of Oz at the house. Don’t y’all fuck it up.”
I was like, “Eddie.” He said, “First of all, put that fucking phone down, man. Somebody got to you like that? Put your fucking phone down.” But I had never thought about the fact that it means a lot to people, and they put that in our arms and say, “Care for it and do it right, y’all.” That shook me up, but I’ll tell you what it did. It made me go read the script three more times in a row and say, “Let me get ready for this shit.”
You want the surprise of the barbers and all that kind of stuff, and how old they are, and what they’re doing now, but you also, if you can, want to slide something new in on them. I started looking for that opportunity. Basically, that tweet made me say, “Get ready, motherfucker. You got to do this.” I wanted to put my foot in this one. Everything worked out good. Everybody brought their A-game every day, giving 100 percent, on time. When you see the outtakes, you’ll realize how much fun we had. You’ll watch the outtakes and say, “They shouldn’t have even paid them, because they had too much fun. That’s not no job.”
You guys were one of the first films to shoot on Tyler Perry’s new lot, right?
Absolutely. At first, you automatically think you’re going back to New York to do this. Paramount said, “You’re going to do it in Atlanta, most of it on Tyler Perry’s lot.” I was like, “That makes total sense.” Where in America should Africa pretend to be other than Atlanta? We already whisper and say Atlanta is Little Africa.
Now with the nature of you and Eddie’s relationship, you guys are just two hilarious people in a room full of hilarious people doing these characters. Was there a lot of improv on the set?
Absolutely. The one thing … I knew how John Landis [the director of the original Coming to America] did everything. I didn’t know how Craig Brewer would do it, but he was incredible, man. He’s such a smart guy. He’s such a respectful guy of the culture, and knowledgeable about it. [He] spent a lot of time with John Singleton when John was alive. Craig Brewer is the truth, man. He was great for us because not only did he get what he wanted and get what he needed on the page, but a lot of times he just let us go, especially in the barbershop. I remember a day in the barbershop when Craig said, “Look, I got what I need, but let’s do one more because you guys are having fun.” Kenya Barris was sitting in front of the monitor. Kenya says, “Try this. Throw this at Eddie.” We’ll just be ad-libbing. As a matter of fact, I looked at some of the testing for the movie. A couple of the great test moments were ad-libs from when we just fucking around, especially me, Eddie, Wesley, and Tracy. Some crazy shit would come out. There is a lot of stuff in the movie that’s there because Craig allowed us to get comfortable and sometimes just have fun.
About a year ago we got to have a conversation with Kenya Barris when some of the photos with you all on the Coming 2 America set were first starting to come out, and he shared some awesome insights about working on this film. Are you cool with Kenya now? He’s getting checks all the time—are you hoping that he rings your line and has, I don’t know, Arsenio Hall-ish, or something like that for you?
I look at my phone once every morning just to see if Kenya’s texted me, just to make sure, because you are right. Knowing Kenya can be your bridge over troubled water.
Right. I remember when I first heard that there was a sequel coming, hearing that Kenya’s name was attached to it gave me some reassurance. We’ve got a great stable of people on the cast, but I know that having Kenya around, he can really help shape and bring together a film that’s going to work on a number of different levels. A good story, but also with a ton of laughs in it.
When I saw Kenya’s name in the mix, I think I exhaled. I physically exhaled, because I knew it was not only in the right hands, but I knew this. If Kenya in 2019 couldn’t deliver, it can’t get done. He is the man for the hour.
Hopefully in the near future, we’re going to be on the other side of this pandemic. Earlier, you were talking about doing standup. Are you also planning on doing more acting as well?
Yeah, man. It’s like everybody has a prayer. That’s my prayer. I always look for opportunities to get a good script, to do some acting. I love doing standup, and I love acting, I just haven’t done as much acting as I would like to. For me, doing a good job in Coming 2 America is the opportunity to get a quality job after Coming 2 America.
I love doing standup, but I’ve been on the road like five years, and I’m ready to do a little project here in LA somehow. I got a couple things that I’m developing and working on, and we’ll see what happens. What’s really crazy is that it’s going to be a while before we can gather a thousand people in a little theater, you know? That’s hard, man, because I’m the kind of guy, still at my age, man, in the evenings after dinner, one of the things I’m thinking about is, “I should go out and work on a couple of these Biden jokes.” It’s still very weird.
I’m naturally such a standup animal. I have this little pad that I take to the clubs with me. There are days when I see it on my desk, and just for a moment, it’s like, “Oh, shit. Oh, wait, no. Clubs aren’t even open.” I don’t know if you have moments like that. Like, “Why don’t we go have dinner at the … Oh, shit. What am I thinking? The restaurants are closed,” that kind of thing?
I do that with standup. There are days when I’m like … You’re watching TV or news or something, and you’re like, “I got a great Don Lemon joke.” It’s so cruel that you can’t leave the house with that joke.
Coming 2 America premieres on March 5, 2021 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.