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Arsenio Hall, UA Hillel benefit performer, believes in power of laughter

Arsenio Hall
Arsenio Hall

Arsenio Hall, a comedian, actor and television star, believes in the healing power of laughter, and he surrounds himself with like-minded people.

“The greatest thing in the world is laughter, from my son to my friends, laughter keeps you young and it keeps you alive,” says Hall.

Nothing impedes his comedy routines, says the self-proclaimed “Republicrat,” someone who holds both Democratic and Republican principles. Hall aims his humorous criticism at the best target, whether it’s President Barack Obama’s ears or Trump’s hair.

“If I don’t look at everyone, and everything, I miss good jokes,” says Hall. “And one of the things that I love about stand-up now is, when I’m performing, whoever you like, you will enjoy my act — because I’m going to rip everybody.”

Hall took a moment to chat with the AJP in between watching Senate hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. He was awestruck by the stark contrast in testimony from proponents such as Willie Huntley, a former assistant U.S. attorney from Alabama, and opponents like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Georgia Rep. John Lewis.

“That’s why it’s so important for us to talk, as people,” Hall says. “It’s a reminder of how different people see different things, and even the black community can’t be painted with one broad brush.”

Hall is the featured guest for the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation 100 Years of Celebration event on Saturday, Feb. 18. The fundraiser will kick off at the Tucson Scottish Rite Cathedral, 160 S. Scott Ave., at 6 p.m. Hall will perform at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St., at 8 p.m. The night will honor the 75th year of UA Hillel and Michelle Blumenberg’s 25th year as executive director (see related story, page 2). Financial contributions will fund Hillel programming as well as the Hillel Fund for the Future.

The Cleveland-born comic has spent more than 30 years in Hollywood, starring in films like “Coming to America” and “Harlem Nights.” He hosted “The Arsenio Hall Show,” a late-night talk show that aired from 1989-1994 and had a single return season in 2013. He also won “The Celebrity Apprentice 5” in 2012, a reality television game show created and hosted by Trump.

Hall was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards, and won the People’s Choice Award in 1990 for Favorite Late Night Talk Show Host. That same year, his name was embedded in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Hall developed a penchant for orators at age 5, when he watched his father, Fred, who was a Baptist minister, deliver a sermon from the pulpit. As his father inspired his congregation, Hall recognized the power and eloquence of language. “It made me want to stay in school; I wanted to be smart like my dad.”

Muhammad Ali was one of Hall’s first idols, he says, “because prior to that, I wanted to be Batman.” In the 1960s and ’70s, many abhorred the outspoken boxing champion because he converted to Islam and opposed the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. But for Hall, Ali was a powerful African American role model who instilled a sense of positivity and an element of hope.

“When I was a kid, [Ali] was the villain but he had such a strong persona,” he says. “Before I met Ali, he did more for me than any other man except my father.”

Throughout his life, Hall would fantasize about becoming a star. As a kid, he recalls walking past the home of former Cleveland Brown football player Jim Brown, or driving his motorcycle through Los Angeles, looking across the valley at Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek’s house.

“I always believe in dreaming like that,” he says.

Hall says having a personal connection to both presidential candidates last year was surreal. Not only did Hall get to know Trump, he met Hillary Clinton when former President Bill Clinton appeared on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in June 1992, months before he clinched the White House.

“When I realized the choice that I had for the presidential election, Trump versus Hillary, that’s like asking me who my favorite Menendez brother is,” he says.

His personal and professional responses to Trump’s victory are strikingly different.

“As a man, I’m scared as hell; as a comedian, I couldn’t ask for more. The greatest thing about what I do is, in the tough times, or the uncertain times like the Donald Trump administration coming towards us, we have to laugh.

“We have to laugh to keep from crying sometimes, and that’s what I do,” he says.

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