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Return of the prodigal host: Arsenio Hall

Arsenio Hall, gone from late night for 19 years, makes a historic return tonight -- historic because late night hosts don't always come back, and seldom come back after two decades. So why now and what to expect?

I'm neither reluctant nor shy about repeating myself and will do so here, lifting from my "Fanfare" piece of last Sunday, which you may have missed.

But that "why did he leave in the first place" has long intrigued me. There are plenty of reasons, but one wonders whether in hindsight Arsenio had a choice of staying, and if so, whether he should have.

Here's what he said when asked at the recent press tour about his exit all those years ago -- and remember, there was some bitterness in the whole affair at the time, although he now insists there was none:

I've from Cleveland. I grew up down the street from Jim Brown. He left while he still could play. That was cool to me as a kid. So leaving and not being canceled, yeah, that sounded good. But ... the biggest decision I made after I left was when I thought my balance needed to be I want to do other things as a comic and a performer. When I got a call from Michael Bay, and he said, “I want you and Martin Lawrence to do a movie, and I’ll send you the script,” I had to make a “Bad Boys” decision right now. And I chose to work on my relationship, and I chose to go down the path of trying to have a child. And the deal is “Bad Boys” ended up Martin Lawrence and Will Smith. So I made conscious decisions in my life to get out there and do what I thought I needed to do, and I did it, and my son’s 13 now, and he’s having me drop him off a block from the movie theater, you know. So that’s usually the sign that you can go back to work comfortably.

For perspective, here's what the aforementioned "Fanfare" piece had to say:

CBS, which launched Letterman's show in '93, pulled "Arsenio" off some of its own big stations for the new venture. (Fox did the same with many of its stations for "The Chevy Chase Show" in the fall of '93.) "Arsenio" ratings, which already had been dropping, plummeted. Relations with Paramount went from bad to worse, with the nadir when Hall booked Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for a full hour in February 1994. Hugely controversial for perceived anti-Semitic views dating from the mid-'80s, Hall pressed Farrakhan on nothing. Paramount execs were incensed, and Hall, as the relationship fell apart, was embittered. Hall now insists there was "never anything negative" in the split, but that he told Paramount, "I needed balance in my life. Not only personally, but professionally. I wanted to try other things.

OK, so much for the history -- now onto the present. The return of this prodigal late night host is exciting for plenty of reasons, including the most obvious of them -- other than W. Kamau Bell on FXX, there are no late night black hosts.

A couple of clips ... err, promos:

(App readers please watch at newsday.com/tvzone)

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