Digging Up The Dog Pound: Paul Scheer Reenacts The Arsenio Hall Show

When I was a kid I remember staying up really, really late at night on the weekends, watching my little black and white TV in my bedroom. I’d watch anything that was on: movies, re-runs, late-night talk shows, things that I shouldn’t have been watching on a specific Canadian cable channel (you know the one) – everything with the sound turned down so low that I could just make it out but no one in the rest of the house could. It was a specific type of watching television – a guilty one – half delirious from a lack of sleep so that I was never quite sure if what I was watching was real or dreamt. I had exactly one vice in those days and TV was it. I’d sit there, or more accurately, lie there on my bedroom floor, propped up by pillows and covered with a blanket and just watch and watch and watch. I could afford to do it as a kid because, most likely, I didn’t have anything to do the next day until the TV watching started up again. Just having the TV on was soothing and addictive.

I can remember something of The Arsenio Hall Show from those nights but not much. I maybe watched it a handful of times. I remember the screaming saxophone of the opening credits and the darkened studio with the audience “woof”ing when the show started or when anything exciting happened. But, beyond that, my memory gives out. So, maybe I’m not exactly the target audience for The Arscheerio Paul Show, comedian Paul Scheer’s web series that reenacts, somewhat accurately, some of Arsenio Hall’s famous and infamous interviews. But, the content is hilarious and fascinating enough for even an occasional former viewer of the source material and reminds me of watching a show with the sound turned down on those late, late nights. There is something that Scheer gets about the dreamlike, half a beat offness of late-night talk shows – as if everyone is a bit too sleepy or drunk to care (even if it was filmed in mid-afternoon).

OK. Yes. What my florid opening isn’t getting at is that the whole thing is an elaborate joke and it’s played for laughs. But the show is slightly off kilter and highly strange in a good way. It is about a certain kind of nostalgia. The filter of time reduces the immediacy. There is a slow, sleepy, languid pace to everything. There aren’t really jokes in the set up punchline kind of way. There is no bang, bang, rat-a-tat, joke after joke. It’s casual to the max. The funniness comes from the bombast, the outrageousness, the uncomfortable-ness of these things being said (actually, really having been said) and the pauses and awkward silences in between those things.

The other part of the joke is who exactly Scheer gets to play the famous guests. The overall not quite rightness of the proceedings is played up by, occasionally, white actors playing black guests or men playing women and vice versa. Mostly, these guests are played by comedians or comic actors who you would recognize instantly (Will Arnett plays Bill Clinton, Seth Rogen plays Gary Coleman). Not a ton is done to disguise these personalities aside from maybe a bad wig and the right shirt. These actors (all of them amazing in their own right) don’t necessarily do impressions of the famous people they are playing, instead it is much more a gentle imitation. Sometimes, in comparing the re-created version to the real version, intonation, mannerisms and speech pattern will be similar, sometimes not quite, but the spirit of the original interview, the wildness and wackiness, is always there.

The real, chief, main pleasure in watching Scheer’s show is rediscovering and comparing the recreated interviews to the original clips. Take for instance this reenacted interview of Rosie O’Donnell (Adam Pally) and Madonna (Allison Brie) circa A League of Their Own:

The interview is audacious and crazy and you think (well, at least I thought, on initial viewing) that the real thing couldn’t have possibly included not so veiled comments about Rosie’s sexuality, the underlying animosity between the two, or an appearance from Madonna’s dad (played in the reenactment by Weird Al Yankovic). But the reality is so much crazier than the reenactment. Watching the real version afterwards makes the reenactment all the funnier. It’s as if what Scheer is doing makes the original version better in the same way that the original version makes the reenactment possible. That, in fact, Scheer didn’t add anything – the re-creation is tame in comparison:

In one of the best episodes, June Diane Raphael (NTSF:SD:SUV, Burning Love) plays Andrew Dice Clay:

Let’s compare it to the original version:

The always fantastic Raphael is about as good as I’ve ever seen her in these clips, highlighting whatever trace amounts of softness that Clay had at that time and truly believing in that softness. I don’t know if Clay was playing at being misunderstood, it’s hard to tell from the real clip if those tears are genuine, but Raphael plays it mostly straight and I’m glad she did. We are meant to see the weirdness of the interview. We might laugh a bit at a woman playing Clay but that joke is short lived. What we end up with is the curiosity, a fun house mirror reflection, of an interview that may have been lost forever.

What’s remarkable is that in this and, really, all of the clips people felt so comfortable with Hall, that they would clearly get caught up and say things that they weren’t supposed to. There is very little shilling or much talk about projects, it’s just people having a conversation – albeit an often very strange one. The whole thing gets even stranger when you consider the fact that Arsenio Hall is starting a brand new talk show this week, 19 years after the death of the original. In essence, Hall, like Scheer, gets to do it all over again, too.

Tonight, why don’t you stay up real late, grab a blanket, cue up some of these videos and just watch and watch and maybe re-watch.

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