Now that we know it's going off the air, the Arsenio Hall Show (syndicated; check local listings) is watchable again. It's not just that, having announced he'll quit his talk show as of May 27, Hall has loosened up to an almost surreal degree (on a recent night, he could be heard to yell, ''We get crazy mad busy up in here!''). No, for anyone who watches a lot of talk shows, the idea that we won't have Arsenio to kick around anymore is triggering a kind of premature nostalgia.
That's because, since its premiere in 1989, The Arsenio Hall Show has become the ne plus ultra of unctuousness, with Hall acting as the high priest of ersatz hip-hoppery. A man as enthusiastic in his praise of New Kids on the Block-excuse me, NKOTB-as he is of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Hall long ago forsook credibility for mindless good cheer and an openness that prompts his guests to say the most amazingly foolish things.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner, for example, recently confessed that he'd asked his girlfriend to get her nipples pierced, while Beverly Hills, 90210's Ian Ziering told a pensive-looking Arsenio the exact words he used in proposing to his fiancee: ''I said, 'In my arms, you'll always find shelter; in my heart, you'll always find a home.' '' Arsenio's reply? ''Damn, you're another e.e. cummings, man! That was pretty smooth!'' That's why I'll miss Arsenio.
Spin control says that Hall's recent low ratings were the result of greater late-night competition and the fact that a significant number of the affiliates carrying Arsenio are switching over to Late Show With David Letterman. More bluntly, it's that viewers were finding Hall less funny than Letterman. A striking example of this occurred on April 25, when Hall and Letterman told essentially the same joke in their respective opening monologues. It was a line about how, after being beaten with a rattan cane, that American kid in Singapore isn't going to want to go to Pier 1 Imports. When Hall told the joke, I thought, ''Hey, that's a funny idea, but he messed it up by making faces and almost swallowing the punchline.'' When Letterman told the joke, I laughed.
The night after Hall proclaimed his imminent TV retirement, Dennis Miller sauntered onto the Arsenio set to express his fervent admiration of Hall. (This was the same edition on which Hall remarked, while bobbing his head to the watery funk music of his band, ''Black people love the bass!'') Then, on the first edition of Miller's new talk show, Dennis Miller (HBO, Fridays, midnight-12:30 a.m.), Miller told his guest via satellite, Sen. Bill Bradley, that ''all our guests get a robe from The Arsenio Hall Show'' and held up a terry cloth robe emblazoned with the Hall logo.
Miller's Arsenio fondness is difficult to fathom, given that his style is as adversarial as Hall's is obsequious. Dennis Miller, his second chat effort, is a swift half hour that offers the two things this comedian does well (a monologue and the latest variation on ''Weekend Update'' called ''The Big Screen'') and one thing at which he's terrible (interviewing people). % Increasingly, to watch Miller is to behold the spectacle of someone who's smart, but not quite as smart as he thinks he is: He dazzles verbally, but with very little content to his elaborate wordplay. Dennis, baby, you're treadin' water. You can't trade on your vocabulary and mastery of syntax forever; in the words of your pal, ''Let's get busy!'' The Arsenio Hall Show: C- Dennis Miller: C+