Larry King often came across as the guy who sat next to somebody on an airplane and started up a conversation by asking: “So what do you do?”
Except sometimes that person was Vladimir Putin, or Marlon Brando. And they wouldn’t get annoyed.
That was King’s gift — he didn’t grill people, he chatted them up. He was someone who actually wanted to know what hooked some British actor on Shakespeare or some Indiana farmer on believing in UFO’s.
King was a throwback, a fish out of water from the start of his career at CNN, because even as he put cable television news on the map he was, down to his shoes, a broadcaster. He looked for wide appeal and he had wide appeal. He didn’t parade his views, because that’s not what broadcasters looking for the widest reach could ever do.
He also had a broadcaster’s voice — deep, resonant, memorable. King, who gained fame first as a radio host in Miami, joked all his life about having a face made for radio. But even with an accent engraved with the sounds of Brooklyn’s streets, he had the booming voice, tailor-made for radio stardom. It made people turn their heads and listen: “Hello, Ashtabula, you’re on the air!”
His life turned out to be colorful, too, full of celebrity stories, news-making moments, health scares and numerous wives — eight marriages in all, including one wife he married twice. But always he retained his ability to relate, and managed to connect with both high-brow (Nelson Mandela) and low (Kato Kaelin.)
A simple interviewing technique
His method was simple: no method. Don’t overthink the job, don’t over-prepare for the interview. Keep the questions short. King always said things like, “If I’m talking, I’m not learning.” So he stressed simple, direct questions: “What made you get into public life?” “Do you like pets?” He let his guests dominate his airtime.
Contrast that with interviews on most cable news shows today: Hosts who often ask convoluted, digressive, minutia-filled questions that leave guests wondering, “When is he/she going to get to the question here?” King did not belabor; he rarely seemed even to labor.
He was often satirized, especially on the late-night shows, for his seemingly bland style, and the “what’s your favorite ice cream” level of some of his questions. And, of course, for his openly confessed lack of interest in reading any of the books that authors came on his show to plug. That didn’t matter — millions of books were sold off of Larry King interviews.
Laziness or genius? Whatever it was, it worked. King said he was playing the role of the viewer who knew nothing about the book, allowing the author to prove it was worth reading. Authors rarely turned down the chance to talk to Larry King. Neither was just about anyone else. King’s other technique was providing comfort instead of confrontation. Guests at every level, including presidents — King talked to every one starting with Nixon — and global heads of state sat down with him knowing they would not be overly pressed, never really put on the defensive.
That didn’t make the interviews uninteresting (well, sometimes it did.) Mostly it made them diverting rather than divisive. Again, it was a shrewd approach. Guests who are comfortable come back. They also tell their associates: “That’s a show you should do.”
Timing is everything, and it certainly was a factor in King’s success. He emerged at CNN when cable news was not yet a shoutfest or an ideological armed camp. The competition wasn’t an outraged rant on Fox News. It was the latest hit comedy on Must-See TV: “Frasier,” “Cheers,” or “Seinfeld.” If the entertainment shows in prime time were less popular, or there was a repeat that night, a viewer might prefer a light-hearted conversation with Miss Piggy — or something meatier with Ross Perot.
In that era, King didn’t have to chase “breaking news” every night, but if the story had the right legs, he was all over it. Never more than during the O.J. Simpson saga, from the infamous 1994 car chase to chaotic trial the following year. The nightly coverage on King’s CNN show presaged the saturation news coverage of cable news shows to come. All O.J., all the time.
King had panels packed with characters from the Simpson menagerie. I had my own encounter when I got a surprise telephone interview from Simpson a day after his acquittal. As soon as the first edition of The New York Times — with my story at the top — hit the street that night at about 9 p.m. in the East, Larry’s producer was on my phone, asking if I had really talked to O.J.
The word “yes” was barely out of my mouth when she said, “You’re on the air!” And there I was, talking to Larry King, my words echoing through the television. That show’s sweep was so vast the next day I had calls from Ireland to Australia to talk about my “scoop.”
I was on with Larry a few other times. It was as billed: Relaxed, direct, a couple of guys from Brooklyn who might as well have been sitting together at the soda fountain sipping egg creams. Did that ever qualify as good television?
Well, Larry King was on CNN for 25 years, most of them as the biggest show on cable. The guy knew what he was doing.