Larry King: A totemic figure of the talk-show world whose work was defined by humanism

As fans pay tribute to the legendary TV host, Louis Chilton reflects on the qualities that made Larry King such a revered interviewer

Saturday 23 January 2021 17:49
<p>King spent decades at CNN</p>

King spent decades at CNN

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They don’t make them like Larry King anymore. The popular talk show host, whose career spanned six decades, was an outlier in an industry where presenters can be all-too keen to take the limelight for themselves. From his first interview to his last, King proved himself as a man who liked to let others do the talking.

In a statement announcing the news of King’s death, aged 87, a spokesperson touched on the qualities that made King so very special. “Larry always viewed his interview subjects as the true stars of his programs, and himself as merely an unbiased conduit between the guest and audience,” it read.

“Whether he was interviewing a US president, foreign leader, celebrity, scandal-ridden personage, or an everyman, Larry liked to ask short, direct, and uncomplicated questions. He believed concise questions usually provided the best answers, and he was not wrong in that belief.”

This lack of pretension helped make King a popular and oft-requested interviewer among even the most publicity-shy of celebrities. Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Prince, and Sir Paul McCartney are just some of the names to feature on King’s programmes down the years; Associated Press puts the total number of interviews King conducted at over 50,000. Critics dismissed King’s interviews as being overly cosy – the word “softball” was often used in reference to his style. Yet he was still capable of teasing honest, insightful answers from his guests.

Among the many affectionate tributes to be shared in the wake of King’s death was that of Piers Morgan, who publicly fell out with King in 2010 when his short-lived talk show Piers Morgan Tonight replaced King’s flagship CNN programme. The spat between the two journalists embodied their polarising ideologies about the nature of talk shows, King claimed that Morgan made his interviews “all about him”. “My problem with Piers,” he told The Guardian in 2015, “was nothing personal, but he was the antithesis of what I was.”

“I don’t berate guests and I don’t make it about me,” he continued. “The guest isn’t a prop. I didn’t enjoy that. And I would say that about any host who I felt didn’t serve his audience well. And I think Piers did not do that. I didn’t like that type of interview.” 

Not the main focus: King interviewing Monica Lewinsky in 2002

Yet Morgan, a man who appears to loathe criticism and who once called King an “old goat”, was generous in his praise of the fellow journalist upon news of his death. “Larry King was a hero of mine,” he wrote on social media, “until we fell out after I replaced him at CNN and he said my show was ‘like watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new Bentley...’ But he was a brilliant broadcaster and masterful TV interviewer.”

Though he had a dry wit, King was not renowned for his on-screen banter. What he did have was a sense of humour – younger generations, and those unfamiliar with CNN, will still recognise King from his memorable self-parodies in films and TV series such as Ghostbusters, 30 Rock, Enemy of the State and The Simpsons. He even voiced characters in the Shrek franchise.

King’s interviews, too, could be funny, though sometimes his laid-back style got the better of him. A clip from King’s 2020 interview with ex-Community star Danny Pudi went viral around a month ago, in which the host quizzed the actor about a luxury he couldn’t live without. When King suggested “private planes”, Pudi drolly replied “Larry, I’m on Ducktales”, a line that was quoted with glee by many on Twitter. An interview with comedian Eric Andre on If You Only Knew – King’s post-CNN chat series produced for Ora TV – saw the octogenarian host receive a series of flippant and implausible answers before Andre turned the questions back on him.

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It’s hard to understate King’s importance to the rise of CNN, and to TV as a whole. “King’s name is synonymous with CNN and he was vital to the network’s ascent,” wrote Christiane Amanpour, the network’s chief international anchor. “EVERYONE wanted to be on Larry King Live.” This last sentence may be most true of King himself, who remained a broadcaster until the very end of his life, when his numerous health problems began to take their toll.  

There’s a line in The Larry Sanders Show (in which King once appeared) where Artie (Rip Torn) tells Garry Shandling’s fictional TV host: “You're a talk show animal. You're like of those creatures out of Greek mythology – half man, half desk.”

This label could just as well apply to King, a man who has been a totemic figure of the talk show world for as long as just about anyone. King’s work, however, was defined ultimately by humanism. He was the master of knowing how to simply sit back, and listen.

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