Larry King and the Elusive Conversational Art of Just Poking Around

In the celebrity interview biz, Larry King could getcha because he wasn’t about gotcha.

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King, who died Saturday at the age of 87 from Covid-19 and probably a bunch of other stuff, spent more than 60 years in radio and television. He was best known for his interviews, which numbered more than 30,000 and ran the gamut from delivery boys to a half dozen U.S. presidents, movie stars and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

King always said, accurately, that his interview secret was to ask a simple question, then sit back and listen to the answer. He wanted the spotlight to shine on the guest, he said, and he followed that plan so well and for so long that he ended up becoming a star himself.

With a raspy voice that never completely lost its Brooklyn roots, thick glasses and a signature pair of suspenders, King was embedded so deeply in popular culture that he guest-starred as himself in more than 60 movie and TV productions. Five different Saturday Night Live performers impersonated him.

The real-life King, who started as a disc jockey on a small Miami radio station in 1957, didn’t get to that stature overnight. He only became a national institution after CNN hired him in 1995 for the evening talk show Larry King Live, which would run for two decades.

But he’d been laying the groundwork for years. The reason a handful of interviewers rise above the large interview pack is that they can secure the guests everybody else wants. Larry King methodically made his way to the front of that pack.

He did it by the simple trick of making guests feel comfortable. His questions would not be veiled accusations. They would not be implicit demands that the guests explain themselves or justify some action. They would not place the guest on the defensive. The guest would not become a target.

It was not “gotcha” journalism. It was a cordial conversation during which the guest could decide how much or how little he or she wanted to say. It wasn’t that King never followed up or pressed. His interviews just stopped short of arguments.

This made him an inviting host. It also got him labeled the master of softballs, providing guests a forum to slip around troubling or awkward matters for which they should be called to account.

While King rejected the softball label, he acknowledged some of its premise. He famously said he did as little interview preparation as possible, preferring to get information as the interview went along, and he allowed that Larry King Live was more “infotainment” than straight journalism.

Whatever his intentions and motives, it landed him presidents and entertainers like Prince who almost never talked to anybody. After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, his first interview went to Larry King.

If King didn’t wring confessions out of his guests, his fondness for seeming non sequiturs often elicited fun facts. Who’s your favorite baseball player, what’s your favorite breed of dog, how do you feel about aliens.

That seeming stream of consciousness was also the tack he took with a newspaper column he wrote for USA Today, and he made no apologies for roaming all over the map with either his own comments or his questions. That, he said, is how conversation works. If he found himself having lunch with George W. Bush or Mario Cuomo, those are the kinds of things he’d talk about.

Let someone else drill down into corporate tax incentive policy. King wanted to get a sense of the person to whom he was talking, whether that person was the boss of a television network or a civilian midnight radio phone caller from Pocatello.

He talked about himself in similarly random ways that collectively left an intriguing trail. Starting points might include his eight marriages, which put him in a league with Jerry Lee Lewis, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Elizabeth Taylor, Artie Shaw and Henry VIII.

Whatever his personal odyssey, Larry King the interviewer worked from an optimistic and rather uplifting premise: that there was something interesting about everybody. The interviewer’s job is to poke around and find it.

King was hardly the first or only host who treated interviews more as a chat than an inquisition. That’s why Howard Stern is a good interviewer. Or the late Don Imus.

The interesting part of interviewing, King said, was not the talking. It was the listening. Cliched, simplistic, quaint and folksy as that might sound, he was onto something that is not universally appreciated or practiced in the interview game.

There are worse legacies to leave behind than civil conversation.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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