A star-studded, but still somewhat muted, farewell for 'Larry King Live'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; C05

Lurching awkwardly between classy gestures and underwhelming torpor, "Larry King Live" breathed its last on CNN on Thursday night, even if its star and founding father kept reminding viewers that though his program was ending, "you're not going to see me go away."

Whew. That was a close one.

An impressively stellar roster of guests - most of them appearing live - dropped by to well-wish on the final edition of King's 25-year-old nightly talk show. On tape, President Obama congratulated King on conducting a very lengthy "conversation" that at times "opened our eyes to the world beyond our living rooms." Obama also praised King's ability to interview guests ranging from "Kermit the Frog to Joe from Tacoma," a reference to King's call-in radio roots.

Joined in his Los Angeles studio by the quick-witted Bill Maher of HBO and the dim-witted Ryan Seacrest of "American Idol," King showed surprisingly little emotion, no matter how impressive and generous the celebrities were. King responded to the salute from Obama with a kind of benumbed indifference, although later in the show he expressed oddly unctuous gratitude to fellow TV talker "Dr. Phil" McGraw, who popped into the studio for a folksy bye-bye.

When the ineffably affable Regis Philbin offered cheerful salutations from New York, King barely registered a reaction. Although Philbin praised King's aptitude for remembering very old songs, King sat there like a lump when Philbin launched into the old closing theme from "Your Hit Parade": "So long for a while, that's all the songs for a while." Poor Philbin was left dangling, with professional celebrity Donald Trump at his side.

The guests did represent the wide spectrum of interviewees that the gravelly voiced King has faced across the table, or via split-screen hook-up, over a quarter-century (or, as he put it, "a third of my life") on television - among them former president Bill Clinton, fit and felicitous as piped in from Arkansas. The encounter was hampered by annoying pauses and delays caused by a slothful satellite - and by a fleeting bit of embarrassment involving the term "zipper club."

King said that he and Clinton were both members of that fanciful aggregation, an unfortunate reference considering that, earlier, Seacrest had clumsily asked King whether the fly on his trousers had a zipper or buttons. A bit belatedly, King explained that the "zipper club" is for men who've had open-heart surgery. "I'm glad you clarified that," Clinton said, with a forgiving smile.

Auspiciously enough, four of broadcast television's best-known news anchors gathered in the New York studio to wish King well: ABC's Diane Sawyer, CBS's Katie Couric, NBC's Brian Williams and the godmother of them all, pioneering anchor Barbara Walters of ABC (by way of NBC). The show's director, however, strangely chose to delay a wide shot of this living Mount Rushmore of news - thus muting the luster of having all four in the same place at the same time.

Still more greetings from celebrities, sent via Twitter, were run ticker-tape-style along the bottom of the screen, and an hour before the program, King tweeted that the red suspenders he'd be wearing were a gift from rock star Jon Bon Jovi - "thanks, Jon!" Good old Larry, name-dropping to the end.

Although King is being treated coldly by CNN, which is shoving him aside for a younger host despite King's status as a television icon, he expressed no bitterness in his closing remarks - a farewell to the faithful viewers who've watched him tussling with the famous, the infamous and the inexplicably adored.

This was certainly no grandly emotional moment to rank with Johnny Carson's famous farewell in the early '90s, but King's unhurried style and in-depth approach were definitely assets and rarities.

And it was Williams who got off the best line, telling King that his next two guests were waiting in the wings: "Star Jones and Julian Assange." In the absence of tears, or any real need for them, laughter was most welcome.

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