Larry King, man and mouth, had a smooth and satisfying first week as host of Cable News Network's 9 p.m. talk show, previously called "Freeman Reports," for discharged host Sandi Freeman, now called "Larry King Live" for the obvious reason. Freeman was a humorless and circumlocutory questioner; King's brisk and direct approach is an approximately 365 percent improvement.
Best known for his all-night radio program on the Mutual network, the ubiquitous King resurfaces here after a couple of other attempts at telemigration, the most recent a weekly half-hour on WJLA-TV. "Larry King Live" more successfully transplants his radio style to TV than any of the other programs. To judge from the first four shows, he is at ease, alert and adept. But he has his problems.
Guests on King's radio show are delighted to find the host able and eager to help them come across well. On TV, King may need to develop a tougher stance unless he wants his program to be a mere pleasantry. He was perhaps a wee bit easy this week on guests like New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan.
Yet King did prove again without question that he is a bright and resourceful talker. He probably did a better job with Buchanan, who has emerged like a raspy groundhog after weeks of White House hibernation, than did Ted Koppel the night before on ABC's "Nightline." Buchanan, it appears, cannot talk for more than 20 minutes without using the word "metastasize" (as, indeed, who of us can?). He is much, much missed as a contentious broadcasting presence.
On Wednesday King faced his greatest challenge: two guests who were certifiable bores. Dick Ebersol, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live" for the past five so-so years, got away with taking credit for the first five glorious years of the show as well, when Lorne Michaels was the auteur. King let him pull off this sleight of hand, indicating that his research leaves something to be desired. Then came the uninteresting Aaron Latham, whose film "Perfect" King had referred to as a "hit movie" in his introduction even though the horrid thing wouldn't open in a single theater for two more days.
On Thursday, King's talk with maverick Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence was disappointing. Very late in the program, thanks to King's call-in audience, it evolved that Spence had harsh words for the American Bar Association, computers, corporate America and the alliance among all three. It would have been better, especially on a "news network," to have this material higher in the show. A congenial chat just doesn't cut it on TV; there has to be the semblance of urgency.
Tamara Haddad, a recent escapee from "The McLaughlin Group," has done a first-rate job of producing the program; executive producer and director Randy Douthit comes in for rivetingly intimate close-ups. King is outfitted with a charming old-fashioned radio desk mike that gets in the way on some shots, but the set and graphics are handsome and functional. There were only a few technical problems during the first four shows.
"Larry King Live" substantially brightens the prime-time landscape. For threadbare CNN, it's a particularly fortuitous blossom.
"I'm having a lot of fun doing this," King told the viewing audience Thursday night. "I hope you're enjoying it, too." Why yes, Larry, we did enjoy it -- but one would hope that "Larry King Live" will eventually aspire to be something more significant than "fun." There's really enough fun on television as it is.