Larry King’s vintage microphone, the RCA Type 77-D that referenced his rise as a radio man, was a prop that worked as a powerful symbol of both past and present in a relentlessly evolving media age. The microphone was a security blanket for everyone involved: for King, for his 60,000 interview subjects, and for the viewers of his nightly CNN talk show, once touted by the network to number a billion or so worldwide.
The microphone indicated that King — who died Saturday at age 87, having lived most of his life as a persona more than a person, and perhaps outliving the era that made him — wanted the whole world to hear what his guests had to say. The microphone didn’t stand for posterity or nostalgia so much as a visual representation of the major media moment, the heat of notoriety in its full and often fleeting flash. The microphone acknowledged the need to ask and answer the great mysteries of life — the scandals, the personal struggles, the rises and the falls, the regrets in real time.
Mostly, the microphone stood for an increasingly rare virtue: listening. (Listening, and its nearly extinct counterpart: a genuine, unflagging curiosity about someone other than yourself.)
The microphone, like the man hunched over it, imparted a corny notion of importance, an attempt to lend authority over the still-nascent cable feed of the 1980s. The microphone made all “Larry King Live” interviews seem like a great get, a worthy exclusive, a hot insight, something you’d better watch if you wanted to keep up. King’s life could be written as one man’s determination to keep up, for an audience that always knew he was pretty much winging it — and loved him for it.
Some of King’s gets were better than others, of course (not every night could have Marlon Brando; not every night could feature Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein historically united on the same show in 1995. Not every night could be Vladimir Putin or Ronald Reagan, Lady Gaga or Muhammad Ali, Miss Piggy and Kermit, Paul and Ringo), but his show was invariably, relentlessly topical. It was broad in a time of wondrous broadness, before the disrupting rise of the niche market.
To be sitting at the table on CNN’s “Larry King Live” — just you, him and the big old mic — was proof that one had truly arrived. The suspenders. The odd questions. Why, King wanted to know. His favorite question, because that’s all any of us ever really want to know: Why?
During his 25-year reign on CNN, especially in the years roughly bookended by the 1994 killing of Nicole Brown Simpson and the 2009 death of Michael Jackson, “Larry King Live” was a necessary and vital stop on the way to one’s public judgment. More than one celebrity used his show as a form of recompense, coming to him dirty and damaged with the hope of leaving clean. Others used it as an opportunity to show their more vulnerable side, in a calculated way. Most used him as a means to promote their latest film or album, to gin up some buzz.
No matter what brought them to “Larry King Live,” it was understood that the questions would be coming from a place of genuine wonder, rather than showy intellect. King was a singular personality, a mutation of the common man, a New Yorker unafraid to just ask the question. The effect was a successful mixing of the daft with the deft. When news of his death spread Saturday, much of the immediate tribute came in the form of defense of King’s mastery of the “dumb question,” and rightly so.
Most reporters eventually figure out that the dumb question is a powerful tool of inquiry. Kind people know it, too, and still practice the art. In its disarming way, the dumb question produces answers that the subject isn’t tired of answering. It turns the interview into a conversation. It invites rather than antagonizes. What’s worse than an interviewer who tries to cram everything they already know into the question? (You’re all too nice to name a prime example, but I’m not: Chuck Todd.)
King would often boast about not boning up on the details of a subject’s life and work before an interview. He trudged confidently into the emotional and factual blind. It could seem rude and even socially inept, but the viewer identified with it. At a time when we are so busy what-abouting one another with instant fact checks, maybe we’d get along better if we stopped to ask a dumb question or two.
His dumb questions, of course, produced a legendary archive of laughable moments. In one often-shared clip from 2007, he asked Jerry Seinfeld about the end of “Seinfeld” — was it canceled? (“You think I was canceled?” Seinfeld replied, easily taking such delicious bait for a quick riff. “Do you know who I am? . . . Seventy-five million viewers on the last episode.”)
It’s telling that CNN was never quite able to find the world’s next Larry King, after he left the network in 2010. Everyone who knows too much has too much to say; there’s no room anymore for a show where a seasoned personality blunders his or her way around and through the zeitgeist, on behalf of an audience that blunders a bit, too. Cable news now assumes that the viewer is faster and smarter, and has spent a good chunk of the day on Twitter. The life cycle of news and scandal and personality now moves at two or three times the speed of Larry, who, in his era, was believed to be among the fastest, earliest responders.
He was in no mood to ever fall behind, and he seemed to care not if the public saw him as a doddering artifact. Who better to ask “why” than the strange old man who has been married eight times and says anything that pops into his mind? He moved online with a show called “Larry King Now” (consider the many meanings and differences between the words “Live” and “Now,” with 21st-century implications). He tweeted naturally, having been-there/done-that with his often bizarre three-dot column of random observations in USA Today. As health issues dragged him further down, he was itching to launch a podcast.
He was afraid of dying. Or not afraid so much as desperately curious. Being interviewed by Mike Wallace in 1992, King seemed fixated on the idea that we are but mere “blips” in the universe. Where do we go when we die? What’s next?
Mortality and the afterlife came up on “Larry King Live,” starting in the 1990s and early 2000s, when some of his greatest gets (Sinatra, Brando, Nixon, Reagan) headed for the big exit door. He had numerous on-air conversations about death and the afterlife with his friend Tammy Faye Messner, the heavily maquillaged televangelist who practically died on his show, wasting away from cancer before everyone’s eyes in 2007. A few nights before her death, she was back on “Larry King Live,” weighing 65 pounds by her estimate, insisting to King that something waited for us on the other side.
He asked Tammy Faye if she believed in heaven. “You know I do,” she replied. “And I genuinely want to see you in heaven someday.”
King was never sure, often telling people he relied on the maybe/maybe-not eschatological stance of his Jewish background. Still, it’s fitting to imagine him loosed in that great cocktail party in the sky, reacquainted with so many of the boldface names he’d interviewed in this realm. Asking dumb question after dumb question, with all eternity to get the answers.