Jewish World Review July 2, 2010 20 Tamuz 5770
Larry King Leaves the Stage
By Roger Simon
That is Larry King talking years later, telling a reporter how he created himself out of nothing.
How, as a kid nicknamed the Mouthpiece, he would stand on a Brooklyn street corner and do imaginary radio commentary on the passing traffic. "Here comes a Dodge, now, folks. A big Dodge with whitewalls, New York plates, man in a suit at the wheel and a woman with a hat beside him, yes!" Lawrence Zeiger knew, even as a poor, unattractive kid, that someday he could make people listen to him. That someday he could make people like him.
And he did. He would grow up and become one of the most listened to people in talk radio and then in talk television. He got recognized everywhere he went. He made a ton of money and had sex with many, many women, a bunch of whom he married.
In 1995 and 1996, I spent several days with King in a number of different states for a book I was doing on the 1996 presidential election.
We are in Orlando, Fla., in November 1995, just before a Republican debate that King is hosting. He is in the bedroom of his hotel suite, getting dressed and talking on the phone with Wendy Walker Whitworth, the show's senior executive producer.
The debate, broadcast by CNN, will have commercials, but King is telling Whitworth he doesn't want to interrupt the candidates for commercial breaks if the candidates are really cooking.
"Don't let time interrupt quality," King says. "I won't interrupt Buchanan saying, 'I think Dole should be shot.'"
Which is an interesting concept of quality.
His first senior executive producer, Tammy Haddad, engineered his transformation from radio to TV and tried to make things comfortable for him. King was used to bending over a microphone, which is why his TV show had an old-fashioned microphone on the desk in front of him. And, since leaning over made his shirt balloon out from his chest, Haddad first put him in sweater vests and then switched him to suspenders, which became his trademark.
There is a certain purity to King's ego. He talks about himself all the time. "I'm like Segovia with a violin," he says and yawns in my face. He does not say excuse me.
We get into a huge stretch limousine to go over to the convention hall, which is next door, a three-minute ride away. His energy level is up now. He is getting nearer to airtime. He strides into the building. He is pumped. You can hear it in his voice. He is all shtick now, shouting, mugging, singing Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra medleys.
He goes into the nearby CNN workspace, walks over to his area, sits down and takes a new pair of shoes out of a box. "On stage, you don't want dirty soles when you cross your legs," he says. "It looks terrible."
You know all the tricks, I say.
"I could announce for office tonight," he says.
King walks into the makeup room, where a woman takes a sponge and applies heavy make-up to his face, erasing a road-map of wrinkles. She leans over to touch up a spot on his forehead and King burps loudly in her face. He doesn't say excuse me.
"You know the good thing about burping?" he asks. "It makes you feel better."
It is February 1996, in Des Moines, Iowa. It is 2 degrees outside. King sits at a long table at a pricey downtown restaurant that specializes in huge slabs of meat too large for any normal person to consume. Though there are network TV anchors and presidential candidates in the room, King is the center of attention.
People, strangers, come up to King and all do the same thing: They touch him. They put an arm on his shoulder, pat him, grasp him, make contact as if they actually knew him. He is a celebrity, but he belongs to them. He is their creation. "It doesn't bother me anymore," he tells me later. "You come into their homes, they figure they know you."
Earlier in the day, he had gone to a movie (since he never prepares in advance for the show, he has nothing to do during the days) and had set off a frenzy of people rushing up to him for autographs. "They weren't prepared for a celebrity at the movie," he says. "The place went crazy."
King turns to me. "Sixty thousand a speech, that's what I get," he says. Then he laments how much time it takes to fly around the country to make all these speeches.
So why do it? I ask. You don't need the money.
He shrugs. "I get out, I get to meet people," he says.
It is a few weeks later, and Larry King is sitting in a grim hotel suite a few miles south of Manchester, N.H. He is wearing a casual shirt and black denim pants. It is late morning, he has gone to breakfast, he has read the papers (he actually keeps up on current events), it is something like 10 hours before his show, and he has nothing to do.
Pat Buchanan is the big story in New Hampshire, but the show can't get Pat Buchanan. This didn't used to happen. Being on Larry King was a big, big deal, and candidates would never refuse. But a strange new dynamic seems to be developing, and King does not like it: Candidates are stiffing the show. They are organizing their own media events — events they can strictly control.
While King is often criticized for asking softball questions, candidates don't even want softballs these days. During the 1996 campaign, Bob Dole will organize his own "town hall" meetings, where friendly audience members will ask friendly questions. It is the Larry King show without Larry King.
I ask King about his success. Is it because your taste is in sync with a majority of the American people? I ask.
"Or they're in sync with me," he says.
Until they weren't any more. Until time and tastes moved on. Until people wanted hot-button talk shows with insults and attitude. Which was not Larry King. And so he decides to retire because the rating are way down, and he is too old to change, and he does not want to change.
He does not want to shout and insult. All he wants to do is be liked. All he ever wanted to do was be liked. Forever. Why was that so very difficult?
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate