The part of the funnyman is a side of Larry King few Americans rarely get to see.
“I don’t get to do it on CNN, a lot of humor,” he says. But, “A month ago, I did an evening in Las Vegas, at the Encore Hotel, where I just told a bunch of funny stories. I’m used to telling funny stories.”
King has been getting lots of comedic practice, in fact, on a nationwide meet-and-greet tour promoting his bestselling autobiography, My Remarkable Journey, itself filled with a blend of humorous and more often, poignant, anecdotage.
Actually, they are stories one might expect to hear instead from one of King’s myriad guests, those about loss, gain, life’s foibles and the lessons they teach.
The memoirs are coming from arguably the most trusted man in America since Walter Cronkite, that rare breed of TV personality who sacrifices no journalistic objectivity in giving each and every bit of the spotlight to those he interviews, keeping none for himself.
But this time, the focus in on King, the Brooklyn-born kid who climbed his way up the media ladder the old fashioned way, through sheer determination. Eight marriages, debt problems, and connecting with a long-lost son after three decades, that’s King, too. And taking a gamble with that newfangled fad called cable TV, finding himself, 24 years later, as America’s pre-eminent talk host, King again.
The author, in his typical attention-avoidant fashion, even turns over a portion of the book to family, friends and colleagues who offer their most honest views on the man.
King talked to the VCReporter this week about his views on politics, those curious tendencies that can lead to careers in journalism, and his book, My Remarkable Journey.
VCR: Mr. King, your career has spanned more than 50 years. Why was now the best time to release your memoirs?
King: As I was approaching my 75th birthday, a bunch of friends said, “This is the perfect age to put it all down.” Frankly, it isn’t even all. I mean, 50 years covers so much that they’re now talking about doing a follow-up book called Things I Left Out.
VCR: What was it like to tell your story? We’re so accustomed to you asking the questions.
It’s a lot different. There’re a lot of funny stories. I’ve been doing a lot of speeches for years at conventions and the like. I never told a Larry Jr. story before, or other things. But if you’re going to write a memoir or an autobiography, you might as well lay it all out. So I laid it all out.
VCR: On Larry King Live, you foster a very informal atmosphere, and you’re known for putting your guests at ease. What’s your formula for making people comfortable, relating to them in the interview process?
I don’t know that there’s a formula. I’ve had it all my life. I’ve always been able to have people respond to me. I was the kind of kid who would ask the bus driver why he’d want to drive a bus. When we’d go to ballgames — as a kid, go to Dodgers games in Brooklyn — all my friends would want their autographs. I’d always want to ask the players questions. At the end of the game, they’d be walking out to their cars, up to the subway. I’d follow them along the street and ask them, “Why’d you bunt? What would have happened then in the seventh inning?” So, that curiosity.
When people know you’re curious, really curious, they respond to you. When they know you don’t have an agenda — I don’t have an agenda, I’ve never had an agenda, I’m not there to embarrass, I’m not there to praise, I’m there to learn. And when they know that you’re sincere about wanting to learn, that transfers as you’re a good conduit for me to the public. I think it’s innate. I don’t think you can teach that.
VCR: It lends itself to being a great journalist, to have that natural curiosity.
For my kind of journalism. I’ve never been in the trenches covering a war. It’s still, when you get down to it: the who, what, when, where and why. Those five basics still exist.
VCR: Of the tens of thousands of people who’ve been on your show, who have been some of your most memorable guests?
(Marlon) Brando was certainly a memorable guest. As was Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, and Frank Sinatra. When you’re doing it all these years, there’s a lot to be said for longevity. I’ve been around. It’s hard to pick one or two out.
VCR: The Obama administration vs. the Bush administration: what’s your perspective?
They’re apples and oranges. One was a conservative who lost his way with Iraq, which is going to turn into a mistake. Then, when the hurricane (Katrina) hit, it was a tragedy and handled very poorly. And the public turned on him. As the public will do, as they turned on Lyndon Johnson with Vietnam. And they could turn on Obama. However, it won’t be the economy because he’s viewed as having inherited that. And then he’s extremely likeable. People like him.
It’s hard not to like him. And he’s so accessible. I mean, every day he’s on television. I haven’t seen a day go by where he isn’t. Tomorrow he’s at the All Star Game. You can’t even compare them there. I think it’ll be a more open administration. They might be given to making snap decisions, which the previous administration did not make. It’s very hard. I think the results will be at the end of the administration.
VCR: Over five decades, 11 presidents, what was the most exciting/challenging time politically for you as a reporter?
The ’60s. Nothing tops the ’60s. There’ll never be a decade like the ’60s. Assassinations. War. Turbulence. Castro. Unbelievable, nothing matches the ’60s. The Moon (landing). You couldn’t invent that decade. Every day it was something. Incredible.
VCR: What’s your take on the future of journalism in the 21st Century?
I don’t think it’ll ever go away. But I can’t predict what’s happening, because I could have never predicted this 10 years ago. I had no idea that the Internet would become what it became. Al Gore did, I didn’t. The whole thing is just amazing to me. I can’t keep my head up with it.
VCR: You’ve had to adapt yourself, too, going from radio, through the days of early TV, to being a leader in cable news broadcasting, and now onto the Internet. Have those technological changes influenced you in the way you report?
We’ve changed the show a lot. We used to do longer-form interviews, a lot of one guests for one hour. There’s very little of that now. Now, it’s shorter portions. I used to have 10-minute segments. Now we have 7-minute segments.
You gotta move to things; everything’s faster. Graphics, move it along, show it up. And the 24-hour newscast has changed the whole business, so you get a Michael Jackson, and everybody runs with it all the time. And you get caught up in a swirl. And I don’t know if we’re leading or we’re following. I don’t know if the audience is telling us what to do tonight, or if we should be telling the audience what’s news. I think we’re at fault when the audience tells us.
Journalism should lead, not follow.
VCR: Any words of advice for people wanting to pursue journalism, considering its shaky state?
It’s still the noblest. It’s a great profession, because the journalist, whether it’s the Internet or blogs, the journalist goes to the event and tells you about it, or hears about the event and gives you an opinion about it. The journalist is that standard bearer between you and the event, and there’s nothing better than that. That’s the best job in the whole world, in my opinion. Everybody in it wants to be in it. I don’t know anybody in journalism who doesn’t want to be in journalism.
VCR: Any regrets? If you had to do anything over again, over all these years, what would it be?
Probably some people I married, I wouldn’t marry (laughs). I made some personal decisions that I would take back, but professionally, none. I’m very happy with what I’ve done. Satisfied with my career. My career judgments were excellent. My private were not excellent. And I don’t know anyone who has no regrets. But like the song says, “Regrets, I’ve had a few.”
Larry King appears at the Topa Tower Club in Oxnard on Saturday, July 18, at 6 p.m. For ticket prices and reservations, call 983-7777.