Commentary: Listening is what he did best — no small feat, given the cacophony of gasbags populating the cable landscape
With apologies to Marc Antony, I come not to bury Larry King, but to praise him.
How easy it would be to succumb to the siren song of snarkiness, and mock the 77-year-old thin man who bade farewell to CNN Thursday night.
But I believe in taking the full measure of a man. To judge King's half-century career by his occasional dottiness over the last few years is arbitrary, at best; grievously dishonorable at worst.
To watch: 5 Fantastic Larry King Interviews
Just as Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" may have tarnished, but not defined, his legacy, King's notorious interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Paris Hilton and the like should not eclipse the “everyman” curiosity and insight he brought to conversations with world leaders.
Was King a newsman? Of course not. In fact, he would be the first to admit he is not now, nor has he ever been, a member of the journalistic party. But then he didn’t aspire to be. Larry Zeiger, stickball player from Brooklyn, was a world-class schmoozer, and that was enough.
Part Willy Loman, part Don Quixote, he was, at his height, a raconteur of the first order. If television shows were identified by radio formats, his would have been Very Easy Listening.
Through his 25 years on CNN, "listening" is what he did best. That is no small feat, given the cacophony of gasbags populating the cable landscape today. Unlike them, King actually allowed his guests to complete full paragraphs, not just a sentence or two between a host’s interruptions.
More important, we never felt like King would leave blood on the floor. Working at his own leisurely pace – critics called it somnolent – he didn’t go for the kill or the "gotcha" moment. He didn’t have to. His so-called softball questions usually provided guests with enough rope to hang themselves, and many did
Before Twitter, Facebook and killer apps; before Leno, Letterman and O'Reilly, "Larry King Live" was the destination of choice for the famous — and infamous — looking for a friendly delivery system.
He handled them all with ease, treating civilians like celebrities and celebrities like civilians. Even as the culture changed at warp speed and he became an anachronistic target of ridicule at "Saturday Night Live," King endured. And endurance is a rare thing in a medium that thrives on short attention spans.
Throughout his 7,000-plus shows, King ranked No. 1 at CNN. Were he trying to break into the business today, he wouldn’t get an interview. He’s too old, too slow, too out of touch. A gentleman of the Old School has no place in the Darwinian world of television, where executives would eat their young for a rating point.
Perhaps it’s just as well. As King basked in the warm accolades from guest stars on Thursday night's finale, the network ran a ticker of fans’ emails across the bottom of the screen.
One, purportedly from D-list celebrity Jenny McCarthy, read: “I’ll miss your sexy ass.” If that qualifies as cute at CNN these days, King left just in time.