I was both a fan and foe of Larry King, who died this weekend at 87.
When I started doing morning radio in the early 1980s, I would listen to the tail end of his all-night Mutual Radio show on my way to work. In his fifth and final hour on the air, Larry had no guests except the callers who filled his phone lines, talking about anything and everything. I admired the width of Larry’s knowledge which, while not particularly deep on many subjects, allowed him to have conversations about whatever the caller wanted to discuss. I didn’t know it then, but that would become a useful part of my own skill set as my career grew.
Larry was once asked what he would do if the phone calls started slowing down during his show and he had no one to talk to. He answered that he would simply say, “Dogs are better than cats! Your thoughts?” He claimed that would light up every line for hours — and he was right. Every talk radio host had a couple of those cheap-and-easy topics ready for emergency use.
It was on that Mutual Radio show that Howard Hoffman and some other radio friends pulled off a legendary prank. At the time, Mutual used a cue tone that sounded like “bee-doop” to tell automation systems at their affiliates when to insert a local commercial, when to rejoin the network, etc.
Howard recorded the “bee-doop,” called the show and, once on the air and talking with King, played the “bee-doop” down the line a few times at irregular intervals during the conversation. After about the third time, King asked, “What’s that sound?” Howard played dumb, replied “What sound?” and hit it again. Meanwhile, not only were the guys in King’s control room going crazy, but unmanned affiliates all across the country were firing carts with commercials or other elements, causing havoc on the airwaves around the country.
I was enamored enough of Larry to read a couple of his books, in which the inveterate storyteller recounted incidents from his life, dropped names of famous people he knew, and shared anecdotes about some of his lifelong friends. I don’t remember when it was, but at some point, I became aware of a company called Lion Recording Service that offered tapes of some of Larry’s interviews on that all-night show — none of which I’d heard because they took place in the first hour or two, which aired while I was asleep. I sent away for some of them featuring celebrities I’d heard of, and listened to the cassettes when they arrived.
My favorites were the hours he did with Albert Brooks, who was funny as hell even when not talking about his latest movie. Brooks was such a King fan that he would call in under assumed names during the open phones hours, sometimes using ridiculous accents and never letting on who he was. Larry never seemed to notice and treated him like any other nut who got through. Brooks even used a segment of Larry’s radio show — with guest Rex Reed — under the opening credits of his movie, “Lost In America.”
So, yeah, I liked that Larry King. Once he started his 25-year run on CNN, I would check in regularly to see who the guests were, and was amazed at the job his producers and bookers did to keep the show stocked with celebrities and newsmakers, often fresh from whatever news had broken that day.
But I also found so much about Larry to make fun of, and I took every opportunity to do so.
There was his ridiculous Monday morning USA Today column, which seemed like it had been dictated into a recorder fifteen minutes before deadline, a dot-dot-dot stream of unrelated thoughts. I would often play a game with my radio sidekicks and have them try to guess which were Larry’s and which I had made up. His were so out of left field that I sometimes found it hard to compete. For example, which of these were his and which were mine?
Kris Kristofferson never fails to move me…If you’re opening up a package of Oreos, be sure to pour a glass of milk for me…You want a clean city, my friend, you want Salt Lake City, Utah…Vic Damone is still a very good singer…I never get tired of listening to Canada’s national anthem…If there’s a Clark Gable movie on TV, I’m watching it…Tommy Lasorda’s pasta sauce is very, very good….Whoever put an eraser on the other end of a pencil was a genius…I always feel 100 percent better after a really good manicure…No one ever laughed better than Dyan Cannon…
For the record, I alternated between actual items from his column and some I made up — first his, then mine, and so on.
I would also savage Larry whenever he had conspiracy theorists or psychics on his CNN show. Because he was so non-confrontational, it served as an platform for them to spew whatever nonsense they desired, with virtually no pushback from the host. Thus, Sylvia Browne could lie about talking to a caller’s dead relatives and Larry wouldn’t take her to task even a little bit, enabling her and similar con artists to continue ripping people off.
It was into this soft arena that Ross Perot stepped in February, 1992. As with most guests, Larry afforded the businessman as much time as he wanted to present his views, most of a populist nature, entirely unchallenged. Perot’s folksy appeal hit a chord with many Americans and he returned to Larry’s show often, getting the same easy treatment, the sort of free TV boost that Donald Trump (another regular King guest) later got from “The Apprentice” and “Fox and Friends.” Unlike Trump, Perot couldn’t turn his bandwagon into a big enough movement to win the presidency, but he continued to appear on Larry’s show for several years before fading out of the spotlight.
Because Larry’s show was often must-see TV, I knew many in my audience watched it, so I had to talk about it. His famous lack of preparation made some interviews almost unbearable, particularly if the guest was someone he was clearly not aware of. He claimed that merely being curious made him good at his job, but there were more than a few times when not being prepared and not paying attention worked against him.
On Tuesday night, March 29, 2005, Larry’s CNN show focused on the death of Johnnie Cochran Jr. Here’s a segment from that broadcast, verbatim:
King: On the phone, Johnnie Cochran, uh, Junior. Are you there, Johnnie? Uh, Johnnie Cochran Senior, I’m sorry. Are you there?
Cochran: Yes, Johnnie Cochran Senior, yes!
King: So, you are what in relation to Johnnie Cochran Junior?
Cochran: Yes, I’m his father, thank you.
In 1995, Tony Kornheiser published a book of essays, “Pumping Irony,” and invited me to the launch party at a famous downtown DC restaurant. I usually eschewed events like that, but Tony had guested on my show several times and we’d developed a nice rapport, so I went. Not long after I arrived, Larry showed up. It was about an hour before his CNN show would start, but he loved any opportunity to schmooze and be seen, so of course he was there. I was chatting with Tony when Larry walked over to say hello. They exchanged greetings, then Tony turned and said, “Larry, you know Paul Harris, don’t you?” Larry didn’t say a word in my direction, but sneered, grunted, and announced to Tony, “I gotta go. Good luck with your book.” As he walked away, Tony turned to me and said, “I guess you’ve gotten under his skin.” Then he laughed and added, “Now you’ll never get a mention in his USA Today column!”
Previously on Harris Online…