Friday, December 17, 2010

Larry King signs off

“It’s not very often in my life I’ve been without words,” said Larry King on Thursday night, in a towering understatement. King was speaking at the end of his show, which was also his last as a regular nightly presence on CNN. After 25 years at CNN, the Cal Ripken of the TV talk-show retired the program “Larry King Live,” one of the unavoidable facts of modern life and a bridge between cable’s earlier days as a venturesome novelty and its current status, as something like the glue that binds us, however argumentatively, as a society.

From his very first CNN interview — with New York Governor Mario Cuomo on June 3, 1985 — King brought an insatiable curiosity to the talk-show experience, and did it paying all due props to the subjects of his interviews. Unlike Charlie Rose’s insistence on frequent interruption, lest we forget how erudite he is; unlike the sometimes willfully disputatious interview styles of others elsewhere in the cable universe, King generally had the good sense to listen to the people he brought on.

That approach is a logical progression from the time when he was on the radio, as one of the early radio talk-show hosts. King’s career goes back to Miami Beach in 1957; Bobby Darin was his first celebrity guest. He’d go on to handle color commentary at Miami Dolphins games in 1970, finally moving to the national talk-show stage in 1978, and ultimately, to CNN.

In King’s 25 years at CNN, the United States itself underwent a transformation, from Reagan-era behemoth secure in its top-dog status and bestriding the world to a nervous, querulous, reflexively partisan nation beset with any number of contenders for the global throne in a new century.

Larry King’s show was a conversational road map to how we got here, from the certainty of Morning in America to the uncertainty of life in the post-9/11 world.

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There was always a populist vibe to Larry King’s show. Even in the company of world leaders, Larry — often solicitous, sometimes with a wry humor — found a way to ask accessible questions, the kind you might ask if you were there, and seeking the answers he thought people cared about.

You could count on Charlie Rose to be quizzing a CEO from the world of high-tech or somebody from the Council on Foreign Relations. We could rely on Larry King to be swapping sunglasses with Lady Gaga or chatting up the finalists from “American Idol.”

Marlon Brando kissed him full on the mouth. He got mobile with Snoop Dogg, rollin’ through L.A. (no doubt sippin’ on gin and juice, laidback). Larry kept up, he stayed on top of the culture, over time becoming so much a part of our pop-cultural furniture that he achieved what many stars of momentarily greater magnitude sometimes failed to achieve: a kind of ubiquity, a name in the information ether that was, and will always be, instantly recognizable.

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“I wanna thank everybody associated with this program,” he said Thursday night, “all the people behind the scenes … even the suits at the top. I love them too.

“I don’t know what to say except t you … my audience … thank you. And instead of ‘good-bye’ ... how about ‘so long’?”

With that, the Larry King set — that trademark cheesy world map of mini light bulbs, that stage that’s likely to make it into the Museum of Broadcasting or the Smithsonian — went dark.

Not to get all valedictory about it; he said that we’d still be seeing him on CNN (on special programs still to be determined), doing something affiliated with baseball (!), and returning to the radio, his first love. And looking at him on Thursday, there was reason to believe there’s still mileage on the meter, still gas in the tank. After eight marriages, one heart attack and two heart operations, King sent all the happy indications that there’s still another act in his life (take that, F. Scott Fitzgerald).

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I didn’t watch “Larry King Live” every night he was on the air, and neither did you. The show wasn’t always appointment viewing; we often took for granted he’d be there. In our sprints from one channel to another, we’d always pass his program, either live or repeated later in the evening, on our way some place else three numbers away on the remote.

In a way, that didn’t matter. We didn’t watch him every night, and maybe we didn’t need to. Larry King was that most emotionally reassuring component of our breathless modern lives: he was familiar, he was something that stayed in place.

He could be rough as a cob, and sometimes downright weird. But like with the redwoods, the Grand Canyon or the Rolling Stones, it was a bedrock, comforting thing just knowing he was around. Over a quarter century — forever in the quicksilver of the digital age — the fact of his presence was enough. The longevity we made fun of is exactly what we loved, and valued, the most.

Image credit: Larry King, Brando's kiss: CNN.

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