After 55 years at a desk, Larry King stands up
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Larry King said he's made a habit out of never preparing too much for an interview.
King, of course, is one of the most famous interviewers in television and radio history. Over the course of 55 years, King has sat across the table from everyone from heads of state and captains of industry to movie stars and the latest pop sensations.
Other people, the 78-year-old late-night radio/TV icon said, have their own way.
"Mike Wallace, who's a great friend -- who's not doing very well by the way -- he worked incredibly prepared. He had to know everything you ever said in your entire life -- and I thought he was wonderful."
But that was never the way King could do it.
"I liked it better the less I knew," he said.
From those 55 years in "the business," King has a lot of stories. Thursday night he'll be sharing a few of them at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center in Huntington in a show called "Larry King: Standing Up."
For most of Larry King's career he's adhered to some basic guidelines.
"I never used the word 'I,'" he explained. "I never involved myself. Everybody on television does that now. It's always, 'I thought this. What do you think?' I never did that. What the guest thought counted. What I thought didn't.
"I was a conduit. I'd leave the ego at the door because I was coming back the next night.
"Interviewing was for me to draw the best I could out of the guests, ask the best questions I could and listen to the answers."
King got into the business of interviewing national newsmakers and celebrities almost by accident. While living in Miami Beach, he took a job as a disc jockey of a morning radio show at a restaurant.
"It was a very successful restaurant," he said. "It just wasn't busy at 10 in the morning."
King interviewed whoever came through the door. One morning, crooner Bobby Darin walked in.
"There was no way I could plan for Bobby Darin," he said.
But he interviewed him anyway, and eventually Jimmy Hoffa, Ed Sullivan and Danny Thomas all passed through the door and got behind King's microphone.
"So that was just the way I started," King said. "When I went to nighttime, we started doing more talk and I had producers. They'd give me a background sheet, but they never handed me prepared questions."
He liked working off the top of his head.
Of course, sometimes he acknowledged it would have been nice to have known a little more.
In the mid-1980s, King had Apple CEO John Sculley on his program. Apple had been in turmoil, but the company at the time was growing.
"We talked for 90 minutes and he left," King said. "We opened up the phones and the first call was asking me why I didn't ask him about why he fired Steve Jobs?"
King hadn't known.
"I should have known," he groaned. "I never asked, and I should have asked. That's embarrassing."
It's hard not to miss that King sort of misses his old job at CNN. He misses being part of the nightly news/talk landscape, but he's proud of his accomplishments.
"We're in the Guinness Book of World Records," he laughed.
In 2010, Guinness listed "Larry King Live" as the longest-running talk show in a stable and consistent time slot, right before he decided to step down from late night.
After he retired from "Larry King Live," he did a series of specials for CNN, but as of earlier this month, that partnership also came to an end.
"Except they have to pay off on my contract," King said, explaining, "I did four specials, but this year we've got a political season coming and so much attention devoted to it. The specials we did, it just didn't work right."
He acknowledged, "There's a sadness to it, but it was an amicable parting."
It's bittersweet and has led to some new things, like the standup tour. Telling stories is something King has been doing for most of his career. Even while he was doing television and radio, he did a lot of guest speaking at conventions and sales meetings. Many of them, he said, were just plain dull.
"I tried to liven them up a little."
He developed a repertoire of stories. King's nephew Scott Zeiger, a Broadway show producer, suggested he could take those stories and turn them into an act they could take on the road.
"We're having a great time," King said. "I tell stories about growing up as a kid and stories about things that happened off the air. It's a real 'evening with,' and sometimes, if the theater is set up for it, we take questions from the crowd."
King's show at the Keith-Albee will also include a Q-and-A session following his performance.
King said he's never shied away from asking a question. Talking with the famous really didn't make him nervous.
"Basically, it's the same thing with that old cliché about how everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time. The president gets up and has breakfast just like you do. Sure, he has an interesting job, but most people think their jobs are interesting."
What makes people interesting to talk to, he said, is conflict.
"We all have things we have to deal with. We all have worries. It's maybe a different scale, but if you're worried about something big that's going to happen to you, that's the same thing as [President] Obama worrying about Iran.
"How you deal with that, that's what's fascinating to me."
Still, King said he has his regrets. There have been questions he wished he hadn't asked.
"Oh, when I was 22 and very young and very inexperienced, I had a priest on a show," he said. "I asked him how many children he had."
"Today that would be relevant, but then it was ridiculous."
Want to go?
WHAT: "Larry King: Standing Up"
WHERE: Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
INFO: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.