If ever he were to give a master class in interview technique, it would be a very short class. For CNN’s Larry King, brevity has been the soul of his success since he began asking people questions on the “Pumpernick’s Coffee Klatch Show” out of Miami Beach on May 1, 1957.
“My questions are short,” King says. “Maximum two sentences. A three-sentence question is bad.”
He keeps it very brief, and, for the most part, he pretty much keeps himself out of the interview.
“I never use the word ‘I,’ ” he insists. ” ‘I’ is irrelevant. I learned something a long time ago, and that is I never learn anything when I’m talking.”
He also learned never to rehearse. His first celeb guest was Bobby Darin, and it happened by accident, as King recalls: “It was spring 1959, and ‘Mack the Knife’ was No. 1. He was singing around the corner. Darin just walked in. I interviewed him for an hour. I started my interview style. I didn’t know Darin was coming, so I couldn’t plan. I don’t like to pre-interview guests. It just happens.”
Working in the Miami area, King followed up with other big names on vacation, including Jimmy Hoffa, Danny Thomas, Richard Nixon and his friend Bebe Rebozo, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and most of LBJ’s Cabinet.
“They sold me on the Vietnam War,” he admits. It took Walter Cronkite coming out against the war and the movie “Platoon” to turn him around on that issue. “And I told Oliver Stone that,” he adds.
Although King has been known to push an issue or two in his 50-year career, he keeps it entirely neutral when it comes to his guests, and proudly flaunts a non-endorsement policy.
“That isn’t my role, to endorse. It is a different school of broadcasting. I don’t understand these TV interviewers who are thumping and screaming,” he says without naming some of his counterparts on the Fox News Channel. And unlike an Oprah Winfrey, who has been known to apologize before asking an extremely personal question — of Michael Jackson: “Are you a virgin?” — King lets them fall where they may.
“I only apologized once,” he claims. “During my first year on radio, I had a priest on. I asked how many children he had. The audience just erupted, and I realized I had to apologize publicly right there. Today, you could ask that question.”
The hurly-burly of live TV keeps King fresh, and even after 22 years of hosting CNN’s “Larry King Live,” he just never knows who’s going to be a great interview and who’s going to “leave me hanging,” as he puts it.
“I had no interest in interviewing G. Gordon Liddy after he got out of prison, but he turned out to be crazy as a loon. Fun and funny and forthright,” King says.
Then there was John Mark Karr, the teacher who claimed he killed JonBenet Ramsey. King recalls, “Right before the interview, he tells me, ‘Oh by the way, I don’t want to discuss JonBenet Ramsey.’ I ask, ‘What do you want to talk about?’ ‘I can talk about teaching. I have good thoughts on teaching.’ I tell him I don’t think the public is interested, so I go through the next hour mentioning JonBenet’s name, but he doesn’t mention her name once.”
If anything bums him out about the job after all these years, it’s the occasional media phenom that boosts the ratings but numbs the brain cells.
“Anna Nicole Smith has no effect on your life, except the tawdry interest,” he says of the current blitz. “Sometimes you wonder why you’re doing it. As a host, they do get tedious. The story doesn’t advance much. You grab for a reason to do it. It’s the culture we live in. Anna Nicole certainly wasn’t Marilyn Monroe. Imagine if Marilyn Monroe died in today’s tabloid scene. If it was Marilyn, we’d still be doing it. It would never end.”
Which is why he’s looking forward to 2008.
“I can’t wait to cover the election,” says King. “Politics has everything. It has drama. It has personality. It has everything plus it affects your life.”
After 50 years of talk, King maintains a relatively minor list of major misses. “I never got Prince Charles or Fidel Castro,” he says. “Oddly enough I’ve never had Brad Pitt. Every time I see him, he says he’s going to do it. Never got to the old pope. We’re trying to get the new pope.”
In a way, those few names crystallize why he’s going into his sixth decade on the air. A prince, a dictator, a pope, a blond. King’s chat room is open to everybody.