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Can chilly Brit warm up tired talkers?

Piers Morgan's CNN yakker reveals a genre that may be outdated

Distances between people, indeed between universes, are continuing to expand. “The Social Network,” a global hit, reminds us that the most satisfying relationships are now forged through online “friends,” not through face-to-face encounters.

Meanwhile, more and more cosmologists are now persuaded that stars and galaxies are steadfastly drifting further away from Earth, rather than cozying up to us as we formerly believed. The cosmos increasingly will become a lonely place.

So as distances continue to grow, I was bemused this week watching a chilly Brit named Piers Morgan struggling to connect with his audience and thus revive the comatose Larry King interview show on CNN.

It’s clearly going to be a struggle. A good argument could be made that interview shows are an anachronism in a moment when people would rather tweet than talk. Great guests are hard to come by: The biggest stars seem paralyzed by their own celebrity, and paranoid about being TMZ’ed. Politicians rigorously stay on-message. And at this moment in time there seems to be a true shortage of witty gurus-at-large who used to enliven talkshows of the Carson era — Truman Capote, Oscar Levant, Orson Welles, and even Totie Fields.

Morgan has to deal with all this, plus overcome the curse of CNN — a network that gave us Spitzer-Parker as its last New Year’s gift.

Morgan has performed his weeks of self-promotion armed with a prolonged smirk. He has acknowledged he could match Simon Cowell in an “ego-off” contest, boasted that Madonna would never be on his show (a disappointment?) and considered leaping off a cliff when he learned David Hasselhoff was replacing him on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

We have seen endless re-runs of his Oprah interview asking her how many times she’s fallen in love, without understanding why she considered that a smart question.

The first-week list of Morgan “gets” was impressive, to be sure, but watching Piers trying to puncture Oprah was like witnessing a Volkswagen slamming into a Hummer. A full hour of Howard Stern (yes, they discussed penis size) seemed 50 minutes too much, but at least left me applauding Stern’s admonition that “three months from now you’ll be lucky to book Scott Baio.”

Morgan, meanwhile, tried to frame reasonably good questions, but still seemed like an actor shooting a movie who couldn’t quite get his hands around his character.

For generations, Larry King played a sort of street-smart savant who venerated the famous and talented, empathized with their problems and proudly never read their books.

Morgan is better prepared, tries to strike a balance between respectful and obsequious (the latter won in the Oprah segment) and actually (unlike his predecessor) listens to his guests’ responses.

All that clearly sets him apart from King’s mantra.

I vividly recall doing a guest stint with King on the radio some years ago — he was in the studio in New York while I was in Washington, D.C., at the time. Larry asked me a question, I responded, and then there was dead air. As we cut to commercial, I heard the voice of the panicky producer on my intercom: “Larry is tired tonight so he may nod off from time to time. If that happens again, just keep talking for Chrissake.”

I did. I also made a mental note always to hit Starbucks before doing Larry King again.

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