Sorry. I'm just getting the circa-1996 USA Today Larry King out of my system before I attempt a review of his venerable CNN talk show. Only after I dispense with the cusp-of-consciousness musings about sandwiches and Don Johnson's blinding talent can I get around to the real business at hand: Namely, acknowledging that Tony Danza is as much a national treasure as Yellowstone National Park.
Damn, that's a hard bit to abandon. OK, where was I? Oh -- Larry King, the preeminent interviewer in the history of the televised medium.
Nobody comes close
That's not an overstatement. There have been a handful of brilliant news-first interrogators (Charlie Rose, Ted Koppel, Ed Bradley) over the years and about as many sublime celebrity wranglers (Tom Snyder, Jonathan Ross, Chris Farley). But in terms of being equally at ease with actor, politician, jock, doctor and media personality alike, nobody comes close to Larry King.
Until recently, King's presence registered in my life in a single way: an inability to call Grandma between the hours of 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., because she'll slice any sumbitch who interrupts her when she's getting her L.K. on. While stuck in an airport lounge, however, I happened upon Larry's recent interview with Ryan Seacrest, one of the personalities who have been floated as a potential replacement when King retires in 2048. During that interview, King was at turns smooth, sly and casually dismissive, exposing the able Seacrest as a relative lightweight. The message sent? "You'll get this job when you pry it out of my cold, dead, spray-tanned hands."
Maybe all the succession speculation has relit King's competitive flame. He comes across much livelier nowadays than he did a few years back, relying less on the notes splayed across his desk and more on shooting the breeze. While he still gets roped into the occasional image-rehab assignment -- "spontaneously" noting how Denise Richards wears a crucifix; introducing the world to Paris Hilton, humanitarian -- such silliness sponges up less airtime than it used to.
Even when "Larry King Live" veers in that direction, King keeps the conversation flowing naturally, the way it might if the cameras were turned off. He doesn't necessarily ask the questions younger viewers want answered, mind you ("Denise, when you and Neve Campbell filmed the pool scene in Wild Things, did you expect that it would someday be enshrined in the source-material wing of the Self-Gratification Hall of Fame?"). But he alone among today's mainstream TV interviewers makes those interactions feel genuine. King has also retained his innate sense of conversational rhythm and timing. You rarely catch him tripping over a question or bulldozing a subject's response.
"Larry King Live" has shaken up its bookings a bit, getting younger and airier in its choice of subjects. Yeah, there's still the occasional eyes-glaze-over dud -- like Tuesday's alarmist survey of the possible link between cell phones and cancer, which started out as a tribute to brain-cancer victim/cell-phone zealot Johnnie Cochran. Most episodes, however, smartly riff off and around whatever happens to be buzzy that week, whether election-related banter or the OMG!!! celeb scandal du jour or gas prices or the "American Idol" moppets. When all else fails, the show stunt-books with aplomb: Mötley Crüe is scheduled to sit down with Larry within the next few weeks. I defy anyone on this or any other planet to talk me out of watching that.
Marketers may have noticed the attitudinal/demographic shift of "Larry King Live" ahead of the rest of us. Watching four full episodes over the last two weeks, I logged a mere six ads that appeal exclusively to the coffin-shopping set: Reclast for postmenopausal osteoporosis, Plavix to prevent clots, Fidelity, Ancestry.com (the site isn't necessarily for oldy-old-olds, but the commercial sure is), AARP's "Divided We Fail" campaign and the alarming Sea Bond spot populated by dementia-addled musical-theater retirees.
Glut of advertising
Most surprising is the glut of brand advertising, whether for UPS, Chevrolet, Boeing (a classy Memorial Day-themed spot) or Comfort Suites. As far as youth-leaning brands go, these aren't exactly Apple or Red Bull. But neither are they the pharma products or Buicks people associate with a supposed grandma-magnet like Larry King. A single recent show featured four Diddy-saturated ads for Cîroc, a fancy-shmancy vodka that, I imagine, rarely finds its way into retirement-community pantries.
I'm not saying that "Larry King Live" has reinvented itself for the internet/mobile era or anything. Some of CNN's efforts to that end, such as the Larry King ringtones, come across as comically misguided... though I'd happily sign up for the "Larry King Live" text alerts if they included USA Today-ish nuggets of insight about Burt Reynolds or flavored coffee.
The point here is that he's trying. Unlike any number of his contemporaries, King doesn't bemoan changes in the media landscape or question the taste, sanity or proclivities of the younger generation. For that reason alone, he deserves our respect and admiration during the final act of his first-class career.