Is anyone still watching Larry King, who has been stubbornly industrious in the months since his nostalgic farewell to viewers on CNN? In 2011 he went on a national comedy tour, the biggest shock of which was the sight of his legs, so scrawny that it was hard to believe they were weight-bearing. Recently, he appeared on the YouTube channel The Nerdist to list his favorite superheroes of all time, looking unusually perky and loose. And most notably, he now hosts two separate online talk shows, “Larry King Now” and “Politicking With Larry King” on Ora.tv, both, as of June, broadcast on Russia Today (though the network has no creative oversight). Freed from the pressures of his CNN show, unleashed on the more freeform medium of the web, King is a different kind of host: specifically, a much better one than he ever was on CNN.
The announcement of King’s new shows did not exactly inspire high hopes for any contribution to the culture at large—it felt more like a showbiz relic put quietly out to pasture, his softball questions to echo unheard for the rest of time in the recesses of the Internet. Announcing the partnership, RT editor Margarita Simonyan made the demonstrably false statement that “[w]hether a president or an activist or a rock star was sitting across from him, Larry King never shied away from asking the tough questions.”
Perhaps the most annoying feature of CNN’s “Larry King Live” was its equalization of expertise, the way King seemed determined to question John Legend on education reform with the same seriousness as Michelle Rhee, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the merits of New York City with the same narrowed-eye intensity as Paris Hilton. His treatment of celebrity bled weirdly into his gentle interrogations of world leaders, his dual interests in entertainment and politics fully conflated. His interviews were so committed to ruffling no feathers that he approached all his subjects with the same dull, appreciative questions about their feelings and tastes.
But King’s two new shows are each designed with a different purpose: one entertainment, one politics. And separating out his political interviews from his lightweight celebrity sit-downs has had the effect of demonstrating that sometimes, the geriatric sedateness of King's style is actually a pretty sly interviewing tactic. His leisureliness is not always a form of leniency.
“Larry King Now,” which launched in July of last year, is celebrity worship at its most transparent, liberated from the pretense of actual newsmaking. Ashton Kutcher talks about how he “drastically admires Steve Jobs.” Sharon Stone reveals, “When I started my career I couldn’t get the glamorous parts because people didn’t think that I was sexy,” to which King earnestly replies, “You’re kidding.” King, though, has never seemed so energetic and appealing. In an interview with Snoop Lion, he donned a do-rag and rapped. Both he and Snoop were visibly having fun. “I love your style, your swag, your look, your everything, the way you interview, the way you kick back,” Snoop told him. “I love you, man,” King replied.
“Politicking With Larry King,” meanwhile, premiered this past June with a discussion about the National Security Agency leaks, featuring Republican Congressman Aaron Schock, Politico deputy managing editor Rachel Smolkin, and political strategist Peter Fenn. “Are you saying the president is lyin’ to us?” King asked Schock. There is still no hint of antagonism in King’s interviews, but in this new context, with the bluntness of an octagenarian who has nothing professionally on the line, King’s minimalist straightforwardness suddenly feels like a pretty refreshing antidote to cable news’s ping-pong match of egos. His style is patient without seeming ass-kissing in quite the way that his CNN show did. He leverages his personal history and rapport with guests to crack them open in ways that can even, occasionally, feel wily.
Take his interview last week with Eliot Spitzer, which didn’t exactly offer up major revelations but still managed to put pressure on Spitzer’s tightly managed talking points. King opened by setting the atmosphere with some boys’ club intimacy: “We go back a long way, Eliot Spitzer and I. We used to sit in the back table at the Regency Hotel in New York.” Then he launched his questioning with real, grandfatherly exasperation: “Why are you running for comptroller? Why, why, why?”
When Spitzer dodged with “it’s a fun position,” King pressed on: “But you are asking the public to come forward and pull that lever, despite having a cloud around you.” Eventually Spitzer seemed to relax. “I was wearing a dark blue wool suit. I was surrounded by hundreds of reporters. I had nowhere to go,” he said of the claustrophobic press conference announcing his comptroller bid. Compare this to Spitzer’s 2010 appearance on “Larry King Live,” a chummy, aimless chat with Kathleen Parker to promote their new CNN show "Parker-Spitzer" in which the most pointed question Spitzer got was whether he thought his prostitution scandal was “going to have an impact” on the success of his show. “I’m ready to move forward. I hope the people will accept that,” he said with a grin.
It’s worth noting, too, the different treatments Rudy Giuliani received in his respective appearances on “Larry King Now” and “Politicking With Larry King.” On the Hulu show, King asked him “What’s a talent you have that we may not know?” (“I cut a mean rug”) and “What’s the first thing you thought about when you got up this morning?” (“The Yankees losing”).
On “Politicking,” King offered a friendly introduction before cutting to the chase with a typical non-segue segue. “We go back a long way. We share a great love for baseball. We drove together to the opening game of the 2000 World Series, which I will never forget. Before we get to anything else: your reaction to the Surpreme Court’s ruling and the gay issue.”
So as TV host retirement goes, King’s second career has thus far been quite an accomplishment. He was smart to skip another lukewarm television show for the more freeform, low expectations of the web. A few months after Regis Philbin—who has logged more onscreen hours than anyone in history, according to the Guiness Book of World Records—announced in 2011 that he was leaving his ABC daytime talk show at age 80, he started a monthly gig cracking wise alongside Rachael Ray, reduced to a jokey prop. Granted, King has been a punch line for a long time now. In TV retirement, though, he's finally worth taking seriously.