The Lively Arts: Another Gaffe Award for the Oscars

Joe Coffman

You’re blue, maybe night driving in the wee hours or at home recovering from a loss. You turn on the radio and there is that voice in the night. Suddenly you’ve got company.

In the ‘70s and beyond, the voice was usually Larry King. During that night canyon police often refer to as the “dog watch,” King seemed to cut through all the dark with that unique, slightly fatigued metallic baritone, resplendent with cigarettes and coffee that meant he understood. And he did. His own life had been a mean blend of blues and down times that somehow always came through. There remained a touch of that throughout his career, which didn’t really end until his recent death at 87.

King pulled listeners in with a clever format of guest interviews and callers from across the country that he handled with the no-nonsense panache of a whimsical traffic cop.

Getting there hadn’t been easy. His childhood, like a noir film, mirrored that of many impoverished New York kids, his father and mother 1930s immigrants from Belarus who scraped together a living in Brooklyn before his father died when King, born Lawrence Zeiger, was in grammar school.

Government welfare followed, barely graduating from high school and dead-end jobs killing King’s dream to get into radio. Told it would be easier in Miami, he was the odd-jobs guy on a small radio station till he got a break as a disc jockey replacement in 1957. A capricious name change to King and new persona followed with desperate interviews at Pumpernik’s Restaurant in Miami Beach, getting fans like singer Bobby Darin and the Great One himself, Jackie Gleason.

Then King got the big-time break with the Mutual Broadcasting System coast-to-coast show topped by the 1985 CNN TV slot lasting 25 years.

Besides that voice, which King was the first to downplay, the reason he did so well computes. Proud of his know-nothing preparation, he was not a good journalist the likes of Tim Russert, Ted Koppel or any of the “60 Minutes” show crew. But King had that intimate connection like so many top broadcast stars from Jack Parr to Arthur Godfrey, Steve Allen or Johnny Carson. King could suit the action to the guest, showing a deft touch with top columnists discussing the news of the day or an amusing crackpot. He was also superb at continuity between guests.

Some feel his success came from asking the dumb question. Not so fast. Some dumb questions are just that: dumb.

But King’s strategy got guests to speak freely, an oblique approach cleverly devised avoiding conflict. To Cyrano de Bergerac instead of directly mentioning that nose, he might have said, “Does having a bad cold bother you much?”

On TV it didn’t always work. At times one didn’t know if Larry was playing guests or they Larry. It could get old.

But the legacy holds.

Larry King was a friendly American allegory, the guy a few seats down in a diner or dark bar who’d look up with a half smile and say “How are you?” His tone made you look back and nod. Then he’d say, “And what do you do?” A conversation was made and a memory you’d recall gratefully.

In today’s world of gotcha and mean, it’s a kindness we’re losing and one that made King famous beyond his dreams.

As Larry would say, “We should all be so lucky.” And maybe we were.

Joe M. Coffman has written features, reviews and commentary on the lively arts in newspapers, magazines and for broadcast.

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