Larry King, That Rare Interviewer Who Wouldn’t Answer The Questions He Asked
With him, it was all about curiosity.
I might as well tell you right away, I had a special fondness for Larry King. He was neither a genius nor a saint, but the story of his life, his distance from himself, his view of his work, his sense of humor and his charisma triggered my lasting interest.
The man who conducted more than 50,000 interviews – on radio and television – over 60 years certainly had more to say about his life than many of those he interviewed. His life was indeed worthy of a novel.
The son of Belarus immigrants, Lawrence Harvey Zeiger was raised in poverty in Brooklyn, even more so after the death of his father. He started working right after high school to help his mother financially. Since his dream was to work in radio broadcasting, he was advised to go to Florida, at the time a booming media market where a beginner would have a better chance of making it. He started out as a janitor for a small radio station in Miami. In 1957, after a disc jockey abruptly quit, he was put on the air and adopted the name Larry King. Some time later, he began conducting interviews for another radio station and then made his mark on local television. His rise was interrupted by financial and legal problems resulting from his devouring passion for gambling. He gradually put his life back in order and got back on the air. His local show became nationally syndicated in 1978. He was recruited in 1985 by Ted Turner to host “Larry King Live” in primetime on CNN. He also ran a weekly column in USA Today for about 20 years in which he shared his life lessons and motley thoughts (for example, “Do elephants suffer from Alzheimer’s disease?“). At the end of his contract with the newspaper, he found refuge on Twitter.
Perhaps it was this extraordinary life that led him to be interested in the experiences of the people he was questioning rather than the substance of their activities. Ted Koppel brilliantly defined the difference between his own traditional journalistic approach and that of Larry King: “If there was a fire and Larry King and I came running up to the fire and a fireman’s coming out, I would say, ‘What caused the fire?’ and King would say, ‘Why’d you want to be a fireman?’”
Larry King was a graduate of the school of life, but he didn’t go to college. Yet he was never tempted, as some self-taught people are, to make up for his lack of credentials by over-intellectualizing his approach. His field of expertise was the life experiences of his guest and that is certainly what made his shows so popular: He never pretended to be something he was not.
That’s also why he didn’t over-prepare for his interviews: He wanted to ask questions he didn’t have the answers to. His spontaneous curiosity allowed him to put himself in his audience’s shoes and discover information about his guest at the same pace as his listeners or viewers did. He didn’t read the books published by his guests for the same reason. This approach produced this iconic exchange with Jerry Seinfeld:
In fact, Larry King’s interviews were more conversations than interrogations. As the video at the beginning of this article shows, this didn’t prevent the man who didn’t claim to be a journalist from conducting exclusive interviews with many political leaders and getting first-hand information. Although a conversational tone doesn’t work with the most devious newsmakers, Larry King showed that it isn’t always necessary to be aggressive to be a thorough interviewer: Putting his guests at ease was his way of having them let their guard down and share more information. For example, he led then-Republican Vice President Dan Quayle to say that he would support his daughter if she decided to have an abortion, thereby triggering a political storm in his party.
What made Larry King’s interviews possible was his ability to listen. He considered that the real stars of his show were his guests and that his duty was to ask them the questions that his audience, if given the opportunity, would ask them. In an interview, he explained: “I’m always engrossed in the guest. I’m always listening to the answer. I’m always learning.” In another of his books, he wrote: “There are many broadcasters who’ll recite three minutes of facts before they ask a question. As if to say: Let me show you how much I know. I think the guest should be the expert.” He liked to ask short, straightforward questions and his favorite follow-up was “why?”.
Ultimately, this is the lesson that journalists should learn from Larry King, which he summed up in a sentence that is also a life lesson for us all:
“I’ve never learned anything while I was talking.“
Whereas most interviewers these days think of themselves as opinion writers and are more interested in their own ideas than those of their guests, Larry King never wanted to answer the questions he asked his guests. He was always content to listen to them intently in order to ask them the best possible questions.
His curiosity was his North Star and the reason why his audience followed him on his professional journey for 60 years.