Larry King on his 15 years with CNN
May 29, 2000
(CNN) On June 1, 2000, CNN celebrates two decades of journalism as a cable news network. CNN International is the world's only global 24-hour news network. In recognition of this 20th anniversary, CNN correspondents are joining chats to describe their memories of the past twenty years.
Larry King hosts "Larry King Live," CNNs highest-rated program. The nightly show, which debuted in 1985, presents a mix of celebrity interviews, political debates and topical discussion, and also features phone calls from viewers around the world. King is an Emmy and CableACE award winner and has been in the broadcasting industry for more than 40 years. In addition, he writes a weekly newspaper column for USA Today and has written 11 books.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Larry King, and welcome.
Larry King: Hello everybody! Fire away!
Chat Moderator: When did you join CNN? What were your earliest experiences?
Larry King: I joined CNN on their fifth anniversary. My first night was June 1, 1985. CNN was five years old on that night. So, whenever the network celebrates a birthday, so do I. This Thursday, CNN will be 20 and I'll be there 15.
The first interview subject on our premier night was Mario Cuomo. I was also doing a five hour nightly radio show from midnight to 5 a.m. every evening on the Mutual Network. So, you could say I was a very busy guy.
I've always enjoyed interviewing people and have been doing it on radio and TV for 43 years, broadcasting now in six decades. The CNN show is certainly my crowning achievement. Well, maybe second to fathering two baby boys at age 65 and then 66.
Question from Candyce-CNN: Larry, back in the beginning, did you ever think your relationship with CNN would last this long?
Larry King: The first contract I signed was for three years, but each side had an option to end it after one year. To tell you the truth, I knew after one week that there was something about this show that was just right. I didn't think in terms of how many years, but I knew it worked.
The most surprising thing about all of it is the worldwide reach of CNN. For instance, I was recently in South Africa on a speaking tour and it seemed everybody knew my face. I have to pinch myself all the time over things like that.
Question from ChicagoKid: Larry, any guest you still haven't interviewed yet that you're really dying to interview?
Larry King: My number one choice would be the Pope. We got a thrill recently when the Vatican gave us a "maybe" as to a possible interview. This Pope in particular fascinates me because there are so many facets to him.
In the religious end, he is as conservative as they come. In the political end, he is so liberal, he could be called a socialist. He has been shot and has kissed the man who shot him. He speaks five languages. He lived under Hitler and Stalin. He is a published poet and playwright. Despite physical affliction, he has traveled more than any Pope ever and still continues to amaze us. He would be my first choice.
I just interviewed Nelson Mandela, who was always way up there on my wish list. I would also like to interview Fidel Castro, who has been the head of his country for more years than any leader in modern times.
Question from Alge12: In your last 15 years, who did you like interviewing the best?
Larry King: I guess it would have to be Frank Sinatra. He was very difficult to get and we did his last-ever interview. He was also a terrific guest in that he gave me everything I wanted in an individual. He was passionate, he was self-deprecating, he was funny and he also had a chip on his shoulder. You put those four attributes in one guest and one hour feels like five minutes.
Question from CajunYank-CNN: Mr. King, have you ever had a guest that upset you so much that you had to call on all your resources to remain professional?
Larry King: Certain people over the years give me the "grangles." That is a word that is not in the dictionary, but it feels like somebody running a fingernail down a blackboard. The guest who gave me the most unnerving experience was the late Robert Mitchum, one of my favorite actors. Every answer he gave me was either one sentence of no more than five words, sometimes just one word. I must have asked him sixty questions in twenty minutes. I wound up asking him what he had for dinner that night.
Question from Suzie: Is there anything about you that would be a complete surprise to your viewers, like a hidden talent, for example?
Larry King: Something I never get a chance to show on television, and what would have been my second career, is stand-up comedy. I speak all over the country and out of the country, at conventions and conferences and dinners. I never speak seriously. I tell stories and usually the audience has a very good time. The thing I hear most at these occasions is, "I never knew you were funny."
"Larry King Live" is usually very serious, except for those times when we have comedians as guests and then, of course, I am the straight man. But I think the biggest kick I get, professionally, is hearing people laugh. There's something about making people laugh that is a little akin to being loved. It's the one thing you can't make someone do. All laughter is spontaneous and I appreciate that more than anything.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any funny stories about your early days at CNN that you can share with us?
Larry King: Well, Penn and Teller were on, the comedy magicians, and at the end of the show, Penn stood on the table and dropped his pants. On another occasion, Don Rickles went under the table yelling "War!" and saying Ted Turner needed it for ratings. When you work live, as I do, anything can happen. That's why 98 percent of my career on radio and television has been working live. I can't tell you how much I prefer it to tape.
Question from Rain39: How do you always seem to get the hottest guests to come on your show when their "news" is breaking?
Larry King: I think it's a combination of things. We have a great production staff that literally works seven days a week. We are constantly on top of things. We change programs late in the day, sometimes, to meet a breaking news story.
CNN has now become the network of record, much like the New York Times is to print. So guests know that they are getting a worldwide audience, they are getting an interviewer who is curious and fair, and they are getting an opportunity to speak, not in sound bites.
I think the set, those little dots that form a map of the world that are behind me, whether I'm in Los Angeles or Washington or New York, also play a part. Don Hewitt, the famous executive producer of "60 Minutes," told me he thought our set was the best one on television because when you see it, you immediately know what show it is. And it has the feeling of being both live and important. It has also become very, very recognizable. I think all of these factors play a part in getting good guests.
Question from Shooby: Larry, its been said you dont really interview, you just "have tea" with your guest. How do you respond to this type of criticism?
Larry King: I don't agree with that at all. It is not a conversation, it's an interview. I don't make statements, I don't give my opinion and I don't use the word "I." Everything I say is a question -- usually short, right on the point, and, most importantly, I listen. I am not there to embarrass, nor am I there to hold the guest on a pedestal. I am there to learn. Through me, the audience will learn.
All you can do is the best you can. I try to make every hour lively, entertaining and informative. I could read from the encyclopedia and inform you but that would be boring, wouldn't it? So I try to treat every night as a learning experience in an entertaining fashion. It may be conversational in tone, but it is not a conversation. It is a Q & A.
Question from What: Have you learned a lot from working at CNN?
Larry King: I learn every day. Someone once said, "I never learned anything when I was talking." Boy, is that true. So, every night I get to have the experience of meeting interesting people, newsmakers, movers and shakers, wannabes, failures and successes, and I'm kind of a witness to history. Sure, every day is a learning experience. And they pay me for it! I tell you the truth, I wouldn't trade places with anyone in broadcasting.
Question from Suzie: Larry, have you ever been at a loss for words?
Larry King: Go back to the Robert Mitchum answer. Usually I'm not, because I'm so intensely curious. By the way, I don't take any credit for that attribute. I was born with it. I remember as a child, asking bus drivers why they wanted to drive a bus, asking policemen why they wanted to be cops. I was always interested in the whys. It's hard to run out of things to ask, especially if you begin most questions with the word "why."
By the way, this is a good tip for anybody in our chat room. If you ask a question that begins with the word "why," it can't be answered in one word. Well, there's one exception. I asked Robert Mitchum a question that began with "why" and his answer was, "Because."
Question from Greg: Twenty years ago, prior to your joining the network, what did you think of the concept of a 24-hour network dedicated to news? A lot of people didn't think it would work -- not enough content to fill a broadcast day.
Larry King: I agreed with those people. When it started, I didn't give it much of a chance. In fact, when I joined CNN, we didn't have cable in Washington then, so I had only seen the channel on rare occasions. The only thing I did know was that Ted Turner is one of the extraordinary figures of the 20th century and I would never, therefore, bet against him.
When I would interview him on my radio show or my local television show before I joined CNN, he always impressed me with his faith in himself. So, while I personally didn't think it would work, at the same time, I had a lot of faith in Ted Turner. The latter proved correct.
Chat Moderator: Now that the first 15 years have passed, where do you see yourself in another 15 years?
Larry King: Hopefully, alive. This current contract ends at the beginning of 2002. I would expect that there is probably one more long-term deal coming that would probably take me to age 72. If my health stays good, and I watch my health every day, I'll then think about what comes after that. But as long as I'm still loving what I do and enjoying my life so much, I can't see changing anything in the short term or long term, for that matter. I don't feel my age.
Although, I'll close by telling you of an experience I had a couple of weeks ago that really shook me. I got my first social security check! On the outside of the envelope was a box. It said, "Check this box if deceased and return to sender." How in the world could I do that, if I weren't there?
Anyway, it was nice chatting with you. By the way, tonight we have another first. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker will be on together for the whole hour. It's their first time together on the media since he was in prison and since they were divorced. At the end of the show, their two new spouses will appear.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today!
Larry King: Thanks to everybody. Great being in this chat room. Sort of like going back to radio, where we'd just take calls. I wish we could do that on television. You had wonderful questions! Bye!
Larry King joined the CNN@20 chat by telephone from California. CNN provided a typist for Mr. King. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.
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