Q&A: Larry King on asking simple questions and listening closely

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. It can be informative, entertaining, thoughtful. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This episode features Larry King, longtime television and radio show host. An edited transcript is below.

THE BIRTH OF A BROADCASTER

Jesse Thorn: So my first question was, when was the first time that you realized you were an interviewer? I know you always wanted to be a broadcaster.

Larry King: Oh, since I was five years old I wanted to be on the radio. I just wanted to be an announcer. I wanted to be anything. I wanted to talk into a microphone. I don’t know why, I must have had a good voice pre-puberty. Because people kept telling me, “You gotta be on the radio.” So I would imitate radio shows. I would listen to The Shadow, and then I would go into my bathroom—we were very poor in Brooklyn—and I would go, “Who know what evil lurks in the heart of men? ‘The Shadow’ knows. A tale well-calculated to keep you in…suspense.” I was driven by the sounds. Still am. And I knocked around a while, didn’t go to college. My father had died when I was very young. I worked at a bunch of odd jobs, finally went down to Miami, broke in on a small station.

Jesse: So this is the part that I want to interject on. Because one of the things I am interested in is you mentioned you were really poor in Brooklyn.

Larry: Very.

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Jesse: This couldn’t be further from the entertainment industry, the radio industry, or whatever. So what gave you the idea, “Oh, I could actually do this”?

Larry: Just by listening, imitating. It stroked something in me, that I was comfortable with it. Had I not done it, I would have been a standup comic. I love making people laugh. I do a lot of speaking. But I just wanted to be on the radio, in any capacity.

I thought eventually it would be sports because I’m a sports freak. And I love all sports, and I love going to sports events. I’ve broadcast Dolphin games, and I’ve done baseball. I thought I’d be a sportscaster. Red Barber, the Dodger announcer, was one of my heroes, as was Arthur Godfrey, who I later worked with. But I went to Miami, got a job at a small station. I was a disc jockey for about a year and a half. Playing records, doing news in the afternoon, sports broadcasts—fifty dollars a week I was making. And there was a restaurant in Miami Beach called Pumpernick’s, a very popular restaurant. And their slow time of the day was 10 to 11 in the morning, because it wasn’t breakfast, it wasn’t lunch. And the owner of the restaurant used to listen to me in the morning, doing my morning show, usually very funny, a lot of humor. And he said, “Would you like to do a radio show from my restaurant from 10 to 11 when I don’t get crowds? We might build up some crowds.” The station went for it because he paid the station. I got a little extra. So every day I’d finish my shift, 6 to 9, drive up to Pumpernick’s, and do 10 to 11. And I would interview waiters, and there was no producer on the show, you know people would just call people up from the audience. And then one day, out of nowhere, Bobby Darin—the great Bobby Darin—walked in. “Mack the Knife” was the number one [song]. And I interviewed him for an hour. Later we walked down the street down Collins Avenue, and he said to me, “You’ve interviewed before?” I said, “No, I just talk to regular people.” And he said, “I think you ought to take this up seriously because you really have a knack.”

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SIMPLE QUESTIONS

Jesse: Well, that’s what I was going to say. I mean I think one of the things about your interview style that’s special is that you’re a very modest interviewer. Like you are not afraid to ask a simple question, a “what is this” question.

Larry: They’re the best. Because when you think—I watch some of these press conferences, and the question takes longer than the answer. And the people show off. There was no showing off. [The] New Yorker did a piece on me, called it “Street Questions.” I’m a guy in the street. Hey! What are you doin’?

So, when the Gulf War was on, and we would have guests on every night associated with the war: writers, politicians, generals. And I always asked the same question: What happened today? I wasn’t there. You were there. You were covering it. What happened? That’s the simplest question in the world. Why’d you do this? What happened? I don’t know more law than a lawyer. I don’t know more politics than a politician. I don’t, I have opinions. But I’ve never run for office. I’ve never argued a case in front of a jury. I don’t know more medicine than a doctor, I’ve never operated. I’ve never done science. I ask questions of scientists. I’m a layman. I’m a pure layman who’s intensely curious. What I do have is a sense of pace. I know when something’s going well, I know how to draw people out. But I don’t think I could teach a course in it. I don’t know that I have a method. I just know that I go to the basics.

And from the basics, you learn a lot, and you can bring people. One of the best examples I can give is my first interview with Frank Sinatra, who didn’t do a lot of interviews. Jackie Gleason got him for me. And his PR guy said to me, “Frank doesn’t do these things. He’s doing it as a favor to Jackie Gleason. But one thing: do not bring up the kidnapping of his son. He doesn’t want to talk about it, he will not talk about it.” I thought, that’s fair, I don’t have to bring it up, OK.

In the middle of the interview, we’re really in touch. And I asked him, “The thing with you and the press—is it overdone, or have you been bum rapped?” He says, “Well, it might have been overdone. But I’ve been bum rapped. Take my son’s kidnapping.” He brought it up. I just was asking good questions. And that’s the framework of which I like to work. I don’t have to know a great deal about [it]. In fact, my favorite guests are people I don’t know at all. I like doing physicists; I know nothing about physics. I like doing astronomers, because I don’t know about the heavens, but I wonder about them. What is an astronomer when he walks down the street and looks up? What does he think about?

LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN

Jesse: Are you always listening for that little something that stands out? That little interesting bit that you can pull on a little?

Larry: Yeah. Because the key of interviewing is listening. If you don’t listen, you’re not a good interviewer. I hate interviewers who come with a long list of prepared questions. Uh, because they’re going to depend on going from the fourth question to the fifth question without listening to the answer of the fourth question. Because they’re concentrating on what they’re going to ask for the fifth. And that’s not the way it works for me. So I concentrate solely on the answer, and I trust my instincts to come up with questions. Even if the answerer fully answered the question, I’m ready in my head to go somewhere with it. There’s no dead air.

Jesse: Do you get scared ever?

Larry: No. Only the first time I was on the air. I was playing records.They had just given me a new name, and I had my record ready to go, and all my life I had dreamed of this. And I turned down the mic, and I turned down the record, and nothing came out. And the general manager kicked open the door to the control room and said, “This is a communications business, dammit. Communicate!” And I put on the mic, and I said, “My name is Larry King.” That’s the first time I said that, because I had just been given that name, they thought my real name wasn’t good enough, and I’m very nervous, but all my life I had wanted to be in radio. I dreamed of this moment, and I had been scared. “So for two minutes, you’ve been listening to a record go up and down and nothing coming out, so please, bear with me.”

And I learned something that day, which later Arthur Godfrey would tell me, “You learned the whole secret of this business. The secret of what we’re doing right now is there’s no secret. Be yourself.” Be yourself. Answer honestly, be honest, be upfront with the audience. You can never go wrong. So what I did that day even though I wasn’t thinking that way. If you were listening that day, and I was reading a commercial and goofed, or miscued a record—it’s his first day! It’s his first day. I told that story in Canada once, and the guy said to me, “Well suppose you were walking down the hall at NBC. Someone grabbed you, sat you down, put some papers in front of you, and said, ‘Tom Brokaw is sick, you’re on.'” I would look at the camera and say, “I was walking down the hall at NBC. Someone just grabbed me handed me these papers, tells me Tom Brokaw’s sick, and I’m on.” I would then—trust me, I’ve never anchored news, I’ll do the best I can. Hey, it ain’t brain surgery.

LIVE INTERVIEWS

Larry: See, tape is a safety ground that I don’t want. Because I was born of the moment. I didn’t know Bobby Darin was coming in. I liked that. We used to do on my radio show—I had the first national radio talk show. We used to do a night which was “Who Is The Guest?” They would not tell me who the guest is. And this guy would walk in, I’ve got to do a two-hour interview, guy or woman, and all they have to do is tell me their name. And then I’d find out who they were, and then I’d ask them questions. I loved that. Because the less I know, the better. Now that sounds strange to people. Like if you wrote a book, I wouldn’t read the book before I interviewed you, because I would then know too much about the book. And I’m in the same boat as the audience, they haven’t read the book. So we’re all in this together. There’s no such thing as the perfect interview. Yes, you can miss something. No one’s ever done the perfect interview.

INTERVIEWING DIFFICULT SUBJECTS

Jesse: How does this work when you’re interviewing somebody that you don’t like?

Larry: That’s the hardest. You still have to do the best job you can. Sometimes you get confront—I’ve only got really confrontational with racists, racism. When I landed in Miami—I took a train down to Miami to, I lived with my uncle. I had 14 dollars in my pocket, and the first thing I saw was a ‘colored’ water fountain. And I didn’t understand that at all. There was a colored water fountain and a white water fountain. So I drank out of the colored water fountain. It was good. Then I got on a bus to go over to Miami Beach. And I sat in the back of the bus, and the bus driver stopped the bus, and he asked me to move forward. Of course, the back of the bus is for Negroes. I remember said to him, “My father’s a Negro, so I’m comfortable in the back of the bus.” Which was not true. So I never understood racism. Why would the pigment of skin mean anything? Anything? So when I had George Wallace on early, or the head of the Ku Klux Klan, or George Lincoln Rockwell, the anti-Semitic racist. That blew my mind, and I would get confrontational and sometimes have arguments. It’s not good to argue with the guest. Because it’s maybe interesting for the audience, but it puts you out of control. When you argue, you’re not in control. And I like to be—you’re in control, you’re in control of this interview, Jesse, not me. You. This is your interview. You’re in control; you could stop it, you could end it, you could go anywhere you want.

ON NOT HAVING AN AGENDA

Larry: If you have an agenda, you’re not gonna learn, in my opinion. I don’t learn anything when I watch shows in which the host and his guest are of one point of view, and that’s the whole thing. You know, so whether it’s Bill O’Reilly with an arch-conservative or Rachel Maddow with an arch-liberal, I don’t know anything. I know that Rachel Maddow stands for this and her guest stands for that, and they both agree. That’s a not a learning process to me. It’s not a real Q&A. A real Q&A takes me—I’m interested in a heart of a person. How people react to things. What’s it like to be a president and send someone to war. What’s it like at night when you get the statistics—132 killed today. How do you sleep?

Jesse: You know you’re describing it as an exercise in curiosity, but is it partly an exercise in empathy, and just wondering what other people’s lives are like?

Larry: Yeah that’s part of it, empathy, curiosity. Peter Ustinov, the great actor, told me he likes being interviewed because he gets to think about things he doesn’t think about. I don’t walk around thinking about the things you’ve just asked me. But it forces me to think about them. And therefore, I enjoy it. As much as I like asking questions, I like being asked, if they’re good questions and it causes me to be thoughtful. I’m not a texter, I don’t like texting. I like the sound of the human voice. I’m into voice. I like, something about the inflections in voice, that you don’t get in a transcript.

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BEING LARRY KING

Jesse: Do you think the fact that you’re Larry King affects the way that people react to you when you ask them questions?

Larry: It well might. Walter Cronkite told me that when you get famous, it gets harder. You know he was at the—in 1960, he went to the Texas caucuses at the convention. As soon as he walked in the room, they all stopped. Got autographs from him and stuff like that. It’s not what it’s supposed to be. So I guess that it’s happened. People get a little intimidated at the thought of it; they’re thrilled to meet you. Especially when I interview—like young rock stars, singers, young people who have listened to me as children. They come like a little in awe, I put them at ease right away, usually with humor. I use humor a lot. I kid around a lot, tell them the latest joke I’ve heard. I love telling jokes, I love jokes. Jokes are genius to me. Who, cartoons—you read The New Yorker cartoons?

Jesse: Mmhmm.

Larry: They’re genius. Genius! They had a cartoon once of two guys up against the wall. Nothing but loin cloths on. Handcuffed around the neck, the hands, and the feet. Attached, in the middle of the wall, attached to it. With nothing on, handcuffs on every parts of their body, and one says to the other, “Now, here’s my plan.” That’s funny.

ON AGE

Jesse: Is it different for you now that you are older than almost everyone you interview?
Larry: I know I’m 83. Eighty-goddamn-three! My father died in ’46. Whenever I got to be 46, I used to think I would die. At 53, I had a heart attack. Six months later had quintuple bypass. I’ve had type 2 diabetes. I’ve had prostate cancer. I have good medicine, good doctors. I take care of myself. But I have way—I’ll tell you—this is really weird. I have one insurance policy where I’ve already paid more than the face value of the policy. I out-bet the insurance company; they won. When you take out insurance, you’re betting you’re gonna die. They’re betting you’re gonna live, and they have the actuary. They’ve got the figures. Now how I got this policy after a heart attack and heart surgery, for two million dollars, it was. I’ve had other policies before that. And I already paid it in 20 years. No, 30 years. Thirty years, I had the heart attack 30 years ago, I’ve already paid the two million.

Jesse: The change in your life came around the time that you just describe, the time that you passed the age that your father died, and the time that you had a heart attack that nearly killed you.

Larry: Right. I joined CNN in ’85, had the heart attack in ’87. CNN is when I really blossomed, ’cause it was television, it was worldwide. I read the obits every day. And my biggest fear is death. I guess I’m an atheist, agnostic, I don’t believe in an afterlife. And since I can’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t want to die. Someone asked me the other day, “What do you want your obit to read?” I read obituaries every day. Today there was two 83s, an 81, an 87, and a 71. I see the ages right away. I wanted my obit to read, “Oldest man who ever lived passed away today. He was shot in the head and died immediately by an angry husband as he was sleeping with the former Playmate of the Year. He was 136 years old. It took three days to wipe the smile off his face.”

Jesse: Your wife’s Mormon, right?

Larry: Yeah. So they believe they’re going somewhere. And so she’s going to see me after I die. Now I can’t believe that. And what bugs me about it is, she’s going to handle the death pretty well. Because she knows she’s going to see me again. I want people to grieve. I would love to—if I die there is some spirit afterward—I’d love to see what’s going on. Because what I am is curious, and so if I die, will Trump finish four years? Will the Dodgers finally win a World Series after, since 1988?

The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

Photo credit: Amanda Edwards (Getty)

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.