I realize its become something of a sport to mock Larry King for various things: his suspenders, his lack of research, his voice, his glasses, you name it: over the years comedians have had a blast poking fun at the man. But as Larry prepares to hang up his suspenders I'd like to set the jokes aside and pay tribute to the man who by the sheer number of interviews he's done, alone, will be remembered as the premiere interviewer of the last quarter century.
I'm one of the few people who've had the good fortune to turn the tables on Larry by interviewing him and it remains an unforgettable experience. It was 1996 and I had been in touch with Larry's staff about interviewing him for a talk show that I was hosting at the time which aired in Asia. One day while traveling abroad I checked my answering machine and heard a message from Larry's then-publicist Julie Mortz telling me that he was ready to talk. But I was 5,000 miles away and wouldn't be back til the following Monday, I told her. She said she'd get back to me and later called to say it was no problem, that Larry would stay in L.A. over the weekend if I'd get back on Monday to tape on Tuesday.
I puzzled over that one for a few days: Why would the great Larry King change his schedule to sit for an interview for a show that wouldn't even air on American TV? And then it occurred to me: he had spent a lifetime interviewing others and rarely got to be interviewed himself.
As a general rule, most talk show hosts don't allow themselves to be interviewed on their own sets but Larry generously allowed me to climb on to his and I began what was, for a 28-year old talk-show-host newbie with a mere four years under my belt, the experience of a lifetime. Although I carefully maintained my composure for the cameras, about halfway through I briefly contemplated leaving the set when it suddenly occurred to me that interviewing Larry King was sort of like playing one-on-one with Shaq. What had I gotten myself into I wondered.
I learned a lot of important lessons from my short time with Larry. Here are a few words of wisdom that have stayed with me:
"Be yourself. If I try to be now what I'm not, like if I want to make my voice deeper, or sound erudite, or knowledgeable about everything...the minute I become that I'm not me. I'm always me."
"I never learned anything when I was talking."
"People who say it can't be done are names you don't know."
I also learned a few things about Larry King the man that day, that his greatest disappointment as a talk show host was his inability to book Pope John Paul II as a guest. I also learned something about him that helped me understand why of all the guests Larry had on his show over the years, it always seemed as if he had the hardest time interviewing born-again Christians, as though they were simply incomprehensible to him.
Describing his upbringing in New York he noted:"The only thing we didn't have was Protestants. We had Catholics and Blacks and Jews but no Protestants. I didn't know what a Protestant was."
Throughout the interview (posted here) Larry was a gentleman and gave me the gift of a lifetime by looking me squarely in the eyes at the end of our brief time together and saying, "Great working with you Mark. You're outstanding."
So, 14 years later, let me return the compliment: It was great working with you Larry. Thanks for all the great interviews. You are outstanding.