2:07pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Appreciation: Larry King, an Interviewer Who Earned His Cultural Ubiquity
Like many viewers, I was aware of Larry King as a character before I had any awareness of who Larry King was as a newsman.
Larry King, after all, was in Ghostbusters playing Larry King, one of the first times he would appear in a fictional TV show or movie in that indelible role. This was back in 1984 and Larry King wasn't even LARRY KING at that point. He was an established and beloved figure who had gone from Florida-centric popularity to all-night radio celebrity, but that was before his 25-year run as host of Larry King Live on CNN.
Already, though, King represented what he always would: He was a figure so central to the daily existence of some audiences that his mere presence constituted a tether to reality; if you put him on-camera as himself, even discussing something as outlandish as a rise in paranormal activity in New York City, he acted as a one-man grounding device.
It's a type of fame that borders on unique, one very different from the fame achieved by even the biggest movie stars. It's a fame acquired via thousands upon thousands of hours of an unwritten contract with audiences. In the past six months, we've lost three figures who had that type of ubiquity — figures so excellent at what they did that they transcended their occupation and became avatars for something much bigger. If you were making a movie or television show in the past 40+ years, having Regis Philbin, Alex Trebek or Larry King make a cameo as themselves became a shorthand to signal to your audience that your fictional universe and their real universe intersected.
They hobnobbed with Muppets, were sketched into The Simpsons and were affectionately parodied on Saturday Night Live. If there's a Mount Rushmore of personalities whose appearances as themselves formed a complex tapestry interweaving fact and fiction, Philbin, King and Trebek share it with the same humility they often conveyed on-screen.
The fact is that you can't reach that rare "As Himself" tier if you aren't tremendously good at your job and, perhaps even more than that, if you aren't tremendously committed to your job. We speak of the Philbins, the Trebeks, the Kings in terms of a mind-boggling volume of work, held to consistent standards over decades. Trebek hosted over 8,000 episodes of Jeopardy. Philbin holds a literal Guinness World Record for most hours on U.S. television. Again, it's not enough to simply be famous or excellent. Television is a medium characterized by its omnipresence and serial nature — by the way that, unlike a movie or a movie star, a TV host could be part of your morning routine or your dinnertime ritual every night.
Larry King hosted 6,120 episodes of his CNN show and he interviewed everybody. He talked to presidents and international leaders. He probed newly notorious figures plucked from the headlines that day, and legends who invariably would regale King with stories they never felt comfortable telling elsewhere. The seriousness with which King would treat a Vladimir Putin or a Marlon Brando or a Tammy Faye Messner or a Johnny-come-lately sensation would be roughly the same, and that seriousness carried over to Larry King interviews featured in movies like The Long Kiss Goodnight or Dave or more scripted TV shows to count. Seeing Larry King pop up as himself in a piece of entertainment was proof for the viewer that whatever happened in that story was worthy of attention and consideration, because Larry King would interview all types of people, but he wouldn't interview just anybody.
King's CNN show might have ended in 2010, but he never stopped interviewing people, usually in insightful and illuminating fashion. And occasionally not. Sometimes a comedy show would make fun of King for his repetitive queries, and a semi-recent interview with Danny Pudi recently went viral for the actor's incredulous "Larry, I'm on Ducktales" response to a silly prompt. I don't think anybody ever meant anything malicious by the jesting, though. If you interview everybody, you're going to end up with every type of interview, some revelatory and others meme-worthy.
One of the things about an increasingly fragmented media landscape is that the Kings, Trebeks and Philbins will become even rarer. Their equivalents today, even the best-known among them, ultimately represent less, and to a smaller group of people. Let's never lose track of the respect we have, consciously or unconsciously, for a certain kind of professionalism and work ethic. Larry King became LARRY KING by excelling at being Larry King.