The king of interviews says that the secret is to make the guest feel comfortable, not put him on the defensive side and always ask “why?”
Tania Menai, in New York
At 7 years old, Larry Zeiger, a typical Jewish boy from Brooklyn, New York, already had a nickname:“ Mouthpiece”. Years later, at 23, he was living in Miami when was hired by a local radio station. However, the radio’s director found his last name too ethnic and difficult to memorize. Inspired by an ad of the King liquor store, printed on the Miami Herald on his desk, the director immediately had an idea. The young man would be Larry King. Since then, over 40,000 people have passed in front of his microphone – some of them, before CNN’s TV cameras, the cable channel of which Larry, as his guests call him, became the trade mark. At age 68, Larry had the best moments of his 45 years career celebrated on TV - however, it is a hard task to pick them. Larry King had already interviewed all the American presidents alive, not to mention world leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela. The celebrities list includes Madonna, Michael Jordan, Prince, John Kennedy Jr and, obviously, Pelé. Expert in setting a fun, yet controlled, atmosphere, he shows here that he is as good as a guest as he is as an interviewer.
Veja – You say that “why?” is the best question of an interview. Why?
King – Because this question cannot be answered with a single word. It forces the guest to think and to elaborate the answer with depth. And for the interviewer, it is essential to know how to listen. I always pay attention to what the guest is saying. I’m forced to do so, also because a good answer leads to another question. Being a good listener is as important as asking good questions.
Veja – Which is the question that you regret not having asked and to whom?
King – It was long ago. It was to John Sculley, the head of Apple Computers. He was hired by the company’s founder, Steve Jobs. Sculley had gained a lot of power. We spoke on the radio live for two hours. After he left, a man called in and said: “Larry, Sculley fired Steve Jobs and you didn’t ask him anything about that!” I should have known about it, since I’m well read; but I had no idea. This episode bothered me a lot; I shouldn’t let this escape. But no one ever did the perfect interview. It is always missing something.
Veja – And what about the question you regret having asked?
King – Once, still in the radio, in the beginning of my career, I asked a priest how many kids he had. It was a very awkward situation.
Veja – Given the church’s recent scandals, today this question wouldn’t be that bad...
King – See? I was only ahead of my time!
Veja – Which was the most unexpected answer you ever got?
King – Frank Sinatra saying that he still got nervous right before going on stage. Despite all he had reached in his life, there was still that moment of insecurity, of not being sure whether he still had some voice. Also, Barbra Streisand, who has this amazing talent, is always insecure. She thinks she’s only ok and that she could be much better. That surprised me.
Veja – What makes your guests feel so comfortable?
King – CNN is a very well known brand in the whole world. The guests know that they will be treated with fairness as well as be able to transmit their messages without being edited, given that the program is live. Also, I have never been sued and they know that whatever they say, will be heard in India, Brazil or California. The program format is also very human – it’s not a judgment or a press conference. Once, an actor told me that he likes when people ask him unusual questions because it makes him think. A good interview forces the guest to think.
Veja – You asked Bill Clinton how he controlled himself emotionally during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Was it difficult for you to ask such a personal question to a president?
King – It was very difficult. However the wrong question would have been: “what happened between you and Monica?".This way, you put the guest on the defensive side and never reach the truth. But if you surround the subject, and ask about reactions, feelings, you’re not insinuating anything. Whenever we face any extraordinary event, like September 11, or a president in trouble, we have to think: “what would I do if a relative was in the Twin Towers?” or “How would I react if I was caught having an extra conjugal relationship?” We all think about that.
Veja – You had also touched on delicate subjects, like drugs, in the case of the actor Dennis Quaid, and alcohol, in Liza Minelli’s. How do they feel talking about their weaknesses on TV?
King – Most of the people that recovered from an addiction like to talk about it. It’s a good therapy for them. I don’t care about people’s personal lives, unless the subjects are making headlines.
Veja – To Paul McCartney you asked if he thought that John Lennon gained more recognition than him, throughout their careers.
King – It was a fair question. The passage of time allowed me to ask that. I don’t know if I’d ask him that question the day after Lennon was murdered. Maybe I would, but in a different way. I don’t have problems asking these questions. It’s important to make the guest comfortable and to know the limit you can take him. And Paul McCartney was very receptive in that interview. When it happens, you take the guest wherever you want. Once someone told me: “You make the camera and the microphone disappear”. That’s a sign that we set a connection with the guest. It’s also important to show real interest for the answers. Clinton must notice that I really want to know how he feels. Paul McCartney must see that I want to know what it is to belong to a famous group, in which someone else takes more credit than you. When you ask it without criticizing them, it’s easy to get the answer.
Veja – What about when you asked ex-president Richard Nixon what he had thought each time he passed in front of the Watergate building, in Washington?
King – That’s what I call “logical question”. That’s something that everyone thinks about. “How do you feel when you see the building where your presidency was ruined?” And he gave me a great answer: “I was never inside that building – but, unfortunately, other people were”.
Veja – You said once that what you really love is to interview comedians. Why?
King – I love to laugh. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. Comedians make us laugh. I have fun and also like to make other people laugh. Making speeches is what gives me the most pleasure. In these occasions, I only tell funny stories. To make people laugh is like a love affair. It’s possible to get the immediate reaction from the public, make 1800 people laugh out loud. It’s euphoric. That doesn’t happen on TV.
Veja – Recently, your program has been receiving guests who say they talk to dead people’s spirits, including relatives from the viewers. Is that what people like to watch?
King – I’m open to everything, but I don’t pick the guests myself. The producers do. I don’t believe or disbelieve in anything. I only ask questions and let the viewers get to their own conclusions. For instance, I have no idea whether there’s life after death. I hope they are right and that there is really another life. So it would be stupid of my part to make fun of them. A lot of people believe that the mediums are right. Secretly, however, they don’t. Deeply, they believe that when we die, we’re gone. But to believe in life after death is a need, a crutch. I would love to believe in that, so I won’t make jokes about the people who do.
Veja – And how to interview an guest who has “extra-powers”?
King – Once, I couldn’t stop laughing when I interviewed a very serious author who said he had been abducted to space. His book was a great success and the producers told me only that it was about the space. So I thought it had to do with astronomy. When I sat in front of him, the author said he had been taken to the space, but, before, small creatures had entered all holes of his body. I lost it, and couldn’t stop laughing. I was hitting the desk and laughing nonstop. I was lucky he didn’t take my reaction in a bad way.
Veja – Do you speak other languages besides English?
King – No. I’m terrible in other languages. I’d studied Spanish at school and the teacher said: “Larry, stand up and say ‘I have a headache’”. So I stood up and said: ‘Yo tengo un headachecario’ - I was coming up with the word. So he took a piece of chalk at threw towards my forehead. Then I stopped studying it. Later, I took Italian, learned some songs, but I can’t speak anything. I simply don’t have a flair for other languages. Not even for English!
Veja – Why is the public so fascinated by celebrities?
King – Because a large part of the population doesn’t have a fascinating life and imagine that famous people live in an eternal spectacular atmosphere. Sometimes, people are shocked when they see me walking in the streets. Why wouldn’t I? People also ask themselves what they would do if they were rich. A lot of people think about that. They think that the rich can do things they can’t, which means, buy whatever they want. The sports lovers imagine how it would be to kick a soccer ball. It’s a world phenomenon. The famous people become famous for their own celebrity. Ozzy Osbourne is a celebrity, the same way Madre Teresa is.
Veja – Have you ever felt intimidated by someone very famous?
King – Yes, in the first two minutes after meeting Frank Sinatra. He was my idol; I always saw his shows as a kid. I also felt intimidated the first time I interviewed a president at the White House. However this goes away after we start talking. In the case of Marlon Brando, he picked me up and took me for a ride before the interview. It was a little intimidating, because he was driving and there I was, in Marlon Brando’s car. But you get over it, as the ball is in your hand, the program is yours, you’re the one making the questions - so the control is yours.
Veja – And how to keep this control?
King – There is no way to lose it, because the program is live and I chose the questions. If the guest goes berserk, you can always say “we come back after the break” or “thanks for coming, good night”.
Veja –You interviewed all the American presidents alive. Did they tell you anything new?
King – Ronald Reagan told me that he didn’t know that he was shot until he got to the hospital (in 1981). He didn’t feel the bullet in his body and thought the pain was the result of the bodyguards pushing him towards the floor. Jimmy Carter admitted that he cried on the evening he found out he would lose the Presidency. George Bush, the father, showed me his driver license when I asked which state he votes in. During an interview with Clinton at the White House, it had come in the news that Vince Foster, his friend and juridical assistant, had committed suicide. We had to cut the interview short, because the producers were concerned that he would get the news during the show. So they only told us after the talk. It was unforgettable.
Veja – Who is the person you still want to interview?
King – The Pope. I doubt he would have physical conditions, he’s very weak now. But he fascinates me, because he is so conservative on the religion side and so liberal on the political side – he is almost a socialist. He was shot, he speaks several languages, writes plays and poems, he lived both in the period of Hitler and Stalin. It’s a fascinating life. A pope who grew up surrounded by Jews – most of his childhood friends were Jews.
Veja – Do you consider yourself a journalist?
King – Some days, I’m a journalist; some others I’m an entertainer. We call it “infotainment”. We try to make journalism in an entertainment format. It’s like Veja magazine, which is colored. Color has nothing to do with journalism, right? The magazine could be black and white that we’d get to know everything in the same way. But the colors are the entertainment. I like when some journalists criticize their colleagues for not behaving like journalists. “Why does he need a beautiful tie if he can wear a T-shirt?”, “Why does he need a teleprompter if he can read the paper?”, “Why there’s a blue light behind him?”. Because it’s entertainment. The news is the news. I’m a journalist who provides information in a way that entertains.
(Published in Veja Magazine – Brazil – June 12, 2002. Circulation: 1,3 million copies. Copyrights Abril.)
[ copyright © 2004 by Tania Menai ]