[2 August 2009]
Even if you don’t watch television, you probably know who Larry King is: he’s the ubiquitous guy with the suspenders and the receding hairline. And if do follow television, you probably know him as one of the most stable presences in a medium not known for its constancy: he’s been host of the interview program Larry King Live on CNN since 1985, and claims to have conducted over 40,000 interviews in a career dating back to the ‘50s.
There’s probably a fascinating book to be written about how Larry Zeiger, an apparently unremarkable kid born in Brooklyn in 1933 to Jewish immigrants from Belarus, became host of one of the most popular shows on CNN. But you won’t find that story in My Remarkable Journey, a book which by any literary or historical standard is not remarkable at all and doesn’t make King’s journey seem all that remarkable either. Instead, it’s a fairly standard celebrity biography featuring King performing his crowd-pleasing shtick, this time in print and assisted by Cal Fussman, whose name appears on the title page but not on the cover.
King’s greatest asset may have been an instinct for being in the right place at the right time. A mediocre student, he worked a variety of odd jobs after high school while hoping to find a way to get into broadcasting. Hanging around the CBS building in Manhattan, one day he accosted staff announcer James Sirmons and asked him how to break into the business. Sirmons’ advice: head for Miami, an expanding and less competitive market where “people are either on the way out or they’re on the way up”.
Hoping to join those on the way up, King got on a bus for Florida with 18 dollars in his pocket. Fortunately he had an uncle to stay with, and just as Sirmons had promised the broadcast market was wide-open. The “guy in charge” at WAHR, a small radio station, liked King’s voice enough to tell him to stick around for the next opening. When one of the morning deejays quit, King got his slot and on 1 May 1957, the voice of Larry King was first heard on America’s airwaves. It was the debut of his new name as well: advised that Zeiger was too “ethnic”, King picked his new moniker from a liquor store advertisement.
King’s next big break came when he went to work for WKAT. Charlie Bookbinder, owner of Pumpernik’s Jewish deli, offered King the chance to broadcast live for an hour each day from the restaurant. At first King interviewed anyone who was available, which at first was mostly the restaurant staff and customers. Then one day Bobby Darrin walked in, and then Jimmy Hoffa and Danny Thomas, and before long the show was a hit and King was a local celebrity. If there’s one lesson to take away from this phase of King’s career, it’s that it’s all well and good to hone your interview skills on ordinary folks, but if you want your show to become popular (and if you want to become famous) you’d better get some celebrities on the hook as well.
And onward and upward: King intersperses tales of his broadcasting career with tidbits about his personal life and anecdotes about some of the famous people he has known and worked with. But be forewarned: there’s nothing in this book which would upset the average great-grandmother. That’s sort of disappointing since you’d think a guy who has been married eight times and has one child he didn’t meet until the kid was in his 30s would have at least a little dirt to spill. But King knows his fan base and they like it clean, so clean is what you get in My Remarkable Journey.
I’m sure young people seeking media careers are pondering the basic unfairness of life by this point. One of the biggest names on television today didn’t have to fool around with college applications and unpaid internships: he got his first job because someone liked his voice and a steady stream of opportunities followed from that. But there’s an important message in his story as well: it’s good to be good, but it’s better to be lucky. King may have been born to his profession—his childhood nickname was “Zeke the Creek the Mouthpiece” because he never stopped talking—and he certainly worked hard at the opportunities which he got. But the most important factor in his career was probably the decade of his birth. I suspect it’s no coincidence that Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer, Robin McNeill, and Peter Jennings were all born within a few years of each other, so they came to maturity as television broadcasting was in its infancy and could develop their careers at the same time the new medium was expanding.
My Remarkable Journey is not a bad read if you’re a fan of King’s show, or if you enjoy a sentimental tale liberally salted with celebrity names and personal confessions which don’t reveal all that much. Just don’t expect anything particularly surprising or insightful: this autobiography is just another link of sausage extruded from the show biz factory.