Even on his last show, with a gang of stars and Larry King Live regulars turned out to send him off, Larry King seemed to have an easier time talking about other people than talking about himself. Receiving tribute from former President Bill Clinton, he turned the conversation toward Clinton’s stint behind the White House podium with Barack Obama last week. A so-long from Suze Orman turned into speculation about the future of Oprah’s OWN network, launching January 1.
And even as King kicked off his final LKL, it came with one of his trademark whiplash transitions: “Welcome to the last Larry King Live. It’s hard to say that. I knew this day was coming, but these words are not easy to say—Bill Maher! Is the host of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO!” Maher started to laugh, unsure whether King was saying that Maher’s own name was what was not easy to say.
“That’s Larry King, right?” King said. “Go right to it!”
The show was vintage King right to the end, befitting a talk show that from the beginning 25 years ago, for all its news focus, was steeped in radio, old Hollywood and nostalgia. “This is not Larry’s funeral,” Maher said, which was true enough, but the show did have the air of a family commemoration. King received kudos from regular guests and peers of a certain era—Regis Philbin, Donald Trump, Tony Bennett—while Maher presided like the racy uncle restraining himself for a serious occasion and Ryan Seacrest sat by earnestly, Hollywood’s dutiful grandson. (Seacrest, a longtime King substitute, had been thought a possible replacement instead of Piers Morgan, so his presence was notable, if not a purposeful statement.)
The undertone of the show was, of course, that King was leaving the air, and—given his and guests’ repeated statements that he would be back to do specials—maybe did not want to leave as soon as he was. His ratings at CNN have been no secret. But if King ended his CNN run as a host not very well watched, he was still a personality very well-liked: even if you didn’t watch his show, there was something comforting about knowing that he was out there somewhere doing it.
So the celebrity tweets rolled in at the bottom of the screen—Jimmy Fallon, Mariah Carey, Joan Rivers (“I can’t tell you how sad this makes me”), Jenny McCarthy (“I’ll miss your sexy ass!”), Snoop Dogg and many more—in gratitude for 25 years of provinging a friendly, not-too-intrusive conversational platform. Arnold Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, thanked King for keeping a lot of jobs in California, as King, eyes moist and lips pinched in a tight smile, seemed to rein in his emotion.
The farewell show was peppered with surprise guests and off-kilter live moments. SNL’s Fred Armisen came on by satellite, mimicking King in the same black shirt and Mickey-Mouse-polka-dot tie, asking King questions about “myself,” which King, characteristically, mostly deflected to his guests. Katie Couric read a poem: “As you hang up your suspenders on your dressing room door/ I speak for us all when I say we want more.” And as Clinton came on, King mentioned that they were both members of “the zipper club,” to uncomfortable laughter; it seemed to refer back to Armisen’s question about whether King preferred zipper or button flies—as well as to places Clinton presumably does not want to go in an interview—until King explained he was alluding to their open-heart surgery.
The send-off ended on a personal note, as King appeared with his family (the current one), wife Shawn and sons Chance and Cannon, the latter of whom did a dead-on imitation of his pops. (“I’m too old for this!”) There was plenty of talk of his having more time to take the kids to ballgames, but even the family conversation returned to the theme of King going back to work. “You’re going to do specials here, and you’re going to try to get on MLB network,” Cannon told King. “And if it doesn’t work, we’re going to get you a paper route!” added Shawn.
I’m not a mind-reader, but this sounded like a family who knew that King, in his heart of hearts, would rather keep going, had time, the evolution of cable news and the primetime fortunes of CNN not intervened. And in the end, the not-a-funeral approach was the only one imaginable one for a guy who, after all, once told Conan O’Brien that he would like to be cryogenically preserved upon his death. “You’re not going to see me go away,” he said, his voice even huskier than usual. “But you’re not going to see me on this set anymore.”
Then he gave his audience the closest thing to a goodbye he could allow: “How about so long?”