“I can’t believe I’m gonna be 80. I can’t f–kin’ believe I’m gonna be f–kin’ 80.“
So says Larry King, who on a recent Thursday afternoon was sitting under the lights of Keith Olbermann’s ESPN studio in Times Square. “When I was a kid, no one was 80. People died when they were 67.” King doesn’t look 80—or 79, for that matter, since the pivotal birthday arrives on Nov. 19—so much as he looks like Larry King. For 30 years, Larry King has looked like Larry King: aquiline, suspendered (Turnbull and Asser, the same outfit that dresses the English royals), more head than torso. He’s got a mug on the desk, and iced coffee in that mug.
Olbermann was out in Atlanta on assignment, hosting TBS’s studio coverage for the MLB playoffs, so ESPN executive editor John Walsh, an old pal, tapped King to fill in for three shows. Thursday, for his last show, his guests are Athletics manager Bob Melvin and Lions running back Reggie Bush, both appearing via satellite, and the co-hosts of ESPN’s First Take, Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, both in studio. “I’d love to do it again. It’s been a hoot,” King says. When Olbermann hosts, the show airs live at 11 p.m. King’s version instead tapes piecemeal between 3 and 5 p.m.
He first tapes the bumpers, the brief segments on either side of a commercial break, then the Melvin remote. After that, he pops on a brown Borsalino and gets to talking about gambling, for his opening monologue. “Last year I had a great run picking games on my Twitter account. I got 2,600,000 followers. I hit 80 percent — with the points!” He tells some wild stories about the 1970s Dolphins, and a pal of his who lost 20 grand on an NFL bad beat. From quick glances at his teleprompter, I can tell that all the color in King’s monologue comes straight from his head. (“I’m flying on a plane with Don Shula…”) Only the skeleton of the story is laid out before him. He finishes the bit with a flourish, tossing a newspaper behind him.
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“Cal: that work?” King’s asking one of the men in his retinue, Esquire’s Cal Fussman. Fussman wrote two books with King, and brought him the hat today. (An early present for King’s 80th.) Fussman points back with both hands. “Larry’s like John Coltrane. No broadcaster can improvise like he can.”
Next comes the Reggie Bush interview. The satellite feed keeps freezing, sticking temporarily on a delayed image of Bush. (Because it’s a Thursday night, the busted video poses a special problem: NFL rules prohibit the use of game highlights while a game plays on another channel.) But King thinks it went well, he tells his producer. He was especially happy with the question he asked about being a running back—”What’s it like, for you, when you see that opening? When you know, there it is?” — even though it elicited a giggle from its subject. To King, it’s a signature question, something no one else would ever ask on television.
“We coulda done Bush longer,” King says.
“Well, there was the visual problem,” his producer replies.
“There was one little glitch.”
“No, there were a lot.”
“I didn’t notice a lot,” King replies.
“I did. It’s not your fault. It’s our fault.”
“Why didn’t I see that here?”
“I don’t know. You should have. It’s bad.” The producer departs.
“God, I said I thought it happened once.”
King moves on. He’s got a bunch of typed notecards laid out before him for the Bayless and Smith interview, the last thing he’ll tape for ESPN. The cards are his “blanket.” He plans to freewheel otherwise. He and Smith are friendly; he knows Bayless’s newspaper work well; and he watches their show often. “I love it. They’re a married couple gone astray,” he says.
Smith bounds in from makeup, and King greets him with all kinds of hype. “There he is! The dapper Dan! The suave one! My man!” “Larry! How ya doin, buddy? Long time no speak.” “Are you still writing? I think Kornheiser writes once a week for the Post. Does Wilbon still write?”
Soon they get to comparing watches. King’s is modest, with a leather band. Smith’s is gaudy as can be. King wants a closer look.
“It’s just a Bulova. That’s all it is, Larry.”
“A Bulova? Come on. That’s a Rolex.”
“No, trust me, when I’m trying to tell you. I don’t make your money, man.”
“Bulova? Please. That thing is signaling ships.”
But Bayless is taking a while with his makeup, running behind Smith, and King is getting impatient. “Can we get started, guys? I’ve gotta run do an interview from here. I’m doing Brian Williams’ daughter today.” King still does a half-hour interview show on Ora.TV, a venture he started with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. “I’ve never seen Girls. But I hear it’s good!”
“Where is Skip? Hey, Cal, do you see Skip? I got a time problem here. Is he comin’?” Smith: “My sisters take a shorter time. Good lord.”
Finally Bayless turns up. “Bayless! Thanks for humbling us with your appearance.” They quickly get to taping. It’s a relaxed discussion, detached from the shtick that characterizes First Take. They explain their partnership, how Bayless stood up for Smith when ESPN had soured on him. In Larry King’s presence, they almost turn genuine.
When Skip, Stephen A., and Larry have exhausted much of their time together, he wants to ask about something else.
King: “Don’t you miss newsprint, though? Real paper?”
Smith: “Of course you miss it, but… in two seconds, you can find out what’s going on 3,000 miles away. The newspaper, the print, they’re printing the night before. You’ve got it on your doorstep, but you don’t have the up-to-date news that happened an hour ago or even five minutes ago.”
King: “But they’ve got background.”
Smith: “And you can use them for background. But you can go online and get background, too.”
King, an early pioneer of national talk radio and cable television who makes his living broadcasting online these days and has nearly as many Twitter followers as Jamaica has islanders, isn’t ready to leave print behind. “I miss USA Today. Boy, I had such fun with that once a week. 20 years I did that column.”
“It’s sad, isn’t it?” he asks Bayless and Smith. The two scribes-turned-TV-pundits are not so elegiac.
King wraps up the segment with a few questions for the pair about surprises in the NFL, and their World Series predictions. Then it’s over, and the three leave the stage. While Smith and Bayless chat with assembled guests, Larry King says his goodbyes and slips off. He’s in a hurry.
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