Election night 1988 had lasted almost 'til sunrise. Now it was almost midnight on the night after — and Larry King was about to have his greatest, or at least most astonishing, on-air moment.
It was a feat of multitasking that you'll never get to see in any of his highlights videos. Because he was on radio. And I was on with him. Stay tuned.
King had finished his CNN gig at 10 p.m. and was at his second nightly job across the Potomac at his even more famous Mutual Radio late night nationwide talk-radio show. What the King of broadcasting didn't know was that he was about to perform probably the all-time funniest on-air slapstick shtick that no one ever would get to see. But it's surely still a world record for radio slapstick at this time when we are recalling this broadcast legend who retired from CNN in 2010 and died Saturday in Los Angeles at 87. For it is a tale unlike any of the others you're hearing about in the more than 50,000 interviews he had with every famous person from the overlapping worlds of politics, entertainment, sports, religion, and organized- and disorganized- crime.
On that night in 1988, I of course knew why I was there. Late nights after election nights are throwaway bookings that the famous figures and sensible pundits turn down. So call Marty.
Larry and I were sitting across from each other at a large round table in front of those big radio studio microphones. Our first caller, a lady from Kansas City, asked something about George H.W. Bush's decisive victory over Michael Dukakis. Looking across our large radio studio table, I saw Larry's eyes slowly becoming slits behind his big dark-rimmed glasses, as they vanished behind his descending lids.
So I began my yadda-yadda. And Larry began his multitasking — hosting on-air radio while catching up on his lost night's sleep. His head slowly nodded forward until his chin came to rest on his chest. Behind the control room's huge window, I saw that our host's blissful serenity was not shared by his crew. His producer and engineer and producer jumped up to sprint out — until I raised my left hand and, like a cop signaling stop, I assured them that all was under control on our side of the control room glass.
I gave my pal the gift of a few lost winks by beginning a conversational Q&A with the caller. As I talked with Kansas City, I quietly balled up a sheet of paper. After 10 minutes, I fired a paper-wad fastball across the six-foot diameter table — and plunked Broadcasting's King in the crown of his forehead. Larry's eyes popped wide-open — and without missing a beat, radio-TV's famous baritone boomed a fully alert: "Thank you Kansas City."
Now great hilarity erupted in the formerly panicked control room. King's producer held up a scrawled sign: "San Diego." And the Radio King hit the cue: "Now let's go to San Diego. What's on your mind?"
As San Diego spoke, Larry's lids again descended into slits and disappeared. I bantered with San Diego and our host began snoozing in apparently skilled, snore-free silence. Ten minutes and one more paper-wadded fastball later, King again bonked awake. He was finally refreshed enough to join his own show in mid-progress.
That concluded our classic radio slapstick shtick that you never saw on your radio – but you'll now never forget, having just seen it with your mind's eye.
EPILOGUE: I have one more "Larry King Show" tale to share — and what makes this one special is the same thing King always said was his show's secret sauce of success: It isn't really about King, but it's what made you want to keep tuning in to Larry King. This is about the predictably unpredictable Hunter Thompson, who agreed to be King's first-hour radio show guest at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. (I was supposed be King's second-hour act.) But mindful of Hunter's wackadoodle ways, King's uniquely memorable producer, Tamara Haddad, accompanied him for an hour before hand — to assure he'd be in his convention hall studio chair on time.
When Hunter went into the men's room, she waited outside. When Hunter never came out, the irrepressible, almost 6-foot-tall, miniskirt-fashionable Tammy went in. Yup, the room was empty; yup there was a wide-open ground floor window. Tammy telephoned me: Come early! I did. But I also told her to call Hunter's favorite local barroom and tell Hunter I was commanding him to get his patootie back at once — and we'd do the whole show together. Hunter did.
Larry and I were maybe 20 minutes into the show when Hunter swooped in, sat next to me, and shared my mic. After the hi-theres, Hunter began regaling listeners with his live description that we really aren't in a convention hall, but are locked in a landlocked submarine that is sailing beneath San Francisco. Larry informed his loyal listeners that he had lost control of his show. So we just went along for the ride, as Hunter did a deep subterranean dive into Democratic politics. Larry told us that wacky night was one of his most fun shows ever. Never mind that was journalistically unmemorable, but culturally unforgettable.
What is so remarkable about Larry King's legendary career was that night after night, decade after decade, he managed to be journalistically invaluable and culturally iconic.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. He's at firstname.lastname@example.org.