You could have forgiven Larry King if he had seemed a little cranky or distracted Monday night. His recent 25th anniversary celebration as CNN's primetime star has been tarnished by personal turmoil, declining ratings and talk that he's on the verge of being replaced.
But the 76-year-old host, ever the pro, shined as he turned Monday's show into a two-hour fundraiser for the Gulf oil spill recovery effort.
King welcomed a celebrity crowd that included Justin Bieber, Deepak Chopra, Dr. John, Phillipe Cousteau, Kathy Griffin and Robert Redford, as he asked the audience to text and call in donations for the United Way, the National Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy. More than $1.3 million alone was raised while the show aired.
The odd juxtaposition of guests was vintage King: there's a certain charm to watching a host who interviews heads of state one night and the likes of Lady Gaga the next without changing his old-school, regular-guy style.
"What's this doing to you emotionally, Lenny?" he asked musician Lenny Kravitz, in his familiar blunt-couched-in-Brooklyn-homey tone during Momday's telethon.
"Victoria, have you thought about what happens if a hurricane hits?" he asked actress Victoria Principal.
"Are they difficult to paint?" he asked 11-year-old artist Olivia Bouler, whose watercolors of birds native to the Gulf of Mexico have raised $150,000 for wildlife charities.
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King's stream-of-consciousness questioning can lead to unexpected insights (like Lady Gaga talking about her Lupus scare earlier this month), as easily as it can to goofy non-sequiturs and the occasional awkward moment (“Do you consider yourself an icon?”) that might make you wonder if his suspenders are a tad too tight.
But King's curiosity-driven, treat-everybody-the-same approach is, unfortunately, becoming an anachronism at a time when cable news shows and audiences are filled with folks looking to have their world-view confirmed rather than broadened.
King's gig, at least as CNN’s primetime man, may be coming to a close. His contract ends next year, and there are reports (denied by CNN) he’ll be replaced sooner amid ratings struggles and a changing cable TV news landscape where unabashed partisanship draws the biggest crowds.
But for one night, at least, Larry King showed a presumably wide audience why his style is timeless: by letting others do most of the talking (or singing), he puts on a show still worth watching – while it lasts.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.