Saturday, July 11, 2009

Long Goodbyes: Staring into the Void of Larry King Live

I don’t watch Larry King Live that much — I don’t have that much interest in long, drawn-out murder investigations and Suzanne Somers’ medical diagnoses — but I am mesmerized by his prolonged explorations of stories that are done about two days in. The perfect example up until now was the Anna Nicole story. Pretty, naked babe dies, she was obviously on a large amount of drugs, the only questions left were: which drugs, given to her by whom, who gets her kid? Larry did the story for literally weeks as it faded into nothingness. And not for a single segment — he’d devote whole hours to endless repetitions of the same information, with new legal and medical “experts” and trash-press reporters. The mesmerizing quality dissipated fairly quickly with that case (no celeb guests!), but I was amused every night to turn him on at 9:00PM and see that, yes, it was another “Anna Nicole” night.

Larry also made overkill seem like understatement when he went after the “truth” of the Imus “nappy-headed hos” comment. Once Imus made a formal apology, the story was totally and completely over, but Larry continued to cover it for an additional week and a half — to the point of asking the other guests he had on (celebs like Valerie Bertinelli, there to plug her diet/bio) what they indeed thought about this “storm of controversy.” Della Reese, whom I didn’t know was a fully accredited minister, was invited on *twice*.

The first time she condemned what Imus had said, but the second time she truly hit the mark when she flat-out said, [paraphrase] “we should move on from this story, Larry. There are so many other things happening in this country today. There are boys and girls dying in Iraq, poverty problems, more important things than Imus.” Larry seemed a little taken aback by Della’s comments, but then… he plowed on with the subject for the rest of that hour.

And now, NOW, we reach the Jackson circus. Larry and his producers have made this his only story for a full two weeks, and my trash-o-metric ability to find programming that will allow me to do housework and Net clean-up while the TV buzzes couldn’t be more on target. From the initial heights of having big names (and one-time big names) coming on or calling in to praise Michael (Cher, Kenny Rogers, Quincy Jones, Liza Minnelli), he’s sunk to having on legal and medical “experts” every single night and rehashing the same old tired platitudes about Michael and his “effect on the entertainment world.”

However, for true trash-o-philes, the result has been amazingly funny TV. Since the entirety of pop culture now consists of nothing but pathetic lists of the best and worst (which are nothing but argument-starters and place-fillers for real content), I herewith offer a recalled-by-memory list of the best/worst moments of Larry’s ENDLESS coverage of the fact that the entertainer MJ died of a heart attack caused by drugs two weeks ago (that’s the story, that’s it, really that’s the whole thing: very special talent for music and dance, odd public downfall, very devoted fanbase, drugs, heart attack, death).

-Larry’s references to how sad it was that Farrah died the same day, and how “most media outlets” had to change their coverage from her death to Michael’s (read: he had a show planned and then dropped it). Anyone who knew both MJ and Farrah was asked about the latter, then Larry would cut them off and return to Michael.

-Larry’s producers packing the show, and then Larry cutting off each guest’s answers in turn, in order to come back to someone he’d cut off previously. He works okay with the guests in-studio, but anyone talking to him via satellite or (especially) via phone hook-up would be cut off in the middle of a word. The single best instance of this: Liza and Quincy try to have a “conversation” about the over-the-top MSG MJ celebration several years ago. Each one of them couldn’t hear the other, and Larry tried to not have them talk by just repeating their names over and over. It was ridiculous, and sublime.

-The hearing factor again (Rickles does joke about Larry’s hearing, and his jokes may indeed be based on truth). Lou Ferrigno (or, as Larry chose to identify him, “Lou Ferrigamo”) was on to testify that Michael never did drugs in front of him, and wasn’t taxing his heart with workouts. Lou has a speech impediment but is totally comprehensible — but not to Larry. When Lou attempted to talk about how both he and Michael “were obsessed with different things, him with music and me with body building,” Larry had to ask Lou to repeat the word “obsessed.” When Lou repeated the whole sentence, it was evident that Larry still couldn’t get the word (there was a grunt of some kind), but they pushed on — because it was time for him to cut Lou off.

-Miko Brando has become a Mike Douglas-style “anchor man” for this endless series of shows. Miko was MJ’s bodyguard and friend, and of course son of our god Marlon. He knew Michael very well, but is obviously the kind of friend who doesn’t tell stories out of school. He knows either knows nothing about Michael’s imperfections, addictions, and eccentricities (which is hard to believe, given that he’s worked for him since the early Eighties), or he just plain isn’t going to say anything besides “he was a great friend, a great father, and a great entertainer.” I’m not going to trash Miko (as Rickles would put it, “don’t hurt me, big guy!”), but he’s a pleasant though pretty pointless guest to have on (by comparison, John Landis and Deepak Chopra sounded “mean” because they actually brought up that Michael’s appearance changed drastically, he did strange things in public, and he used to ask doctors for scripts). To have Miko on over and over again for two weeks is the kind of head-scratching masterstroke that only the King is capable of.

-Asking every guest the same question. This is perhaps the most awesomely ridiculous part of the MJ series of shows: Larry will ask every guest, even the people who are there to do nothing but trash Jackson, “what do you think was Michael’s contribution to entertainment? Do you think he’ll be remembered?" He of course couldn’t ask this with Anna Nicole Smith, so the constant query was something along the lines of “what do you think was her appeal?” Every guest trots out the exact same expected reply ("he was an original, one-of-a-kind, there will never be another Michael") — unless you’re Reverend Al Sharpton, and you decide to class MJ in with Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. The former is a bit of a stretch — yes, YES, Michael was the first black artist to score airtime on MTV, this is indeed significant, but he was a non-threatening presence (despite the gang-themed behavior in “Beat It,” it was after all, gang members dancing, which is about as macho as the chorus of West Side Story).

It's obvious that what Al Sharpton says requires several hundred grains of salt, but let's just map this one out: To equate MJ with MLK is a stunning insult to the latter. Dr. King engaged in an almost sainty pursuit in which he was occasionally beaten and bitten by dogs, downgraded, spat at, and certainly jailed numerous times. He was one of the best orators of the 20th century, and the work he did was both radical and the very model of non-violent protest. Michael Jackson was a top-notch performer who sang very well, danced wonderfully, and achieved great fame on MTV at the right time, making him an important figure in the history of pop music. He only suffered verbal slings-and-arrows and some court time when he had achieved millionaire status and was such an uber-celebrity he indulged his every whim, not only having massive plastic surgery performed on himself, but also building an amusement park on the grounds of his house and having juvenile sleepovers with little boys (I'm giving him "juvenile"; many would say criminal). Wait, I think it's an insult to Robinson, too....

-Memories. Larry indulges in them frequently with guests, recalling his salad days in Miami on the radio, meeting long-dead legends, and bein’ a street kid in Brooklyn. However, his “flashes” are the things I’m most fascinated by. He asked Jermaine Jackson what he thought of “Diana Sands being named in the will.” Jermaine asked if he meant Diana *Ross*, and Larry said, yeah, but Diana Sands was a good performer too. That kind of odd, discordant moment makes King’s show worth watching for those of us who like weird, time-tripping TV. You’d have to be over 40 or a severe nostalgia buff to even know the name Diana Sands (who died in 1973), and since Diana Ross was arguably the most famous Diana of the modern era (discounting Lady/Princess Di and cult goddess Rigg), one wonders where the hell he even came up with Sands’ name (oops, she was black…).

-Cut off by the King. Compared to the other news/entertainment programs, Larry is indeed scoring some great names for his testimonials. The fact that he then proceeds to unceremoniously cut them off so he can fit in more pointlessly rhetorical questions is what makes the “LKL” viewing experience such a vicious joy.

For example, he had on Harry Belafonte the other night. I revere Belafonte, and I think he was not only a great singer, but a very important Lefty troublemaker, a very fine actor, and a good friend of Funhouse god Robert Altman. Harry had not weighed in to that point with his opinions about Michael, with whom he worked on the “We Are the World” project. Larry touted Harry’s appearance for the whole first half of the show — then proceeded to let him speak for about four minutes, cutting off his answers, and speeding him up on the third query with the goose-ish, “we don’t have much time here, Harry, but… why do you think Michael was such a special entertainer?” When that answer was summarily cut off, we then had a quick goodbye to the very noble Harry, and then Larry for some reason started to recite the lyrics to “Kingston Town” (“Down the way/where the nights are gay”), and talked about what a legend the guy he just cut off is.

I know Larry can get at least SEVERAL more programs out of the big-nothing that the Jackson story has become. Just last night, there was a guest host subbing for Lar. He interviewed doctors (and Miko Brando, who said nothing had been wrong with MJ), and then re-showed clips of the preceding night’s King confab with Michael’s dermatologist and/or sperm donor. I know that people often debate what the ultimate “show about nothing” was before Seinfeld put a name to the concept. Whatever it may have been back then (Vic and Sade, anyone?), Larry King is perhaps the foremost practitioner of the art of reporting nothing, and doing interviews about nothing, in the current all-news cable scene.

No comments: