“Bring me a plate of radishes.’’
‘‘Yes, Mr. King.’’
‘‘I don’t eat radishes, except when I’m at the Palm. It’s one of my rituals. Rituals are important.’’
We sat at Larry King’s table at the Palm steakhouse in Washington, a city the cable talk impresario has not lived in since 1997. Yet King, now 81, remained central to the restaurant’s scenery. Caricatures of him hung on the walls, depicting various stages of his perpetual middle age. People walked by and said hello and told him they always watched his show, even though King left CNN four and a half years ago. ‘‘It’s the ageless Larry King,’’ said one well-wisher, shaking his hand. Every celebrity over 80 gets to be called ‘‘ageless.’’
When he is not interviewing anyone, just eating lunch, King tends to slump in his chair. On TV, you experienced him mainly as sharp angles, arched shoulders and pointed elbows, and a collection of features and accouterments (suspenders, saucer glasses). King’s once-black hair has now assumed, or been assumed with, a coppery orange color. The beige of his unmade face lacks the glow that radiated when King was at his peak and framed by the edges of a screen.
When you grow older, routines become important, King told me. Even to someone as emphatically nonreligious as he is, they can lend a measure of sanctity: the morning bagel quorum King leads with his old friends at the Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. near his home in Beverly Hills; his daily hairstyling appointment at the JosephMartin Salon (near the bagel place); his bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with blueberries; his pills, parceled out by dosage (Lipitor, Plavix, fish oil, multivitamin tablets and human growth hormone). ‘‘I like the stability,’’ King said. ‘‘Don’t give me a surprise birthday party.’’
Like all old people, or so King claims, he likes to read the obituaries first thing every morning. God’s box scores. He can’t turn away. People might learn about someone who died at the age of 88, or 89, and say, ‘‘Oh, he lived a long life.’’ But that’s not how King views it. ‘‘I think, That’s only seven or eight years off for me,’’ he said. There were some 78s and 79s in the paper that morning. He shook his head. Negative math is terrifying.
King is fixated on dying. Everyone is, to some degree, but not like him. Shawn King, his seventh wife, told me that Larry talks so much about his demise that he started to upset their teenage sons, and she had to tell him to knock it off. ‘‘He kept saying, ‘Listen, I’m not going to be around much longer, boys,’ ’’ Shawn said. ‘‘ ‘Whatever you do, don’t let your mother put me in a home.’ ’’ Recently, Larry and Shawn met with some insurance and lawyer types to go over their family trust. They were talking about his will and who got what and the tax ramifications. ‘‘After about 20 minutes, I said, ‘Wait a minute,’ ’’ Larry told me. ‘‘I won’t be here when this happens. I won’t exist. Everything in that conversation had nothing to do with me.’’
King’s father died of a heart attack when King was 9. That, he says, is what probably initiated his own death obsession. ‘‘I took that as my father abandoning me,’’ he said. ‘‘I had a psychologist explain that to me once.’’ Not a psychologist King ever saw professionally, but a guest on his show — his kind of therapist.
Over the quarter-century that he hosted ‘‘Larry King Live,’’ King was always asking his guests, ‘‘What do you think happens when we die?’’ I saw him ask that of the ageless guitarist Carlos Santana. Santana said that upon expiration, he expected to merely enter a different room and then receive a standing ovation from the likes of John Coltrane and John Lee Hooker. ‘‘So you believe they’re somewhere?’’ King asked. Yes, Santana was certain. ‘‘What makes you believe that?’’ King wondered. ‘‘You can’t prove it.’’ Santana suggested that faith ‘‘is acceptance of things not seen.’’ This is a story we’ll be following.
Luminary deaths accounted for some of King’s best-rated programs. He would host remembrance panels. He spent five hours receiving mourners via phone on his radio show on the night John Lennon was killed (‘‘Milton Berle called in’’). ‘‘Who elected Larry King America’s grief counselor?’’ James Wolcott of Vanity Fair asked in 2009, during a summer when King was convening nightly shiva on CNN for Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.
‘‘At Richard Nixon’s library, the day after he was taken to the hospital, if you look at his calendar, it says ‘Larry King Live,’ ’’ King told me. ‘‘He was going to be on my show, but he died.’’ The same thing happened with Bart Giamatti, the commissioner of baseball, in 1989: ‘‘He was supposed to come on my show a few days after he had his heart attack.’’
King had planned to have one of his all-time favorite guests, Mario Cuomo, speak at his funeral. But then Cuomo went and abandoned him, too, last January, at just 82. Maybe Bill Clinton would be willing to speak instead, King wondered. He likes Clinton. ‘‘I bet he’d do it.’’ King flashed a satisfied smile, but then his face suddenly went blank. He tends to do this, as if savoring an image (a president at his funeral — such a tribute!) and then being slapped back to his default reality (‘‘But I won’t be there to see it!’’). He lingers on the unimaginable.
‘‘I can’t get my head around one minute being there and another minute absent,’’ King said.
Larry King died in 2010. Not for real, but when CNN pulled the plug on King’s show after 25 years, it felt like a dress rehearsal for the real cancellation.
King was 77 when his run ended at the network. He told me he could see it coming. Cable news had changed. It had become all about shouting, the left-versus-right paradigm and ‘‘good TV’’ — meaning spectacles. Fox News had gone right, and MSNBC had lurched left, and somewhere in the shrinking American middle was the once-dominant CNN, adrift in a loud new century. King’s bosses kept pushing him toward shorter segments, not the long-form interviews he always did while hunched over a bulbous RCA microphone with a pointillist map of the world behind him. CNN made him read viewers’ tweets on the air.
At the peak of his run, in the late 1990s, ‘‘Larry King Live’’ regularly reached more than 1.5 million viewers a night in the United States. That was a much smaller audience than network prime time, but King’s novelty was in his global reach. While international TV ratings are difficult to measure, King was the big rounded face of the network at a time when CNN was becoming the country’s signature media export. He was as recognizable abroad as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, and largely without the geopolitical baggage. His trademark eccentricities were borderless. Mikhail Gorbachev met him for dinner wearing suspenders. Paul Newman said that whenever he landed abroad, the first thing he did was turn on CNN and look for King. He was Newman’s own connection to home. King could be a cultural touchstone as well as a familiar background noise. Stephen Colbert told him he lost his virginity while listening to King’s radio show.
King was a broadcast pioneer who bridged the solemn authority figures of yesteryear, like Walter Cronkite, with today’s ‘‘good TV’’ yellers. He would talk about whatever the story of the day was, highbrow or low (presidents and movie stars and JonBenets). His style, endurance and presence became a form of American confidence. Conspicuously, King’s replacement, the British host Piers Morgan, was seen as a critic of his adopted country. He would use the ‘‘you people’’ construction, as if to signal that any confidence — America’s, television’s and certainly CNN’s — was no longer warranted.
Washington’s media-political fancies always viewed King with both respect and derision. The latter arose from King’s refusal to play the tough-guy inquisitor that had become the pose of so many ‘‘TV journalist’’ types. My colleague Maureen Dowd once called King ‘‘the resort area of American journalism.’’ King had an unabashed interest in celebrity and scandal, devoured the trial of his old pal O.J. Simpson and spoke at the funeral of his dear friend Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker). Yet the famous and powerful coveted King’s audience and appreciated his unthreatening style. His questions were short, basic and often open-ended (‘‘Never been in the hotel? Never?’’ he asked Nixon, referring to the Watergate Hotel); solicitous (‘‘How did you emotionally hold up?’’ he asked Clinton); and at times slyly provocative (Why do you keep saying if the Holocaust happened? he asked President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran). He asked Ronald Reagan what it was like to be shot.
King let his guests talk until he became bored, which tended to happen quickly. ‘‘Larry had terrible A.D.D. issues,’’ says his brother, Marty Zeiger. ‘‘If there had been those drugs back then, he might never have learned to compensate and never would have become Larry King.’’
There is an old Vaudeville saying: ‘‘If you’re not appearing, you’re disappearing.’’ King appeared five times a week; he was the quirky uncle who kept showing up for dessert until you found yourself setting a place for him in the den out of habit. He appeared in 22 movies, playing (of course) himself. No one was appearing more than Larry King, until he wasn’t.
King’s friends wondered if losing his CNN platform and vanishing from nightly view would kill him, as a heart attack, quintuple bypass, prostate cancer and diabetes had not. They worried about him in the same way that people worry about older people falling into death spirals after their spouses of many years die. The analogy is imperfect in the case of King, who has survived quite well through the dissolution of seven previous marriages (he married the same woman twice). But the parallel still came up a lot during my conversations with his friends and family. ‘‘It’s like the camera was Larry’s lover,’’ Zeiger told me. King speaks of being transformed the second he went on the air. On his first day, his boss demanded that he jettison ‘‘Zeiger’’ (‘‘too ethnic’’), so he went from being Lawrence Harvey Zeiger, a poor kid from Brooklyn who in 1957 took a job as a fill-in host at a Miami radio station, to being Larry King. A revamped and royal identity was born the second the red light went on.
Television can be a brutally seductive business for those who become personalities. ‘‘Appearing’’ becomes their oxygen. Maybe that’s why they call it being on ‘‘the air.’’ As in: the air that King filled for decades and might as well have breathed. But then suddenly there was no air, no ‘‘Larry King Live’’ — was he now Larry King dead?
I asked King if he was ready to leave CNN or if the network fired him. It was closer to the latter, he said. He always received three- and four-year contracts. They offered one year. ‘‘I saw it as writing on the wall,’’ King said. CNN aired its last ‘‘Larry King Live’’ on Dec. 18, 2010. The low point for King came a few months after that, when he was watching TV at home on a Sunday night and learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed. King jumped to his feet. ‘‘I needed a car to come pick me up and take me somewhere,’’ King told me. ‘‘I needed to be on the air. I needed a red light to go on. But I had nowhere to go.’’
It was 2013 when I first discovered Larry King in his broadcast afterlife. I had written a book, and someone called and invited me to go on King’s show. Larry King? I thought he was long ago hauled off to the curb like an old Zenith. That was how most people responded when I shared — bragged — that I would be going on with Larry King. ‘‘Larry King still has a show?’’ they would say. ‘‘Is Larry King still alive?’’ It can be easy to lose track sometimes, especially of those aging, sick and canceled celebrities who reside in that purgatory between the where-are-they-nows and the obits. Did we miss King’s exit somewhere among the deaths of Roger Ebert and Jonathan Winters and Annette Funicello?
King had landed at an online production outfit called Ora TV, which was started by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Slim was a longtime fan of King’s and wanted him to remain on the air. He funded the production company to keep King’s franchise alive, essentially, and even let King pick the name: ‘‘Ora’’ is Shawn King’s middle name.
Of course I would go on with King. It felt like a visit to the cultural grave: the suspendered icon sitting in Los Angeles and visible again on a monitor, while I sat in a remote studio in Washington. King closed the interview by asking me, ‘‘Is the Palm still the place to go in Washington?’’ Sure, I said. He asked: ‘‘Next time I come to Washington, can we have lunch together at the Palm?’’
We met at the Palm last March. I took an immediate liking to King, beyond the camp novelty of the encounter itself. (It’s a bit unsettling to sit in the flesh with someone whose image so wholly resides in a pixelated nether-dust.) We started talking a lot on the phone after that — a kind of ‘‘Tuesdays With Morrie’’ tradition, only with Larry.
Larry King Tweets Aloud
The television host on fruit, evolution, frozen yogurt and more in 140 characters or less.
The television host on fruit, evolution, frozen yogurt and more in 140 characters or less.
King was thrilled for my interest. ‘‘I’m being followed by The New York Times,’’ he told everyone when I was nearby. ‘‘I must be somebody again. Go figure.’’
No topic between King and me was off-limits except one: Piers Morgan. King’s publicist, Jen Hobbs, requested that I refrain from asking King anything about the host who succeeded him on CNN. Things had become ornery between King and Morgan, whose own show was canceled last year. King said in an interview with Howard Stern that watching Morgan flame out in his slot was like when ‘‘your mother-in-law goes over the cliff in your new car.’’ Morgan then called King a ‘‘poisonous twerp’’ and a ‘‘graceless, petty little man’’ on Twitter. I agreed not to bring up Morgan with King. That was fine, because King brought Morgan up himself, almost immediately (‘‘What I didn’t like about Piers is that he made that show all about him’’). Shawn King, a self-described ‘‘good Mormon girl,’’ later weighed in, too — and in language hardly befitting a good Mormon girl.
King really wanted me to know how busy he was. He is now the host of three shows, on various outlets, including one about baseball (‘‘Larry King at Bat’’) on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ cable network. He does a lot of paid speaking gigs (‘‘white-collar crime’’). He endorsed a line of suspenders. On this trip to Washington, King told me he would sit for interviews with The Washington Post, The Washington Examiner, WTOP radio and podcasts, among other media engagements.
He invited me to join him at the Ritz Carlton for breakfast with David Theall and Jason Rovou, ex-CNNers who followed him to Ora. Everyone but King ordered eggs, which he found offensive. ‘‘I despise eggs,’’ he told me, and added, by the way, that ‘‘Jews like things very well cooked. Did you know that?’’ (I did not.) Other diners stared as King walked out after breakfast. ‘‘I don’t think people would recognize the governor of Wisconsin if he walked in here,’’ King said, referring to Scott Walker, the presidential candidate. A dark-skinned man approached and asked King if he would pose for a photo.
‘‘Where are you from?’’ King asked.
‘‘Saudi Arabia,’’ the man said.
‘‘I’m a Jew!’’ King informed him. ‘‘You sure it’s O.K. to get your picture taken with a Jew back in Saudi Arabia?’’
The man assured him that indeed Larry King had many fans in Saudi Arabia. They smiled for the picture. ‘‘Thank you, Mr. King,’’ the man said. They shook hands, and King looked him in the eye. ‘‘Now,’’ he said, ‘‘please, go fight ISIS!’’
That night, King would be appearing at the Newseum, a cutesy-named gallery of American journalism history on Pennsylvania Avenue. The event was billed as ‘‘A Life in Broadcasting: A Conversation With Larry King,’’ and he was interviewed onstage by the former CNN anchor Leon Harris. ‘‘A black and a Jew!’’ King said, referring to Harris and himself. King then took it further and asked Harris, ‘‘Why did you want to eat at Woolworth?’’ Nervous laughs and a few gasps: Uncle Larry had arrived at the Seder.
King removed his jacket to reveal purple suspenders, and Harris listed career credits. He called King ‘‘an innovator’’ for nearly seven decades and ‘‘cable’s version of Walter Cronkite.’’ They talked about King’s old USA Today column, a weekly hodgepodge of one-note items, opinions and plugs, as ‘‘a forerunner to Twitter.’’
‘‘I never thought I would be a forerunner,’’ King said. The column was widely read, and mocked, notably by the comedian Norm Macdonald in a ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ skit from the late 1990s. Macdonald would look into the camera and shout proclamations in King’s voice. He nailed its energetic banality. (‘‘Here is the dirty truth, gang: Poland Spring water does not come from Poland!’’)
Jerry Seinfeld credits King with inventing the random spirit of Twitter years before the technology enabled it. ‘‘Larry King didn’t invent drivel, but he certainly created the business model for drivel, which was the column in USA Today,’’ Seinfeld told me. No disrespect to drivel: ‘‘I’ve made a pretty nice living off of drivel myself,’’ he said.
King’s Twitter feed, @kingsthings, has become a cult-camp sensation, with 2.6 million followers. He dictates his projectiles into a dedicated voice-mail box. From there, an assistant transcribes them onto Twitter. The result is an exuberant self-parody, or a social-media burlesque, or (if you prefer) art. It’s somewhat indistinguishable from the verbal crawl I had been observing in person.
‘‘I rarely use lip balm.’’
‘‘Kiev is a hell of a town.’’
‘‘The fear of a colonoscopy is unwarranted.’’
He mostly produces them in binges, late on Sunday nights. They are best consumed in binges too, one after another, as if you’re speed-eating M&Ms one at a time. Seinfeld told me that King translates so well to Twitter because he understands portion size. ‘‘Sometimes we just want to experience verbiage but nothing that requires any mental digestion,’’ Seinfeld said. ‘‘The question is: Is he going to get even better when he enters dementia?’’
King at the Ora TV studio in Glendale, Calif.Credit…Graeme Mitchell for The New York Times
‘‘The rat is perfectly named.’’
‘‘It’s strange, but I just thought about my tricycle.’’
‘‘I love to scratch an itch.’’
The tweets convey wistfulness at times. There are notes of longing, nostalgia and mourning.
‘‘I can’t stop thinking about the late Mario Cuomo… I miss him so much.’’
‘‘Do you funeral homes ever have a bad year?’’
‘‘I love the sound of little kids in a schoolyard.’’
The Newseum conversation eventually veered to the specter of King’s final episode, his death. How can a story end well if he winds up in the ground? He is planning to avoid that, he told Harris. King takes four human growth hormone pills every day. People think H.G.H. is illegal because athletes are suspended for using it. It is not, King says, and he feels great. But in case of death, King wants the Ted Williams treatment. He has arranged to have his body frozen and then thawed out when researchers discover a cure for whatever killed him — the so-called cryonics approach. (Unlike Williams, King does not wish to have his dead head cut off.) King told me later that the people behind cryonics are ‘‘all nuts,’’ but at least if he knows he will be frozen he will die with a shred of hope. ‘‘Other people have no hope,’’ King said.
In May, I turned 50. The milestone came and went and left no great psychic toll. But I found myself doing more mortality math in my head than I ever had — how many more years did I have with my kids and in my job and on this earth? I was checking the relevance clock and wondering how long before I’d be ‘‘aged out’’ myself. It occurred to me that I no longer belonged to the 18-49 demographic that TV people refer to as the ‘‘key demo.’’
I visited King at the Ora studio in Glendale, Calif. The office resembled an Internet start-up: young staff members, snacks in the waiting room. Covering the walls were photos of the octogenarian maestro posing with world leaders, the Dalai Lama and Betty White. King took a seat on a couch and grabbed his powder blue suspenders with both hands, as if he were strapping in for a ride. Over his left shoulder was a photo of him standing between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson while Tyson pretended to take a bite out of King’s ear.
King was getting ready to tape ‘‘Larry King Now.’’ It was a long way from CNN, but there was still a red light. King’s show is also available on Hulu and RT, the Russian state-funded television network. King is defensive about the latter. ‘‘I do not work for the Russian government!’’ he mentioned more than once. The broadcast is not subject to any approval or censorship by the Russians, as far as he knows.
The big ‘‘get’’ for that day’s show was the rapper known as Bow Wow (formerly Lil Bow Wow). Before Bow Wow arrived, King dispatched with preliminary interviews that included the author of a book called ‘‘The Rise of ISIS,’’ which King mistakenly called ‘‘The Rise of Iris.’’ This was not the first time King had called the terror brigade ‘‘Iris.’’ He has history with an Iris — Iris Siegel, a long-ago teenage crush. ‘‘Iris Siegel was every boy at Lafayette High School’s masturbatory fantasy,’’ King told me, and then for some reason felt that this required elaboration. ‘‘We all masturbated to Iris Siegel!’’
Between segments, King joined me in the waiting area while a makeup woman touched up his forehead. His flip phone vibrated. Shawn was calling. ‘‘I’m sitting here with a big admirer of yours,’’ King said. ‘‘You know, he works for The New York Times, so we both work for Carlos Slim’’ — King was always reminding me about how Slim owned a big chunk of the newspaper. A cluster of people entered the office. ‘‘And Bow Wow has arrived,’’ King announced, hanging up on Shawn.
Bow Wow, whose real name is Shad Moss, enlisted King in a selfie. He called King ‘‘iconic’’ and appeared slightly nervous. ‘‘Larry is huge with rappers,’’ David Theall explained to me. I sat in the control room while King walked Bow Wow onto the set. The interview started, and King’s questions were awesome:
‘‘What makes a good rapper?’’
‘‘Is it singing?’’
‘‘You can hum a rap song?’’
In response to a query about his upbringing, Bow Wow told King that his father was never in the picture, which inspired this declaration from the host: ‘‘The strongest individual in America is the black single mother!’’ King closed with a lightning round in which he asked, If you could have one superpower, what would it be? Bow Wow answered that he would like to be invisible.
‘‘Me, too!’’ King exploded.
Later, I mentioned to King that I was surprised by his dream of invisibility. It was the opposite of what I expected from someone who relished being so present and seen. ‘‘Oh, but think about it,’’ King said. ‘‘If I could be invisible, I could walk on a plane, I wouldn’t need a ticket and I could sit with the pilot.’’ He would reap such a bonanza of consequence-free mischief and information. But if he were invisible, then how would he disseminate what he learned? No one would see him on TV. King made an adjustment: He told me he would like the ability to go back and forth between visible and invisible. He could still have dinner with friends. And then he could make himself invisible and follow them home. ‘‘Would I like to see my friends having sex? Yes.’’
He added the caveat that his friends wouldn’t be at their current ages. ‘‘Unless they have pretty wives.’’
Shawn King, who is 55, can be both protective and contemptuous of her husband. Wife No. 7 has been the current Mrs. King for nearly 18 years. They met outside Tiffany’s in Beverly Hills, in a chance encounter that inspired the name of their first son, Chance, now 16. Their second son, Cannon, 15, was named after the street he was conceived on, North Canon Drive. (King clarified that the event actually transpired in a house, not on the pavement.) King’s marriage to Shawn, an actress, singer and former homecoming queen at North Hollywood High School, is the only one of his eight that has lasted into double digits. King has three grown children with his previous wives; some of the women from his past have spoken most uncharitably about King in various forums — recurring themes being infidelity, immaturity, self-absorption and deception.
But he’s capable of great charm when pursuing women, and they often marvel at King’s wizardry in this regard. ‘‘When he was trying to woo me, he kept sending me over boxes of Hot Tamales,’’ Shawn told me. ‘‘He knew I loved them — the candies. It was very sweet.’’ He lured prospective dates to dinner with famous friends. ‘‘I love the chase!’’ King told me, and his eyes — gray slits behind glasses — suddenly bulged with life. (‘‘I love to scratch an itch.’’)
‘‘Let me tell you the story about the first night I spent with Angie,’’ King told me, referring to the actress Angie Dickinson, the star of ‘‘Police Woman.’’ King loves telling people, including me (three times), that he used to go out with her. Dickinson would seem the pinnacle of the former Larry Zeiger’s ‘‘look how far I’ve come’’ routine.
The morning after his ‘‘night with Angie,’’ King called his best friend from growing up, Herb Cohen. ‘‘Guess where the hell I am, Herbie?’’ King said. ‘‘I’m at Angie Dickinson’s house!’’ That’s the whole story.
‘‘This wouldn’t be for print,’’ King told me. ‘‘Or, I don’t know, maybe it would be for print. You tell me?’’
Inevitably the chase would end — with a warded-off advance, or lunge, or surrender, or wedding. And then King stopped trying. Shawn told me about an evening shortly after they were married. They were in the back of a limo, and King raised his left buttock and expelled a thunderous fart. Shawn was appalled. King merely shrugged. ‘‘What, do you want me to be uncomfortable?’’ said King, the incurable romantic. Shawn told me, laughing, that at that point she knew the courtship was officially over.
I asked King when we were eating at the Palm how he and Shawn had managed to stay together. They were separated for about two months in 2010. It was an unfortunate time. Shawn believed King was having an affair with her younger sister, Shannon. ‘‘It was just a flirtation,’’ King insisted. ‘‘I never made love to her.’’ He and Shawn reunited for the sake of the boys, and, King said, because they missed each other. He was being treated for prostate cancer at the time. ‘‘I’m still sorry I did it,’’ King said. I assumed he was talking about Shannon, but he was referring to the prostate surgery. The doctors were split on how to proceed, and King chose the more aggressive treatments. ‘‘Now I can’t get it up,’’ he said. He quoted the former Yankees manager Joe Torre, another prostate-cancer survivor — King is always name-dropping wisdom through his celebrity friends. ‘‘What would you rather do, have sex or die?’’ he said. The waiter arrived with more radishes, just in time.
The day after the Bow Wow interview, King was driving me around Beverly Hills in his black Lincoln. The car smelled new and was perfectly uncluttered except for a tube of Polident on the dashboard. A handicap-parking pass hung from the rearview mirror even though King can walk perfectly well (his father-in-law, who was not with us, suffers from neuropathy in his feet and walks with a cane). King leases a new Lincoln every two years, and I made a crack about his doing the same with wives. He did not laugh.
‘‘I understand the impulse to always be looking for something else,’’ King told me. That extends to the culture, and especially television viewers, who are seeking the next thing and leaving behind the old standbys. I asked King if, for the sake of changing with the medium, he ever considered becoming more combative on CNN. Never. ‘‘If you’re combative, you never learn,’’ he told me. He would always want to make his guests feel welcome. ‘‘Oh, I would love to interview Hitler,’’ King said. Ideally, it would be several years after World War II, had Hitler lived. King might prepare a little bit (‘‘maybe I’d skim ‘Mein Kampf’ or something’’) but would mostly improvise. ‘‘Hitler had a mother,’’ King said, and he would want her to come on his show too. He chuckled at the thought. ‘‘I’d ask her, ‘Why didn’t you have an abortion?’ ’’
We stopped back at the Kings’ house to pick up Karl Engemann, Shawn’s 85-year-old father. He is a sweet and gentle man, and an observant Mormon. King introduced me to his father-in-law and started in on one of his riffs about how religion is a big delusion. ‘‘Karl thinks he’s going somewhere after he dies,’’ King said, and his voice assumed a slightly baiting tone. ‘‘Don’t you, Karl?’’ Karl nodded, and King smirked.
I asked King how he’s so certain that the afterlife is not a portal to some glorious dimension. There was silence for a few blocks. This is a topic he has surveyed deeply: ‘‘Martin Short says people die every night when we sleep,’’ King told me. Sleep is like a nightly preview. I mentioned that people find sleep pleasant, so why shouldn’t death be?
‘‘I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m sleeping,’’ King replied. ‘‘I’m not anything.’’
It was early evening when we returned to the King house. Shawn was out getting her nails done. King disappeared upstairs and returned with a bottle of human growth hormone, which he presented to me as if he were handing over a cherished stash of gold pellets. ‘‘Here, some H.G.H. for the road,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ll send you home healthy.’’ He showed me the items in his den, or ‘‘trophy room’’ — the cardboard cutout of Sinatra wearing Jewish payos, the portrait of King made entirely of jelly beans, his Emmy for Lifetime Achievement. ‘‘Try lifting this thing,’’ King told me. ‘‘It’s heavier than the usual Emmy.’’ He mentioned that George Washington University has tapes of his old radio show, in case his kids ever want to listen. On the wall above the front door, he pointed to two bright paintings that his sons made in an art class when they were toddlers. ‘‘Carlos Slim told me these were works of genius,’’ he boasted. ‘‘You never know where you might find genius.’’
He kept walking me into new rooms, showing off various accolades and telling me of others. ‘‘You know I was nominated for a Shorty Award,’’ King said. ‘‘That’s for social-media excellence — for the tweets.’’ What happens to his tweets after he dies? Could they offer a few stray pixels of Larry immortality? Or will they just fade away and be forgotten? ‘‘I won’t be here anyway,’’ King concluded, ‘‘so what does it matter?’’
Everything was dark around him when I left except the glow of the TV.
‘‘If my wife is late for my funeral, I will be very angry.’’
King would love to attend his own funeral. He would watch invisibly over the proceedings and laugh. ‘‘I would like the ceremony to begin, ‘Today we are honoring a 160-year-old man who was caught in bed by an irate husband,’ ’’ King said. ‘‘ ‘And the funeral is late because it took six days to wipe the smile off his face.’ ’’
The service would be at a synagogue, out of respect for his mother. It is unclear what would then happen to his body, how it would be frozen and where it would be housed, to say nothing of his soul. But he wants a rabbi to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Rituals are important. ‘‘I think Clinton might speak,’’ King mentioned, again.