POSTED: 05:22 a.m. HST, Dec 17, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 05:26 a.m. HST, Dec 17, 2010
NEW YORK — Two presidents, four television news anchors and a 10-year-old son who looked ready to take dad's place behind the microphone turned out to bid Larry King farewell as he pulled the curtain down on his CNN talk show Thursday after 25 years.
King, 77, was serenaded by Tony Bennett singing "The Best is Yet to Come" via remote from Louisiana.
King had announced this summer he would leave, ushered out by a struggling network. Once the dominant voice in cable television news, King has faded in a sea of sharp talkers. British talk-show host and "America's Got Talent" judge Piers Morgan takes over the 9 p.m. Eastern time slot in January.
"You're not going to see me go away, but you're not going to see me on this set anymore," King said. "I don't know what to say except to you, my audience, thank you, and instead of goodbye, how about so long?"
Except for an agreement to host four specials a year at CNN, it's not clear what his work future holds. He's talked of doing comedy, or going back to some radio work.
A parade of guests stopped by, including news anchors Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Brian Williams, who were in CNN's New York studio. President Barack Obama delivered a taped message, and former President Bill Clinton made his 29th appearance on the show, via remote from Little Rock, Ark.
"You say that all you do is ask questions," Obama said. "But for generations of Americans, the answers to these questions have surprised us, they've informed us, and they've opened our eyes to the world beyond our living rooms."
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared to thank King for moving his show from Washington to Los Angeles, and to declare it "Larry King Day" in his state.
King's wife Shawn and sons Chance and Cannon appeared on set. Chance, in particular, injected some levity with a dead-on impersonation of his father, including the Brooklyn accent.
King has conducted some 50,000 interviews in a broadcasting career where he worked for decades in radio before joining CNN in 1985. He's recorded more than 6,000 shows for CNN.
Before Fox News Channel and MSNBC even existed, King was cable news' top-rated program. Politicians, entertainers, leaders of industry and the faces of news stories hot in the moment all sat across the table from King. Some critics said he often seemed ill-prepared and tossed softballs, while King described his style as "minimalist," with the goal of getting his guests to talk.
Fred Armisen of "Saturday Night Live" delivered a King impersonation — Larry interviewing Larry — dressed in the same bright red suspenders and polka dot tie. Armisen's "Larry" asked what question King had asked more than any other. King replied: "Why?"
"The best question of all is 'why?' because it can't be answered in one word and it forces people to think," he said.
On the bottom of the screen, CNN ran messages from friends and celebrities like, "Jenny McCarthy: I'll miss your sexy ass."
Despite the evident warmth, there were some cringe-worthy moments that indicated the time was right for King to exit.
Regis Philbin appeared and sang two lines of a song, expecting King to pick up on it and join him, but King was stumped. Dr. Phil was cut off, almost in mid-sentence, because King said time was too short. The Clinton interview was marred with uncomfortable silences and talk-overs because there was a brief delay in what King said and what Clinton could hear.
King referred to Clinton, without explanation, as a fellow member of the "zipper club," and the control room had to prevail upon the host to explain a few minutes later that it was a reference to the fact both men had undergone open heart surgery.
"I'm glad you clarified that!" Clinton said to King, who has had seven wives.
King was joined at his table by Ryan Seacrest and Bill Maher, who have both filled in for King during breaks in the past. Maher tried not to let the show quickly become maudlin.
"This is not Larry's funeral," he said. "He's hopefully going to be in our living rooms for a lot of years to come. This is the end of a show, not the end of a man."
Rival MSNBC saluted King by buying an ad in USA Today on Thursday, calling King "one of a kind." ''Larry, thank you for everything you've done to advance cable news," the ad read.
Others were less nostalgic: The Los Angeles Times website posted videos of King's most embarrassing moments, including when he asked an incredulous Jerry Seinfeld whether NBC had canceled his top-rated comedy.
It's been a muted exit for King, with CNN touting Morgan's upcoming show in ads more than King's. Even as the end neared, King finished fourth in his time slot for Tuesday's interview with the Judds, behind Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and CNN sister network HLN's Joy Behar. King interviewed Barbra Streisand on Wednesday night.
CNN is owned by Time Warner.