Co-authored with Carl Kandutsch.
If there is one reason to watch Larry King Live — unrelated, that is, to a perverse pleasure in testing the limits of banality and tedium to life-threatening extremes — it’s the chance to play Are You Optimistic? — a drinking game based on the CNN host’s Tourette’s-like penchant for asking his squirming guests if he/she is “optimistic”. For the uninitiated viewer, this usually occurs whenever ‘The King of Talk’ has run through his entire repertoire of non-sequitur softball questions before his hour of dead airtime is up, thus opening up the playing field for a spirited round of blood alcohol poisoning that the whole family can enjoy. And unless you enjoy the thrills of competitive flatlining, watching this Gab-Fest equivalent of a frontal lobotomy (without the benefit of a bottle in front of you) is like having to endure, fully conscious, botched brain surgery performed by a Borscht belt hack on the back alley abortion circuit. And being fully sober throughout an entire episode of LKL means being unable to fully appreciate the mawkish, shlock appeal of Larry, CNN’s even dumber ‘Cable Guy’.
If you are not yet familiar with this updated version of a perennial party favorite based on the CNN host’s trademarked interview technique, the rules are simple: The players have to take a slug of Pruno (or some other lethal brand of bathtub gin) every time LKL’s befuddled old host manages to rouse himself from his mid-interview snooze to growl, apropos of nothing, “Are you optimistic?” Some of you may remember this game as ‘WMD’ (What Me Drunk?) where each player takes a shot of Rum and Ectasy-spiked Kool-Aid every time Bush quacked out the words “Weapons Of Mass Destruction” during the build up to the invasion of Iraq.
Whether it’s the revolving cast of Dancing With the Stars or Bob Woodward on the “hot seat”, (or whatever you call the plush, mink-upholstered, vibrating Barcalounger LKL’s guests recline on during their “interview”) they will inevitably have to brace themselves for a barrage of smoke filled soap bubbles lobbed at them by a hideous mutant hybrid of Grandpa Simpson and Junior Soprano.
Presumably, Larry’s now trademarked non-sequitur gives him a chance to inject an air of “gravitas” into a program that normally revolves around a game of footsie between the sycophantic host and someone connected, however peripherally, to the missing/murdered white girl du jour. Or just as frequently, anyone outside of a mausoleum or oxygen tent who has ever tapped Angie Dickinson. Seemingly, Larry doesn’t conceal his preference for guests whose careers peaked during the Eisenhower era over his network’s in-house stable of pundits and “experts” who are grudgingly invited on to his show to share their insights on topics ranging from the latest extreme weather disaster to Hillary Clinton’s chances for the White House. You get the feeling that if Larry had his way, his “political team” would be made up of Bindi Irwin, Don Rickles and the ghost of Natalee Holloway (with Wolf Blitzer filling in for Bindi on the days she had to attend Brownie camp).
If the purpose of every mainstream TV and radio host is to define the framework within which people are allowed to think and ask questions, then Larry, like Oprah, simply strip that function down to a bare minimum in much the same way ketchup can be considered, technically speaking, a “vegetable”. Remarkably, no one on his show (at least to my knowledge) has ever replied to this oft-blurted question in the negative*, no doubt mindful of the unwritten rule that they stick to reciting whatever upbeat, power-serving sound bites are making the rounds of the talk show circuit that week. Political discourse within the narrow parameters of America’s corporate media is a hologram facsimile of a democracy, where the “players” (those carefully cultivated specimens from some corporate funded think tank) intone pre-scripted, self-help based bromides from little Larry or tiny Tim Russert’s Fisher-Pryce teleprompters.
The inevitable, “Are you optimistic?” — has the advantage of connoting seriousness in a way that soothingly resonates throughout the nation’s McMansions and ‘Double Wide’ trailers alike, offering a brief, highly controlled respite from the “all terror all of the time” imperative of network and cable news. In ‘Larry Land’, and elsewhere on the American McMedia landscape, the world’s more pressing problems (or in the less ‘inflammatory’ parlance of the day, “issues”) from melting polar caps to African genocide are shrink-wrapped into easily digestable nuggets of conventional thinking labeled as wisdom — all grist, in other words, for the magical thinking mill.
According to a March 2005 New York Times profile of CNN president Jon Klein, the network was seeking “to spend less time reporting the news of the day” (Huh?) and focusing more on “emotionally gripping, character-driven narratives pegged to recent events”. Thus, the government’s runaway spending became ‘Runaway Bride’, while coverage of the world’s troubled spots becomes more and more focused on the high-profile personalities who organize the money-raising minstrel shows for their suffering populations. Although CNN continues to hemorrhage viewers under his stewardship, “Kleinie” (unlike FEMA’s unfortunate “Brownie) will continue to be rewarded for doing “a heck of a job”… increasing FOX’s numbers.
Arguably, Goebbels himself couldn’t have come up with a better dog and pony show than LKL to instill a conditioned, non-response in the citizenry that comes with an imaginary proximity to power, and the illusion of engaging in the democratic process through “live” phone calls, all carefully screened to maintain a sealed echo chamber like atmosphere. This aspect of talk-based media is enhanced in the participatory format perfected by Rush Limbaugh and his countless blowhard imitators who are able to convince their listeners that acting against their own interests is imperative to the continuing survival of the “free world”. Here is proof that Democracy is not only alive and well, but that we — meaning us Dittoheads — are a part of it! We have a voice, even if it amounts to a collective, “Ditto”, or gushing praise for Larry from a caller in Nebraska.
Whether the subject is global warming or celebrity drunk drivers, you can count on Larry to mask his ignorance of the subject matter by dumbing the conversation down to a level that even a none-too bright hotel heiress would insist was “too banal” and “an insult to single-celled invertebrates everywhere”. “OK”, you’re thinking, “So he’s as dumb as a bag of wilted turnips, but at least no one can accuse him of playing the kind of “gotcha” journalism” that occurs the moment a high-profile personality says something revealing, or worse, honest. When Jimmy Carter momentarily veered off-script to compare Israel’s race-based policies to Apartheid, he was roundly condemned by the establishment media, who used the opportunity his “gaffe” afforded to play “hard ball” with the Nobel laureate, launching an endless tirade of indignation and the kind of tough questioning that was curiously absent in the build up to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Carter’s extended “Ooops!-moment” confirmed what we already knew, namely, that when the truth is spoken in America’s political culture, it is always a gaffe, an embarrassing slip of the tongue, that must be atoned for by way of repeated public apologies, if not a month-long visit to a Hollywood rehab facility. It must have been a relief for the beleaguered former President to appear on Larry King Live to chat amiably off-topic about his charity projects and vineyards.
Apart from offering an alternative to controversy, Larry puts his guests through a grindingly dull regimen of aroma therapy-based treatments as pioneered by Oprah and practiced throughout the American mass media landscape. Should any of his guests actually step out of their assigned roles as Empire’s keynote motivational speakers, offering something other than a cautiously upbeat assessment of current events, watch how quickly the half-napping host will rouse himself out of his stupor long enough to steer the conversation away from the less choppy waters of unguarded truth telling, while surreptitiously passing a “Do not invite back” note to his producer.
Still, if you are willing to play non-contact nerf ball, a guest spot on LKL offers even the most washed up, irrelevant “personality” a chance to appear serious and meaningfully engaged with the hot button issues of the day. To be fair, not many could resist an invitation to occupy a coveted place at Larry’s table, where such luminaries like the dudes who almost sperminated Anna Nicole Smith have held court before you to expound authoritatively on the awesomeness of optimism and the role it has played in their meteoric rise to the bottom of the celebrity food chain.
Perhaps it’s to Larry’s credit that he doesn’t really differentiate between a Hoochie-Mama Has-Been actress and a former US Secretary of State under Nixon. For a former Thigh Master spokesperson, being confused with, say, the Dalai Lama on a prime-time news [sic] program is less an embarrassment than a career-defining moment — up there with banging Dr Phil in Oprah’s green room. And if you are Henry Kissinger, having the ‘King of Shlock” compliment you on your latest boob job is a small price to pay for not being cross-examined at the Hague about your war criminal past. And if you can stand having your “rack” fiercely ogled, while sitting nipple to eyeball with the goblin-like host perched between the Gothic spires of his own shoulder blades — and better yet, if you still manage somehow not to collapse in a fit of giggles — there’s always an open door invitation to flog your latest policy initiative and/or QVC jewelry collection from the comfort of Larry’s revolving, heart-shaped desk.
If anything, Larry is an equal opportunity fame whore. So even if your your celebrity is the kind that comes with being second runner up on So You Think You Can Dance, your brief, flickering fifteen minutes in the spotlight can earn you a permanent spot in his pantheon of assorted establishment movers and shakers from Madeline Albright to Marie Osmond. In this ersatz democratic environment, made up entirely of those who wield power and those who worship it, even “movers and shakers” of the jiggly blonde variety are granted the kind of intellectual and moral authority normally reserved for Nobel physicists and ancient desert prophets.
Understanding how The King of Talk’ has attained the status (according to one media expert at least) of “world-renown [sic] journalist [sic]” requires further rumination on how shoe-shining for power has become the staple format of talk shows, and indeed, the national pastime, where cozy banter between elites passes for genuine and substantive dialogue on subjects that profoundly effect our lives (healthcare, social security, employment, public education etc…) Wolf Blitzer requesting that those Republican presidential candidates to raise their hands if they believe in evolution doesn’t inspire dialogue so much as ridicule. But sadly, this passes as serious journalism in elite circles, just as empty slogans like “The Audacity of Hope” has become a clarion call for non-action by yet the latest corporate shill on the Democratic party presidential ticket.
As Americans’ faith in their political institutions continues to wane, (according to recent polls, the number of Americans who trust Congress is about the same as the number who admit to beating their wives) TV and radio talk shows provide false affirmation that we have a role in determining the direction of public policy. Increasingly, though, “public policy” is limited to what extent the law can punish Mexican workers and the Girls Gone Wild segment of the population.
In an age when the only guaranteed formula for political success at the national level is to alternately and seamlessly terrorize the voting public with more or less imaginary threats of mass extinction, temporary relief always comes in the form of the latest feel-good, victim-blaming nostrum as dictated from Oprah Central. An invitation to appear on Larry King Live (or, for that matter, Meet the Press or Hardball) is only accepted on the tacit understanding that certain topics (for example, those that most affect the lives of ordinary Americans) are only touched upon, and only then to emphasize “personal responsibility” within a narrow framework of “bi-partisan” initiatives.
Since the public has largely given up on their expectations that the mainstream media fulfill its essential role as the peoples’ watchdog and political conscience, relentless chit-chat sessions like LKL, Oprah, and even Letterman serve an even more vital function: to provide the illusory assurances that, unlike some forsaken creature clinging to survival on a drifting ice-cap as the planet hurtles towards extinction, we will somehow endure, shopping bags and credit ratings intact — at least long enough to find out whether or not Larry King will ask Paris Hilton if she’s optimistic.
*The rules of the LKL drinking game requires that if one of Larry’s guests should ever snap back at him with some version of “No, goddamn it, I’m pessimistic as hell. And if you ask me that one more time, I’ll shove your shrunken vulture head even further down your spinal column”, participants will have to chug-a-lug a chaser of bong water after downing a triple shot of meth-laced Pruno.)