Talk show host Larry King

Originally aired on April 8, 2011

Turnabout is fair play in part two of Tavis as “guest” on his own show, fielding questions from the venerable talk-show host.

With more than 50 years in broadcasting, Larry King has logged more than 40,000 interviews, including with every U.S. president since Gerald Ford. Last year, after a 25-year run, he signed off on his signature CNN program—TV's first worldwide live phone-in talk show—and is taking his career in a new direction. The Emmy winner has been inducted into five leading broadcasting halls of fame. He's also made cameos in more than 20 films. After bypass heart surgery, he founded a cardiac foundation, which provides life-saving procedures for children and adults.

TRANSCRIPT

Larry King: Back now with Part Two of my conversation with Tavis celebrating 20 years in broadcasting. And in conjunction with that, out soon with a new book called “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure.” There are 20 chapters in the book; each one has a significant title and leads right in. We’re covering some of those titles. Why do you self-publish?
Tavis: Umm, it’s a good question. I was with Doubleday for ten years. I had a good run with Doubleday, but I realized that there were things that I wanted to do in a way that was different than what they wanted to do, number one. Number two, I realized that, after ten years, I knew how to do it on my own.
And number three, really and more importantly, there were things that I wanted to publish. There was a lot of stuff – I love to read – there’s a lot of stuff out that I wanted to read that I didn’t think the industry really cared enough about to publish. So really it was a way for me to put other stuff out that I enjoy reading and I’m glad we’ve had great stuff with Cornel West and Iyanla Vanzant…
King: …but you have to have people distribute for you, right?
Tavis: Yeah. I have a partnership with Hay House who does all my distribution. I want to put stuff out there that I think is great to read.
King: In Chapter 6, yours truly is mentioned. Sometimes getting fired is a gift. You were fired by Bob Johnson, as you mentioned earlier, and I was fired from jobs once because the station went urban. We had all whites fired because the station went all Black, the reverse.
Tavis: [Laughter] The one time in the history of the country that happened, and you got caught up in it.
King: That’s right, and I didn’t get angry. You know, I didn’t use anger because I always knew I thought I would make it. What did you do with firing? What did firing teach you?
Tavis: I wrote a piece for “USA WEEKEND” – the publication comes out on Sundays – after I got fired by BET. The piece was called “A Pink Slip Can Fire You Up” and that’s what I talked about, how it is that being fired really allowed me to understand what my worth and value is.
So, for example, I think I tell the story in the book, if there’s a can of, shall we say, Coca Cola sitting on a shelf in a store and no one ever comes along to say, “I will pay x amount for this can of Coke,” it has no value. Put another way, value is not what you think of yourself; value is what other people think of you. If you’re sitting on that shelf for month after month after month and nobody agrees to pay a buck for you and or $1.50 or whatever Cokes cost these days, you have no value until somebody comes along and puts a price on you.
So the point is that I didn’t even know what I was really worth in this industry until BET fired me. Once they fired me – I could have been at this Black channel talking just to Black folk for my whole life which I love doing, but PBS would have never happened, NPR wouldn’t have happened, PRI wouldn’t have happened. All the things that have happened wouldn’t have happened had I stayed at BET. So getting fired, in a real way, allowed me to test the marketplace to see what my value was.
King: Now where this book can help people, though, is the day you were fired, you didn’t say, “Glory be to heaven, I’ve been fired!”
Tavis: No, I sat and cried.
King: So all of this is retrospect.
Tavis: Absolutely. I sat and cried because I didn’t understand really why it had happened. We talked on the program last night about my abiding faith, but I don’t think that being one of faith means that you don’t have the right to question God. I was raised as a kid you never question God.
Well, now that I’m older, I don’t believe that. I believe you do question God. When Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, he doesn’t want to go to the cross; he doesn’t want to be crucified; he doesn’t want to stand trial. He didn’t want to do this. He says, “Father, if it’s possible, let this cup pass from me.” So if Jesus can question God, the father, surely we can question God about things in our lives.
So I wanted to know why did this happen to me and why am I being fired so publicly. I felt humiliated by the whole process. It wasn’t the best experience, but, again, I learned my value and you fail up.
King: Harvey Mackay wrote a very good book on getting fired.
Tavis: Um-hum. I read it, yeah.
King: By the way, other chapter titles – we’re not gonna be able to cover them all – say things like “Remain Dignified Even When You’re Justified,” “Do Your Homework,” “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” “Get In Where You Fit In,” “Failing Is Part Of The Process,” “If You Can’t Sell Yourself, No One Else Will Buy It.” Do you think you’re selling yourself all the time?
Tavis: I hope not. I’m not so much interested in selling myself as I am trying to get people to wrestle with ideas. I think public television is at its best. I love being on public television. I think it’s at its best when we challenge folk to reexamine the assumptions they hold.
And we help folk expand their inventory of ideas when we use these platforms through our guest bookings to introduce Americans to people and ideas they never thought they’d ever consider. That’s what I think public television and public radio, which I also do, is at its best. I hope that what I’m selling is the notion of people reexamining their assumptions, not Tavis Smiley per se.
King: “Allow Grace to Give”; what do you mean?
Tavis: I believe we have to allow space for grace. We got to allow space for grace.
King: Meaning?
Tavis: Meaning that you can’t back people into corners. There have been points in my life where I’ve learned that, when you back people into corners, my dad once told me – you ever seen a cat get backed into a corner? A cat never just curls up in the corner and just, you know, gives you his or her back. They’re gonna raise that back up and, at some point, they’re gonna come out fighting with all they have in them.
That’s what happens to people in life if you back them in the corners. Now that I own and run a company with a number of employees, you know, we may not always agree. We may not always see eye to eye, but I don’t believe in my life or in my work in backing people into corners. You got to save space for grace.
I had a great, very well-known actress who is now on television every day – I had a wonderful actress on my show one time and she made the mistake of – on BET, which is pretty bad on a Black television channel when you don’t know that Egypt is in Africa.
I wanted to pounce on her because we were in a disagreement on TV and I saw this woman – you know, it’s like chin’s up and your behind’s out. I can just knock you out. You’re on Black television and you don’t know that Egypt is a part of Africa? I went in for the kill and I backed up because I could hear my father saying, “Save space for grace.” So I pulled back.
The audience had seen what a major faux pas this was from an actress who’d achieved great success, but it was a major, major mistake and she just didn’t realize what she had said, I hope at least. But I didn’t pounce. I backed off of that and I learned a great lesson. Because in my life, if everybody hit me every time I left myself open, I would have been knocked out a few more times.
King: As an aside, what do you make of the tabloidization of this business?
Tavis: I don’t like it. Again, it’s one of the reasons why I love, you know, PBS. It’s one of the reasons I love public radio, public television, NPR, all that.
King: That’s why I envy you.
Tavis: I love public TV and public radio. I hate to see the attack. It hurts me to see the attack that public TV and public radio are under even as we sit here at this moment.
King: Public radio more.
Tavis: Exactly. Because I think that that tabloidization is to the detriment of all of us. So I love the opportunity to sit here – usually there – every night and try to again raise questions, raise issues, profile people that can advance the cause of democracy rather than tearing it down.
King: Do you like being on the other side here?
Tavis: No, not really. I like talking to you.
King: No, of course, control.
Tavis: Is that what it is?
King: Of course. The interviewer always has control.
Tavis: Do you believe that?
King: Unless he’s a bad interviewer. You always have control because I’m gonna decide what I’m gonna ask, right?
Tavis: That’s right.
King: You don’t know what I’m gonna ask.
Tavis: I’ll follow your lead.
King: You thought she was an adult, you thought she was an adult. I’m not gonna get into that. I don’t get into tabloids. Now if this were “Larry King Live,” we would do that [laugh]. Anyway, “Get Ready To Be Ready: How You Turn Down a TV Opportunity Because You Thought You Weren’t Ready.”
Tavis: I’m glad to be on TV.
King: Didn’t regret it at the time?
Tavis: I didn’t. I’m glad to be on TV and radio 20 years later, but I think it only happened because, when I first got the opportunity to do TV here locally, I turned it down. All of my friends said, “Tavis, you’re an idiot. You’ve been on the radio here locally. How dare you turn down your first TV opportunity?”
At the time, Channel 7 here locally, the ABC affiliate, was number one for news in Southern California at the time and they offered me an opportunity to be a commentator during the 5:00 news.
Here I am, a 20-some year old Black kid who gets the opportunity to be a commentator during the 5:00 news and they’re number one in all of Southern California. I turned it down. I was good at radio at the time, but I’d never done television. I didn’t know how to read a teleprompter; I didn’t know anything about TV at the time. I hadn’t even done television ever at that time.
King: It’s just pictures of radio.
Tavis: Yeah, I know, yeah. But easier said than done, as you well know, doing it for 25 years on CNN. So I turned it down because I didn’t think I was ready for it and everybody thought I’d made a huge mistake. I turned it down, but I went to Canada and spent a year with a friend of mine who was doing PBS stuff based out of Montreal. And for a year, I learned everything about the TV business.
I worked camera, I worked the teleprompter, I worked in the control room, I booked shows. I did all kinds of stuff learning the business. A year later, I came back to Los Angeles and it turns out – long story short – that commentator’s job was still available. I went in, did an audition, did one take. The rest, as they say, is history and here I am 20 years later talking to you.
King: How should the reader use this book?
Tavis: I hope that the reader and for those who’ve seen it thus far – I keep hearing from people already – that it’s easy to find yourself in the book and that’s what I really care about. These are my own personal stories of the failings that I’ve had.
King: You’re in some of the chapters, everybody, right?
Tavis: Yeah, exactly, absolutely. You’re gonna find yourself probably in more than a few chapters in this book if you’re honest with yourself because, again, we all have failings. I think, especially at this point in this country’s history, what’s happening in our economy and what’s happening in the world, I think everybody’s a little bit afraid of failing. Not just personal failures, but familial failures, global failures. Everybody’s afraid of this thing called failure.
I think now it’s time for a good gut check about how it is that we’re gonna navigate our way through this very difficult period in this country’s history. As long as we understand that we are going to fail from time to time, that we can get through these failures, that we can learn the lessons from these failures and fail our way to the top, I think we’ll be okay.
King: One of your topics, interestingly, was the famous thing in World War II, “Loose Lips Can Sink Ships.” Those signs were everywhere, those signs with the picture of Uncle Sam, because we were so afraid that people would learn things. What does it mean in your book?
Tavis: There was a great debate inside my inner circle of family and friends about whether or not I should even put this chapter in the book. You mentioned the word tabloidization earlier. It’s the only chapter that gets maybe a little far afield in terms of telling stuff about myself that you might regret being out there years down the road.
But the story quickly is that I was dating a woman at this particular time and she had confided in me, shall we say, a sexual proclivity of a former boyfriend of hers.
King: A what?
Tavis: A sexual preference, sexual proclivity.
King: Oh, I see. A sexual proclivity.
Tavis: Exactly, of one of her former lovers. I, in a very unwise moment, was gossiping. Men gossip too; not just women. I was gossiping. It got back to this person what I had said about him. I wasn’t saying it in a malicious or mean way, just running my mouth gossiping. We think of gossip as innocent until people get victimized and hurt by it.
So I said something about this person that got back to him and he, obviously, was not happy with it. He phoned my girlfriend, told her to keep her mouth shut. She summarily called me and broke up with me, so I lost the relationship with a woman that I was very much in love with. So the relationship ended, number one.
But as it turns out, this person who I was talking about, this male, is a very, very, very well-known actor in this town who I have never booked on this set for this show. He’ll never talk to me. He’ll never talk to me in this town because he did not like the fact that, even when I was young and dumb and immature – this is long before I was even in television. I was working for Tom Bradley at the time. I wasn’t even in the TV business.
But it’s come back to haunt me all these years because I would love to have a great conversation with him. He’s worthy of that, but he won’t talk to me because he remembers when I was just a kid running my mouth about his business. That stuff follows you throughout life.
King: Well, if this were one of those tabloid shows, who was he [laugh]? Boy, thank God, I don’t get into that. So who was he [laugh]? I love this title. “Failing Is Part Of The Process: No Failure, No Success.” You believe that every successful person has had a failure.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes, if they’re being honest. As we said last night, people don’t want to be honest about that. Once you become fabulous, you know, the game is to act like you’ve always been fabulous.
I mean, who wants to tell the ugly about their life, about the mistakes they’ve made? You want to act like, again, you’ve always been at the top of the game. It doesn’t really work that way. But I don’t believe that anybody can ever be successful if you don’t have failure.
King: One of your favorite people is Jimmy Carter, right?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
King: Why?
Tavis: You’ve interviewed him many more times than I have. But he has sat in this chair many times on this program and what I admire about him more than anything else – and I asked him about this one night. I’m not sure how kindly he took to the question, but I asked him on this very set whether or not it would be fair to say that he was the best ex-president we’ve ever had.
He said, “Well, I hear your point and maybe that’s true, Tavis, but I think I was a pretty good president as well.” So he pushed back on that notion of being a great ex-president. He thought he’d done a good job.
King: In essence, it’s a slight.
Tavis: A slight, exactly. So he pushed back on that. But I wanted to get his take on that question. I raised that because it’s hard to imagine the respect and regard that we have for Jimmy Carter now, this Nobel Laureate, and he clearly is the best ex-president we’ve ever had.
But it’s hard to juxtapose that with where this guy was in 1979. I mean, he was persona non grata after, you know, Reagan beat the pants off of him, of course. But it’s just hard to imagine, you know, all the good that Jimmy Carter has done in the world. Talking about failing up, he’s an extreme and wonderful example of what it means to fail up and that’s why I respect him so.
King: Despite the fact that the Jewish community is not too crazy about him.
Tavis: He’s had some issues with that. But, again, I think that part of – and I talk about this in the book – that part of succeeding or failing has to do with whether or not you are going to commit yourself to being a truth-teller about the world as you see it.
Now you got to be civil in that. You got to be loving in that, but people have to tell their own truth. It doesn’t mean that everybody’s always going to agree with that, but the quickest way to become a failure is to start lying to yourself about what you believe.
King: Tell me the modus operandi of how you write. I notice you mentioned that your staff looked at this and they weren’t too sure about one of these titles or one of the chapters. How long does it take you? How do you work?
Tavis: It’s very simple. I sit – this is book number 15, I think, and I’ve done them all the same way. I sit and I talk into a machine. I usually work with a couple of different people to try to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t.
King: Because you’re more verbal.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m much more verbal. Book writing is the most difficult thing for me to do.
King: Yeah, no kidding. I’m verbal too.
Tavis: I love the books when they’re done, but I hate the process. I even love going out, you know, doing the book tour and talking to people.
King: The process.
Tavis: The process, I hate it.
King: Shirley Povich, the great sportswriter, wrote once – this is a different age – “Writing is easy. You put the paper in the typewriter, you turn the page and you bleed.” You use input from others, though? You do?
Tavis: I do. My life is too incomplete in too many ways to rely just on my own experiences. Each of these chapters, for example, I start by telling the story of the mistake that I made, the failing that I had and what I learned from that. But then I expand it out. The majority in each chapter is not really about me as much as it is about how I think, as a society, as individuals, we have to wrestle with these issues of x, y or z.
King: Is Tavis Smiley on PBS? Is that it or is there more coming?
Tavis: Wow. I hope there’s more coming, but I know my staff is laughing when they hear the phrase “Is that it?” because we’re doing so many things every day. We’ve got the TV show, we’ve got two different radio shows I’m a part of, the Tavis Smiley radio show and I do a show with Cornel West, the great intellectual. We do a show called “Smiley & West.”
King: I love him.
Tavis: I have a foundation, I have a book company.
King: I mean, do you want to go – do you want to do a movie? Do you want to be something that we would not associate you normally with?
Tavis: No. I’m comfortable here. There are a lot of things in my life that I want to do, but nothing turns me on more than being able to sit here. I’m a very curious person, a very inquisitive person. I love learning.
King: People don’t want to sit next to you on a plane?
Tavis: Well, on planes, I’m actually pretty quiet. I’m always reading stuff. I usually read on planes.
King: I ask questions.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I can imagine that. I’m usually reading on planes, but I love the time every day sitting here or at the radio studio asking questions.
King: Would you say you’re happy?
Tavis: I am happy.
King: Is that a state of mind or a condition?
Tavis: I think it’s both. It’s a state of mind, it’s a condition and I think it’s temporal too. I don’t think that we’re always happy or always sad. So the word I prefer more than happy is content. I’m contented with my life. I want more and I want to do more and I want to accomplish more, but happiness, I think, comes and goes.
King: Do you think you need discontent to be content?
Tavis: Yes.
King: Do you think you need failure to know success?
Tavis: Yes.
King: That’s the whole point of your book, right?
Tavis: You’ve turned philosopher on me now, Larry.
King: By the way, this book is a great book to read. Another great thing about it is you don’t have to read it chapter by chapter. You can turn to chapters.
Tavis: Back and forth, yeah.
King: Are you writing another one already?
Tavis: Not at the moment, although I do think that at some point, given all the drama that I endured with President Obama when he ran for the presidency and all the fallout. People talked about Obama versus Tavis and Tavis said this and Obama said this and all that stuff, which I cover in the book about that period in my life a few years ago.
I think that, at some point, there’ll be a need for a number of treatises about this administration and about whether or not it lived up to all the hype, and I hope to have my say about that somewhere down the road, but it’s a little too early right now.
King: Do you expect to be involved in 2012?
Tavis: Only from this chair. Only from talking about it. I don’t involve myself in campaigns. I have a lot to say about the issues of the day and I’m glad I have platforms to talk about that, but I don’t engage myself in that.
King: Would you say we are at a point where we have terrible animosity in this country?
Tavis: Yes, and I thought it was sad that it took, you know, a Congresswoman getting shot in the head, a federal judge being killed, to have a conversation about civility. That kind of went out the window once this budget debate kicked up in Washington. So it seemed to be more just a conversation than a real way of life.
I’m troubled by that, but, again, what I take solace in is the opportunity to sit here on TV and radio every day and to try to have civil discourse about the things that really matter in the world. What I hate more than anything else is just all this senseless conversation that doesn’t really impact anything.
King: Doesn’t mean anything.
Tavis: Doesn’t mean anything, man.
King: Well, you must feel greatly satisfied that you’ve had an impact.
Tavis: Well, I don’t know that I’ve had an impact. I hope that, you know, people are paying attention.
King: The book is “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure.” That’s it already? Okay.
Tavis: Not quite because I want to ask you a question, if I can. You knew you couldn’t come here for two nights and me not ask something. So I’ve been hearing about, and I’m so excited about, the tour that you’re about to go on, the Larry King Tour?
King: Yeah.
Tavis: So tell me about it.
King: Well, I’ve spoken all my career at conventions. I get booked and have spoken at General Motors and AMA and I always try to be funny. I like making people laugh. I think if I were starting over and I didn’t love broadcasting so much, I’d have been a comic. I love saying something and feeling that from an audience.
So when I finished at CNN – I’m still doing specials. In fact, on May 1, same day your book comes out, we’ve got a special on Alzheimer’s that really should hopefully be terrific.
Anyway, my nephew is Scott Zeiger, who’s a top Broadway producer. He came to me and he’d seen me work. He said, “Why don’t we put together an act and let’s book you around the country?” I said, “But people won’t know I’m funny.” He said, “Well, we’re gonna have to sell that.” You know, he’s funny. So they got me booked in Vegas and Atlantic City and theaters all over the nation and I’m gonna work some casinos where my wife will open and sing for me.
Tavis: So this Charlie Sheen bombing doesn’t give you any pause?
King: Well, he’s not a comic, you know. He is funny as a comedic actor, but he’s not a comedian. I can be funny. I know I’m funny. No, I know timing, I know pacing, I know how to tell a joke.
Tavis: You’re a great storyteller. Every time I’m with you, you’re a great storyteller.
King: I can tell you a joke and make you laugh right now.
Tavis: Tell me a joke.
King: Okay. There’s a train that goes every night from New York to Chicago. It’s an overnight train, leaves at 11, arrives in Chicago at 8 in the morning. It’s a nine-hour trip. It’s an all-sleeper train. All the cars are sleeper cars. A man checks in. He’s about to go to sleep, the door opens and a woman comes in. Normally, Amtrak would never sell a ticket to a single man and a single woman, but the woman didn’t complain, train was sold out.
The train begins its trek, the man gets in the upper berth, she’s in the lower berth. They’re going along for a little while and he leans over and says, “Ma’am, I’m a little chilled. May I borrow a blanket?” She looks at him and says, “We’re strangers on the train. We may never see each other again after this night, probably won’t. Why not just for tonight, why don’t we play man and wife? You and me, man and wife, just for tonight.” The guy says, “Sure.” She says, “Get your own damned blanket.” [Laugh]
That’s funny; tell it well. That’s my comedy tour. We start May 14 in Atlantic City at Borgata.
Tavis: Congratulations in advance.
King: By the way, congratulations on the book.
Tavis: Thank you for doing this.
King: It was my honor to do this. In fact, I’ll tell you how much I miss it. You’re out. They called me today and they said, “You know, a Jew doesn’t have a show anymore and Blacks have had it for too long. You’re in, he’s out [laugh].”
So we’ll take a lesson as he learns to deal with own current failure [laugh]. My thanks to everyone here on Tavis’ show. A terrific staff you’ve got. A guy could get used to a show like this every night and, as we just said, this is the takeover [laugh].
The new book, “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure,” or the new title, “21 Lessons: Losing my PBS Show” [laugh]. Congrats on everything. Many more years, by the way. 20 years is a success.
Tavis: Thank you, Larry [laugh].
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Larry King: Back now with Part Two of my conversation with Tavis celebrating 20 years in broadcasting. And in conjunction with that, out soon with a new book called “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure.” There are 20 chapters in the book; each one has a significant title and leads right in. We’re covering some of those titles. Why do you self-publish?
Tavis: Umm, it’s a good question. I was with Doubleday for ten years. I had a good run with Doubleday, but I realized that there were things that I wanted to do in a way that was different than what they wanted to do, number one. Number two, I realized that, after ten years, I knew how to do it on my own.
And number three, really and more importantly, there were things that I wanted to publish. There was a lot of stuff – I love to read – there’s a lot of stuff out that I wanted to read that I didn’t think the industry really cared enough about to publish. So really it was a way for me to put other stuff out that I enjoy reading and I’m glad we’ve had great stuff with Cornel West and Iyanla Vanzant…
King: …but you have to have people distribute for you, right?
Tavis: Yeah. I have a partnership with Hay House who does all my distribution. I want to put stuff out there that I think is great to read.
King: In Chapter 6, yours truly is mentioned. Sometimes getting fired is a gift. You were fired by Bob Johnson, as you mentioned earlier, and I was fired from jobs once because the station went urban. We had all whites fired because the station went all Black, the reverse.
Tavis: [Laughter] The one time in the history of the country that happened, and you got caught up in it.
King: That’s right, and I didn’t get angry. You know, I didn’t use anger because I always knew I thought I would make it. What did you do with firing? What did firing teach you?
Tavis: I wrote a piece for “USA WEEKEND” – the publication comes out on Sundays – after I got fired by BET. The piece was called “A Pink Slip Can Fire You Up” and that’s what I talked about, how it is that being fired really allowed me to understand what my worth and value is.
So, for example, I think I tell the story in the book, if there’s a can of, shall we say, Coca Cola sitting on a shelf in a store and no one ever comes along to say, “I will pay x amount for this can of Coke,” it has no value. Put another way, value is not what you think of yourself; value is what other people think of you. If you’re sitting on that shelf for month after month after month and nobody agrees to pay a buck for you and or $1.50 or whatever Cokes cost these days, you have no value until somebody comes along and puts a price on you.
So the point is that I didn’t even know what I was really worth in this industry until BET fired me. Once they fired me – I could have been at this Black channel talking just to Black folk for my whole life which I love doing, but PBS would have never happened, NPR wouldn’t have happened, PRI wouldn’t have happened. All the things that have happened wouldn’t have happened had I stayed at BET. So getting fired, in a real way, allowed me to test the marketplace to see what my value was.
King: Now where this book can help people, though, is the day you were fired, you didn’t say, “Glory be to heaven, I’ve been fired!”
Tavis: No, I sat and cried.
King: So all of this is retrospect.
Tavis: Absolutely. I sat and cried because I didn’t understand really why it had happened. We talked on the program last night about my abiding faith, but I don’t think that being one of faith means that you don’t have the right to question God. I was raised as a kid you never question God.
Well, now that I’m older, I don’t believe that. I believe you do question God. When Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, he doesn’t want to go to the cross; he doesn’t want to be crucified; he doesn’t want to stand trial. He didn’t want to do this. He says, “Father, if it’s possible, let this cup pass from me.” So if Jesus can question God, the father, surely we can question God about things in our lives.
So I wanted to know why did this happen to me and why am I being fired so publicly. I felt humiliated by the whole process. It wasn’t the best experience, but, again, I learned my value and you fail up.
King: Harvey Mackay wrote a very good book on getting fired.
Tavis: Um-hum. I read it, yeah.
King: By the way, other chapter titles – we’re not gonna be able to cover them all – say things like “Remain Dignified Even When You’re Justified,” “Do Your Homework,” “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” “Get In Where You Fit In,” “Failing Is Part Of The Process,” “If You Can’t Sell Yourself, No One Else Will Buy It.” Do you think you’re selling yourself all the time?
Tavis: I hope not. I’m not so much interested in selling myself as I am trying to get people to wrestle with ideas. I think public television is at its best. I love being on public television. I think it’s at its best when we challenge folk to reexamine the assumptions they hold.
And we help folk expand their inventory of ideas when we use these platforms through our guest bookings to introduce Americans to people and ideas they never thought they’d ever consider. That’s what I think public television and public radio, which I also do, is at its best. I hope that what I’m selling is the notion of people reexamining their assumptions, not Tavis Smiley per se.
King: “Allow Grace to Give”; what do you mean?
Tavis: I believe we have to allow space for grace. We got to allow space for grace.
King: Meaning?
Tavis: Meaning that you can’t back people into corners. There have been points in my life where I’ve learned that, when you back people into corners, my dad once told me – you ever seen a cat get backed into a corner? A cat never just curls up in the corner and just, you know, gives you his or her back. They’re gonna raise that back up and, at some point, they’re gonna come out fighting with all they have in them.
That’s what happens to people in life if you back them in the corners. Now that I own and run a company with a number of employees, you know, we may not always agree. We may not always see eye to eye, but I don’t believe in my life or in my work in backing people into corners. You got to save space for grace.
I had a great, very well-known actress who is now on television every day – I had a wonderful actress on my show one time and she made the mistake of – on BET, which is pretty bad on a Black television channel when you don’t know that Egypt is in Africa.
I wanted to pounce on her because we were in a disagreement on TV and I saw this woman – you know, it’s like chin’s up and your behind’s out. I can just knock you out. You’re on Black television and you don’t know that Egypt is a part of Africa? I went in for the kill and I backed up because I could hear my father saying, “Save space for grace.” So I pulled back.
The audience had seen what a major faux pas this was from an actress who’d achieved great success, but it was a major, major mistake and she just didn’t realize what she had said, I hope at least. But I didn’t pounce. I backed off of that and I learned a great lesson. Because in my life, if everybody hit me every time I left myself open, I would have been knocked out a few more times.
King: As an aside, what do you make of the tabloidization of this business?
Tavis: I don’t like it. Again, it’s one of the reasons why I love, you know, PBS. It’s one of the reasons I love public radio, public television, NPR, all that.
King: That’s why I envy you.
Tavis: I love public TV and public radio. I hate to see the attack. It hurts me to see the attack that public TV and public radio are under even as we sit here at this moment.
King: Public radio more.
Tavis: Exactly. Because I think that that tabloidization is to the detriment of all of us. So I love the opportunity to sit here – usually there – every night and try to again raise questions, raise issues, profile people that can advance the cause of democracy rather than tearing it down.
King: Do you like being on the other side here?
Tavis: No, not really. I like talking to you.
King: No, of course, control.
Tavis: Is that what it is?
King: Of course. The interviewer always has control.
Tavis: Do you believe that?
King: Unless he’s a bad interviewer. You always have control because I’m gonna decide what I’m gonna ask, right?
Tavis: That’s right.
King: You don’t know what I’m gonna ask.
Tavis: I’ll follow your lead.
King: You thought she was an adult, you thought she was an adult. I’m not gonna get into that. I don’t get into tabloids. Now if this were “Larry King Live,” we would do that [laugh]. Anyway, “Get Ready To Be Ready: How You Turn Down a TV Opportunity Because You Thought You Weren’t Ready.”
Tavis: I’m glad to be on TV.
King: Didn’t regret it at the time?
Tavis: I didn’t. I’m glad to be on TV and radio 20 years later, but I think it only happened because, when I first got the opportunity to do TV here locally, I turned it down. All of my friends said, “Tavis, you’re an idiot. You’ve been on the radio here locally. How dare you turn down your first TV opportunity?”
At the time, Channel 7 here locally, the ABC affiliate, was number one for news in Southern California at the time and they offered me an opportunity to be a commentator during the 5:00 news.
Here I am, a 20-some year old Black kid who gets the opportunity to be a commentator during the 5:00 news and they’re number one in all of Southern California. I turned it down. I was good at radio at the time, but I’d never done television. I didn’t know how to read a teleprompter; I didn’t know anything about TV at the time. I hadn’t even done television ever at that time.
King: It’s just pictures of radio.
Tavis: Yeah, I know, yeah. But easier said than done, as you well know, doing it for 25 years on CNN. So I turned it down because I didn’t think I was ready for it and everybody thought I’d made a huge mistake. I turned it down, but I went to Canada and spent a year with a friend of mine who was doing PBS stuff based out of Montreal. And for a year, I learned everything about the TV business.
I worked camera, I worked the teleprompter, I worked in the control room, I booked shows. I did all kinds of stuff learning the business. A year later, I came back to Los Angeles and it turns out – long story short – that commentator’s job was still available. I went in, did an audition, did one take. The rest, as they say, is history and here I am 20 years later talking to you.
King: How should the reader use this book?
Tavis: I hope that the reader and for those who’ve seen it thus far – I keep hearing from people already – that it’s easy to find yourself in the book and that’s what I really care about. These are my own personal stories of the failings that I’ve had.
King: You’re in some of the chapters, everybody, right?
Tavis: Yeah, exactly, absolutely. You’re gonna find yourself probably in more than a few chapters in this book if you’re honest with yourself because, again, we all have failings. I think, especially at this point in this country’s history, what’s happening in our economy and what’s happening in the world, I think everybody’s a little bit afraid of failing. Not just personal failures, but familial failures, global failures. Everybody’s afraid of this thing called failure.
I think now it’s time for a good gut check about how it is that we’re gonna navigate our way through this very difficult period in this country’s history. As long as we understand that we are going to fail from time to time, that we can get through these failures, that we can learn the lessons from these failures and fail our way to the top, I think we’ll be okay.
King: One of your topics, interestingly, was the famous thing in World War II, “Loose Lips Can Sink Ships.” Those signs were everywhere, those signs with the picture of Uncle Sam, because we were so afraid that people would learn things. What does it mean in your book?
Tavis: There was a great debate inside my inner circle of family and friends about whether or not I should even put this chapter in the book. You mentioned the word tabloidization earlier. It’s the only chapter that gets maybe a little far afield in terms of telling stuff about myself that you might regret being out there years down the road.
But the story quickly is that I was dating a woman at this particular time and she had confided in me, shall we say, a sexual proclivity of a former boyfriend of hers.
King: A what?
Tavis: A sexual preference, sexual proclivity.
King: Oh, I see. A sexual proclivity.
Tavis: Exactly, of one of her former lovers. I, in a very unwise moment, was gossiping. Men gossip too; not just women. I was gossiping. It got back to this person what I had said about him. I wasn’t saying it in a malicious or mean way, just running my mouth gossiping. We think of gossip as innocent until people get victimized and hurt by it.
So I said something about this person that got back to him and he, obviously, was not happy with it. He phoned my girlfriend, told her to keep her mouth shut. She summarily called me and broke up with me, so I lost the relationship with a woman that I was very much in love with. So the relationship ended, number one.
But as it turns out, this person who I was talking about, this male, is a very, very, very well-known actor in this town who I have never booked on this set for this show. He’ll never talk to me. He’ll never talk to me in this town because he did not like the fact that, even when I was young and dumb and immature – this is long before I was even in television. I was working for Tom Bradley at the time. I wasn’t even in the TV business.
But it’s come back to haunt me all these years because I would love to have a great conversation with him. He’s worthy of that, but he won’t talk to me because he remembers when I was just a kid running my mouth about his business. That stuff follows you throughout life.
King: Well, if this were one of those tabloid shows, who was he [laugh]? Boy, thank God, I don’t get into that. So who was he [laugh]? I love this title. “Failing Is Part Of The Process: No Failure, No Success.” You believe that every successful person has had a failure.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes, if they’re being honest. As we said last night, people don’t want to be honest about that. Once you become fabulous, you know, the game is to act like you’ve always been fabulous.
I mean, who wants to tell the ugly about their life, about the mistakes they’ve made? You want to act like, again, you’ve always been at the top of the game. It doesn’t really work that way. But I don’t believe that anybody can ever be successful if you don’t have failure.
King: One of your favorite people is Jimmy Carter, right?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
King: Why?
Tavis: You’ve interviewed him many more times than I have. But he has sat in this chair many times on this program and what I admire about him more than anything else – and I asked him about this one night. I’m not sure how kindly he took to the question, but I asked him on this very set whether or not it would be fair to say that he was the best ex-president we’ve ever had.
He said, “Well, I hear your point and maybe that’s true, Tavis, but I think I was a pretty good president as well.” So he pushed back on that notion of being a great ex-president. He thought he’d done a good job.
King: In essence, it’s a slight.
Tavis: A slight, exactly. So he pushed back on that. But I wanted to get his take on that question. I raised that because it’s hard to imagine the respect and regard that we have for Jimmy Carter now, this Nobel Laureate, and he clearly is the best ex-president we’ve ever had.
But it’s hard to juxtapose that with where this guy was in 1979. I mean, he was persona non grata after, you know, Reagan beat the pants off of him, of course. But it’s just hard to imagine, you know, all the good that Jimmy Carter has done in the world. Talking about failing up, he’s an extreme and wonderful example of what it means to fail up and that’s why I respect him so.
King: Despite the fact that the Jewish community is not too crazy about him.
Tavis: He’s had some issues with that. But, again, I think that part of – and I talk about this in the book – that part of succeeding or failing has to do with whether or not you are going to commit yourself to being a truth-teller about the world as you see it.
Now you got to be civil in that. You got to be loving in that, but people have to tell their own truth. It doesn’t mean that everybody’s always going to agree with that, but the quickest way to become a failure is to start lying to yourself about what you believe.
King: Tell me the modus operandi of how you write. I notice you mentioned that your staff looked at this and they weren’t too sure about one of these titles or one of the chapters. How long does it take you? How do you work?
Tavis: It’s very simple. I sit – this is book number 15, I think, and I’ve done them all the same way. I sit and I talk into a machine. I usually work with a couple of different people to try to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t.
King: Because you’re more verbal.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m much more verbal. Book writing is the most difficult thing for me to do.
King: Yeah, no kidding. I’m verbal too.
Tavis: I love the books when they’re done, but I hate the process. I even love going out, you know, doing the book tour and talking to people.
King: The process.
Tavis: The process, I hate it.
King: Shirley Povich, the great sportswriter, wrote once – this is a different age – “Writing is easy. You put the paper in the typewriter, you turn the page and you bleed.” You use input from others, though? You do?
Tavis: I do. My life is too incomplete in too many ways to rely just on my own experiences. Each of these chapters, for example, I start by telling the story of the mistake that I made, the failing that I had and what I learned from that. But then I expand it out. The majority in each chapter is not really about me as much as it is about how I think, as a society, as individuals, we have to wrestle with these issues of x, y or z.
King: Is Tavis Smiley on PBS? Is that it or is there more coming?
Tavis: Wow. I hope there’s more coming, but I know my staff is laughing when they hear the phrase “Is that it?” because we’re doing so many things every day. We’ve got the TV show, we’ve got two different radio shows I’m a part of, the Tavis Smiley radio show and I do a show with Cornel West, the great intellectual. We do a show called “Smiley & West.”
King: I love him.
Tavis: I have a foundation, I have a book company.
King: I mean, do you want to go – do you want to do a movie? Do you want to be something that we would not associate you normally with?
Tavis: No. I’m comfortable here. There are a lot of things in my life that I want to do, but nothing turns me on more than being able to sit here. I’m a very curious person, a very inquisitive person. I love learning.
King: People don’t want to sit next to you on a plane?
Tavis: Well, on planes, I’m actually pretty quiet. I’m always reading stuff. I usually read on planes.
King: I ask questions.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I can imagine that. I’m usually reading on planes, but I love the time every day sitting here or at the radio studio asking questions.
King: Would you say you’re happy?
Tavis: I am happy.
King: Is that a state of mind or a condition?
Tavis: I think it’s both. It’s a state of mind, it’s a condition and I think it’s temporal too. I don’t think that we’re always happy or always sad. So the word I prefer more than happy is content. I’m contented with my life. I want more and I want to do more and I want to accomplish more, but happiness, I think, comes and goes.
King: Do you think you need discontent to be content?
Tavis: Yes.
King: Do you think you need failure to know success?
Tavis: Yes.
King: That’s the whole point of your book, right?
Tavis: You’ve turned philosopher on me now, Larry.
King: By the way, this book is a great book to read. Another great thing about it is you don’t have to read it chapter by chapter. You can turn to chapters.
Tavis: Back and forth, yeah.
King: Are you writing another one already?
Tavis: Not at the moment, although I do think that at some point, given all the drama that I endured with President Obama when he ran for the presidency and all the fallout. People talked about Obama versus Tavis and Tavis said this and Obama said this and all that stuff, which I cover in the book about that period in my life a few years ago.
I think that, at some point, there’ll be a need for a number of treatises about this administration and about whether or not it lived up to all the hype, and I hope to have my say about that somewhere down the road, but it’s a little too early right now.
King: Do you expect to be involved in 2012?
Tavis: Only from this chair. Only from talking about it. I don’t involve myself in campaigns. I have a lot to say about the issues of the day and I’m glad I have platforms to talk about that, but I don’t engage myself in that.
King: Would you say we are at a point where we have terrible animosity in this country?
Tavis: Yes, and I thought it was sad that it took, you know, a Congresswoman getting shot in the head, a federal judge being killed, to have a conversation about civility. That kind of went out the window once this budget debate kicked up in Washington. So it seemed to be more just a conversation than a real way of life.
I’m troubled by that, but, again, what I take solace in is the opportunity to sit here on TV and radio every day and to try to have civil discourse about the things that really matter in the world. What I hate more than anything else is just all this senseless conversation that doesn’t really impact anything.
King: Doesn’t mean anything.
Tavis: Doesn’t mean anything, man.
King: Well, you must feel greatly satisfied that you’ve had an impact.
Tavis: Well, I don’t know that I’ve had an impact. I hope that, you know, people are paying attention.
King: The book is “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure.” That’s it already? Okay.
Tavis: Not quite because I want to ask you a question, if I can. You knew you couldn’t come here for two nights and me not ask something. So I’ve been hearing about, and I’m so excited about, the tour that you’re about to go on, the Larry King Tour?
King: Yeah.
Tavis: So tell me about it.
King: Well, I’ve spoken all my career at conventions. I get booked and have spoken at General Motors and AMA and I always try to be funny. I like making people laugh. I think if I were starting over and I didn’t love broadcasting so much, I’d have been a comic. I love saying something and feeling that from an audience.
So when I finished at CNN – I’m still doing specials. In fact, on May 1, same day your book comes out, we’ve got a special on Alzheimer’s that really should hopefully be terrific.
Anyway, my nephew is Scott Zeiger, who’s a top Broadway producer. He came to me and he’d seen me work. He said, “Why don’t we put together an act and let’s book you around the country?” I said, “But people won’t know I’m funny.” He said, “Well, we’re gonna have to sell that.” You know, he’s funny. So they got me booked in Vegas and Atlantic City and theaters all over the nation and I’m gonna work some casinos where my wife will open and sing for me.
Tavis: So this Charlie Sheen bombing doesn’t give you any pause?
King: Well, he’s not a comic, you know. He is funny as a comedic actor, but he’s not a comedian. I can be funny. I know I’m funny. No, I know timing, I know pacing, I know how to tell a joke.
Tavis: You’re a great storyteller. Every time I’m with you, you’re a great storyteller.
King: I can tell you a joke and make you laugh right now.
Tavis: Tell me a joke.
King: Okay. There’s a train that goes every night from New York to Chicago. It’s an overnight train, leaves at 11, arrives in Chicago at 8 in the morning. It’s a nine-hour trip. It’s an all-sleeper train. All the cars are sleeper cars. A man checks in. He’s about to go to sleep, the door opens and a woman comes in. Normally, Amtrak would never sell a ticket to a single man and a single woman, but the woman didn’t complain, train was sold out.
The train begins its trek, the man gets in the upper berth, she’s in the lower berth. They’re going along for a little while and he leans over and says, “Ma’am, I’m a little chilled. May I borrow a blanket?” She looks at him and says, “We’re strangers on the train. We may never see each other again after this night, probably won’t. Why not just for tonight, why don’t we play man and wife? You and me, man and wife, just for tonight.” The guy says, “Sure.” She says, “Get your own damned blanket.” [Laugh]
That’s funny; tell it well. That’s my comedy tour. We start May 14 in Atlantic City at Borgata.
Tavis: Congratulations in advance.
King: By the way, congratulations on the book.
Tavis: Thank you for doing this.
King: It was my honor to do this. In fact, I’ll tell you how much I miss it. You’re out. They called me today and they said, “You know, a Jew doesn’t have a show anymore and Blacks have had it for too long. You’re in, he’s out [laugh].”
So we’ll take a lesson as he learns to deal with own current failure [laugh]. My thanks to everyone here on Tavis’ show. A terrific staff you’ve got. A guy could get used to a show like this every night and, as we just said, this is the takeover [laugh].
The new book, “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure,” or the new title, “21 Lessons: Losing my PBS Show” [laugh]. Congrats on everything. Many more years, by the way. 20 years is a success.
Tavis: Thank you, Larry [laugh].
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Last modified: June 5, 2011 at 3:03 pm