I tuned in to watch CN’s Larry King-replacement Piers Morgan interview Howard Stern earlier this week. By the end of it it was clear to me why Howard is at the top of his game and Piers is.. really popular in England. I’m going to boil down my observations this way: when Morgan replays the interview, here are the five things Howard-the-interviewer does that Piers should have. I’ll make it quick:
1. Listen. Howard runs a great interview because he listens carefully to what people say, and to what they mean. Even if, like Morgan, he may sometimes be thinking of the next question, or worrying about how the interview is going, he doesn’t show it. Morgan did. The reward for careful listening is Howard can tell when a guest has strayed into uncomfortable territory. That’s when he pounces.
2. Don’t strive for shock or outrageousness. Strive for honesty. Howard’s reputation as a “shock jock,” distracts people from his real goal: to get people, including himself, to be as honest as possible. Shock is a byproduct of honesty. Morgan kept tossing in questions about sex and penis size, thinking he would reveal the “shocking” Howard. Howard tried to make something out of the dead end observations. (By the way, Piers, if you’re going to offer up teasers, they should tease. “When we come back, we’ll talk to Howard about money,” is not what I call a cliffhanger.
3. Once you open a wound, dig in. There was one coup for Morgan in the interview, when Howard revealed the time his dad called him a genius. Morgan should have pressed deeper on that, pressed and pressed. Howard would have sensed the honesty, the rawness, and dug in with more questions, and circled back to it. That’s how Howard pulled out the nugget about Kelsey Grammer’s alleged dress-up fetish from his ex-wife. Piers just let Howard’s reveal slide, or so it appeared in the edit.
4. Go where no hack interviewer has gone before.. If Howard asks ten questions, you can be sure his subject has never been asked eight f them before, at least not in public. Some of Howard’s questions are meant to throw a person off guard, others are the result of someone—maybe Howard, or Gary, or Will—going down a list and circling what’s new and different.
5. Your audience will always care more about you than whoever your talking to. Balls, Piers. You’re on TV. This is your show. What do you think? What’s going through your head? Every interview Howard does reveals a lot… about Howard. Piers still thinks of himself as a journalist. And if this were a print or NPR interview, that’s fine. But CNN needs personality and a strong point of view, not a suspender-less Larry King.
For his part, Howard was as good as I’ve ever seen him on TV, but I got the sense he expected the interview to be tougher, fresher, more original than it was. The Jackie puppet would have been a tougher interlocutor. Howard was never once not in total control. At one point Piers had to point out that it was not Howard’s turn to interview him. Too bad. Piers could have learned something.
Video from CNN.com.