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King and his court: Larry says "so long" with help from A-list celebrity gaggle

King with wife Shawn & kids Chance (left) & Cannon. Photos: Ed Bark

His last edition of CNN's Larry King Live provided ready-made news in itself Thursday night. But the host and one of his many big-name drop-in guests, former president Bill Clinton, combined for at least another mini-headline after King noted that "we're both in the zipper club."

Appearing live from Little Rock, Clinton at first guffawed and let it pass. But King, apparently cued off-camera, later explained he was referring to their recoveries from heart bypass surgeries and the leftover scars bisecting their chests.

"I'm glad you clarified that," Clinton said good-naturedly.

"I see what you mean," it finally dawned on King.

King's eight marriages (two to the same woman) and Clinton's White House philandering as president make any King-Clinton "zipper club" reference a double-edged sword. But hey, it added a little old spice to the sometimes goofy proceedings, during which King courtiers Bill Maher and Ryan Seacrest tried to guide him through a mix of surprise send-offs and a big group of guests in New York that King already knew about.

"This is not Larry's funeral . . . This is the end of a show, not the end of a man," Maher said before segueing to a brief appearance from lame duck California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Live from Sacramento, he proclaimed Thursday "Larry King Day" before Maher joked that the proposal had been stalled in the state legislature for two years.

Then came President Obama on tape, lauding the 77-year-old King as "one of the giants of broadcasting" while the anointed took a sip from his always present cuppa coffee.

The guests moved along at fast clips, with Regis Philbin, Donald Trump and Suze Orman next on the docket from a New York studio.

Philbin talked about how King knew just about every old song in the book. But his attempt to engage the host in a sing-along fell flat when King didn't know that particular song.

"We're dyin' here!" Philbin deduced.

Saturday Night Live's Fred Arnisen then showed up to impersonate King while clad in an identical closing night outfit -- black shirt, red suspenders and a red tie with over-sized white polka dots. This didn't go so well either, with a game but confused King at one point telling Arnisen's King, "It's an honor being inside of you." Hmm.

"Can the suspender industry survive the demise of Larry King Live?" Arnisen finally asked lamely.

King pledged to keep wearing them wherever he ends up.

The closing night conveyor belt next accommodated the quartet of Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Brian Williams, all live from New York.

Couric read King a poem and Sawyer told him, "We are your proteges, your groupies, your Pips." You can't make this stuff up.

Seacrest read a congratulatory letter from the Rev. Billy Graham and Dr. Phil McGraw joined the group before Maher noted that today's burgeoning crop of TV talkers is despoiled by "too many windbags and douche bags. This man was never windy or douche-y." Instead King was in the same league as Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite, said Maher.

After a commercial break, King's wife, Shawn, and their two sons, Chance and Cannon, materialized alongside him. Larry and Shawn simultaneously filed for divorce in mid-April, but for now are back together again. At King's insistence, Cannon even did a pretty fair impression of him while everyone laughed it up. Tony Bennett then performed "The Best Is Yet To Come" for the host while onstage at a gig in Louisiana.

King spent his show's last seconds alone at his desk, his voice quavering but not quite cracking.

"You're not gonna see me go away," he promised. "But you're not gonna see me here on this set anymore."

His last words: "Instead of 'goodbye,' how about 'so long.' "

Larry King Live premiered on June 3, 1985 -- well before the launches of Fox News Channel and MSNBC. He exited under his own power, but not really by choice. CNN called it a day for him in times when his once dominant program is being beaten in the 8 p.m. (central) ratings by both FNC's Hannity and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show. Both of those hosts flaunt their respective right and left political views while King got caught in the middle as a guy who asked his questions in as few words as possible and didn't mind listening to the answers.

As King put it in a summer 2007 interview with your friendly content provider, "The best way to judge an interviewer is how often does he or she say 'I?' If they say 'I' a lot, they're not an interviewer. They're interested in themselves. I don't use the word 'I.' I never have all these years."

In today's TV, the "I's" have it. And King doesn't anymore. He pledges to resurface with occasional CNN specials and some "radio work." He also plans to "be around baseball," the sport he's always put first. And oh yeah, more time with the family.

Whatever his future venues, they almost assuredly won't be as visible. The King isn't dead yet, but his heyday is. It happens to just about everyone. How you handle it is what sets you apart.

Over and out: "Instead of 'goodbye,' how about 'so long.' "