Finally, some good news in 2017: David Letterman will return to television in a regular capacity for the first time since stepping down as the host of CBS’ The Late Show in 2015. The late night legend’s pact with Netflix was announced Tuesday, promising six hour-long episodes scheduled to air next year that will feature, “in-depth conversations with extraordinary people, and in-the-field segments expressing his curiosity and humor.” Letterman hopped on the phone to tell EW a little bit more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve made a lot of people very happy today with this announcement that you’ll be coming back to TV.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Oh, well, you know, it’s kind of perfect for me because I wanted something to do and I didn’t want to be working full time. [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos and the Netflix people and RadicalMedia are a pretty powerful group that can bring all manner of stimulating things to me, and all I have to do is show up. We’re going to do six episodes and I’ll be able to ask anybody whatever I want to ask, and I’m delighted by it. It’s kind of like when you walk into a store and buy a jacket that fits right off the rack, and you think, this is perfect, let’s just do this.
In the last few years there’s been a lot of new ways to do shows that don’t involve traditional broadcast. I’m thinking of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, for example.
Right. Jerry Seinfeld. Boy, I just hate him because who knew… he runs off this little situation comedy show about nothing. Did you hear? It was about nothing! And then he comes up with the perfect idea for an outlet like Netflix or Crackle or Snap or Pop or wherever he was. So I just hate him! He set the bar too high, you know. But I’m very pleased with my own situation.
Last year, you were a correspondent for National Geographic’s Years of Living Dangerously and traveled to India to learn how the country can fight climate change by bringing clean energy to its people. Did that experience help inspire you to want to come back to TV in some way?
Yes, it really did. Not so much the show, but being in India. I can’t pretend to understand the culture, I don’t know if anyone really does. I was only there two weeks but the images and the experiences with the culture — even as superficial as it may have been — stay with me today. They’re haunting. I know that there are worse living conditions than what I saw in India, but I’ve never seen anything as bad. To see the contrast of what you are in the middle of in the streets of New Delhi and what they want to accomplish, God bless ’em. But anyway, I thought, can we do more of these? And nobody said, sure let’s do more of them! I was the only one who wanted to do more of them. That’s happened before. [Laughs]
So the idea is long, in-depth interviews and field pieces, right? That really opens it up to just about anything that you might be interested in shining a light upon.
Yes. These people, Netflix, it’s a pretty powerful force and I get to take advantage of it. We get to start with six shows. You write down six people or circumstances — it could be anybody. That’s where it’s going to start. We have one secured guest which I cannot reveal — I mean, I could, but I’d be beaten silly — and the idea of taking something essential to that person and then going to, let’s say, India or somewhere else and finding out why that provided the essence or formative life for that person. I’m 70, but you can’t stop learning and you can’t stop growing. At some point, I have to stop arguing with my family.
Did you find you were getting restless in retirement?
No. No! I’m telling you, when we had our son, Harry, a week would go by and people would ask how old is your kid? He’s two weeks, he’s four weeks, or he’s five weeks. Then you switch to months: three months, six months. Then I realized, oh, holy crap, this is not slowing down and it would break my heart every time he was a month older. Then when he was 10 years old, I said to myself, stop it. Get ahold of yourself, Dave. You can’t be broken hearted every time this kid gets a year older. Now he’s 13-and-a-half, and honestly, the time I get to spend with him and my wife is the best. I’ve taught the kid how to drive a stick shift — he can drive a stick shift pick-up truck, he can drive a stick-shift car, and he can drive a dump truck, so there you go.
I can’t do any of those things.
Come on up to the house! We’ll get you in something. This is why the schedule is great. It’s six shows, however long that takes. Guys who are doing these nightly shows now, I look at that and think, oh, god, holy crap, I lived through that? It really seems inhumane.
So is the plan to have one topic per show? And the interview and field piece is integrated?
I think it will be like the conversation you and I are having. And then, in addition to that, we get you up here to drive a dump truck. When I left the other show, I didn’t know there was anything else to be done on television — and this has just delighted me because I like the people, and I like what they’ve done, and I’m hoping that this is really, really good. I really want this to be something that everybody who has taken a risk on me can be proud of. I’m looking forward to turning out something very nice.
Will there be a role for [longtime band leader and collaborator] Paul Shaffer?
I have chatted with Paul. My belief is that the show will incorporate music in some way. I talked to Paul about it yesterday and asked him if he would be willing to participate in supplying music in post-production or wherever the director feels music is needed. It’s my hope that Paul will be represented in that fashion.
Last year at the New Yorker Festival, you said, “There’s not a chance in hell that this man will be elected president,” in reference to Donald Trump.
I lived off that for years, during the pre-campaign, during the campaign. ‘Oh don’t worry, it won’t happen.’ But, you know where I got that was from David Brooks. He said the same thing. When I heard him saying it on the PBS news hour, I was greatly comforted by him saying it. I said I’ll just use this and comfort others. We can pretend he’s not president. He’s pretending he is president.
People are excited — they’ve missed you.
No they haven’t. People have been so nice to me. I was in Colorado this winter. When I’m by myself I get lost, and couldn’t find the airport, so I stopped at this coffee shop and it was run by kids who went to Colorado for vacation and never left. This young girl in the coffee shop, I said, “Hi I’m looking for the airport.” So she says “Okay, here, here and here.” I tell her she has to write it down. She writes it down, it’s very precise. I said thank you very much, how long is it going to take for me to get to the airport? And she says, are you walking? And so I realized, I look the way I look and I’m that guy now. I’m the guy who’s walking to the airport.
This does bring up the important question of: will you still have your beard when you return?
We’re negotiating with the beard right now.