David Letterman used to live between commercial breaks, so there’s a feeling of leisure in his new Netflix series. You could call it rambling.
On the series premiere of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Letterman talked with former President Barack Obama about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. He also asked about Obama’s family history, and how social media fell into propaganda. And they were just a couple old guys, not as employed as they used to be.
“You and I recently left longterm jobs,” said Letterman. “I was not fired, though,” said Obama.
They swapped parent stories: These kids with their devices, how embarrassing to be the dad who can’t dance. At times you felt you were listening into a conversation between two thoughtful gentlemen of leisure. (Letterman mentioned that his family visited “an island off Newfoundland, Fogo Island,” a poem in six words, Fogo, Fogo…)
Letterman had a historic career in late night, from enfant terrible to elder statesman. If there’s a bold idea with My Next Guest, it’s to be as un-bold as possible. I mean that as a compliment. Letterman walked onstage, introduced his guest, and they sat down for an hour. A couple times, we cut to another conversation: The host crossing Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis, a walk-and-talk guided tour of one of the true awe-inspiring moments in American history.
Letterman’s admiration for both men was obvious, and explicit. He told Obama, “You are the first President I truly and fully respect.” I guess you could call this a bias. But this was Sh–hole Week, so marvel at the possibility of a President who can just mention the unionization of the Pullman porters in casual conversation. (Imagine: A President who really wants to spend time with the First Lady.) And Lewis’ presence was moving, his memories of the bridge and the Civil Rights struggle made vibrant and visceral by recent events.
But these were bigtime guests for a premiere. What can we glean about this series, which will only air monthly? This first episode ended with a tease for a George Clooney interview. Now, Clooney is a sacred Letterman guest, one of the last to appear on The Late Show. In that 2015 chat, they talked about Clooney’s new island. An hour of that, nobody needs.
The other upcoming guests are Malala Yousafzai, Tina Fey, Jay-Z, and Howard Stern. You feel there’s a wheelhouse we’re staying in here—four entertainers!–and you wonder if Netflix bought itself a Mutual Admiration Society. Letterman could look annoyed, embarrassed, aggressively bored in some of his Late Show interviews. But limitations breed creativity, and his witty contempt could be cathartic. Has he gone soft, and is that the point?
It helps, I think, that Letterman and Obama are both talkers: Freewheeling conversationalists, following ideas through history, merging the personal and the political. The host gave the President a lot of time to circle through some too-familiar early biography – “What an odyssey, your life! What an odyssey!” – but I liked the soup-to-nuts arc of that biography, from grandparents to kids starting college.
Letterman himself provided what could be a mission statement for his own current political fascinations. He recalled his own activities during the march in Selma: A teenaged getaway, a week spent (his words) sh–faced. The host could seem tuned out in the later Late Show years, but time off has left him with space to reckon over his own life and legacy. (Or escape it: You don’t grow a beard like that because you like what the mirror shows you.)
I enjoyed their heavier conversations, was fascinated how Obama still sees a middle path where most people only see a rift. Some of the personal stories dawdled. I wish the overall presentation was more creative. There seem to be a seventy-nine cameras pointed at Letterman’s stage, with overly dramatic cutting to close-ups and iMovie-worthy photo montages. There is a pleasant simplicity to the late-night two-shot, guest on a couch and host at the table; the rapid editing of My Next Guest feels synthetic by comparison, a PBS Q&A reimagined by Michael Bay. The Letterman/Lewis conversation was more graceful, cutting between shots of Lewis and Letterman today with Lewis on the march with Martin Luther King a half-century ago.
This was very moving, many stylistic miles removed from the barrier-bursting tomfoolery that once made the host famous. Oddly, the most what-you-could-call Letterman-esque moment in the premiere came from Obama. After their interview, the men walked backstage, found a camera filming them in a corridor. Letterman mock-indignated that he wanted the camera turned off. Obama had a better idea. “They want a shot of us walking into the sunset together,” he said. So he brought Letterman back into the doorway, and they walked into the corridor again, this time turning away from the camera. “They will be able to create this poignant moment,” Obama said, disappearing with Letterman down the hallway horizon.
You could appreciate the irony: A recent President explaining show business to a late night legend. (Politics & Entertainment: So Different??? Discuss!) What I appreciated was the sincerity: You suspect Letterman liked this moment because it was a little poignant, or because he wants the audience to feel he doesn’t have a plan beyond the talking.
My Next Guest is in no hurry, and the Clooney episode gives me a powerful foreboding. But there’s a corrective feeling to this show. The fine art of conversation has faded a bit from late night. The stunts and impassioned rants go viral, and the celebrity chatter is so formulaic that Comedy Central’s Nathan For You just turned “the talk show anecdote” into a metaphysical satire. My Next Guest could just be a retirement project, but there are so many conversations we need to have. We should pay more attention to people who never bothered learning how to express something complicated in the length of a tweet.