Never mind the big, bushy beard – whenever David Letterman walks onto a stage and starts talking to an audience, he’s still David Letterman. In the opening minutes of his new monthly Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, the veteran talk show host warms up the crowd in a cavernous theatre at City College of New York; though he doesn’t do a monologue per se, he does “do Dave.” The man’s still a little grumpy, a little goofy. For anyone who grew up watching him on NBC’s Late Night and CBS’s The Late Show, it’s hard not to feel a surge of warm nostalgia, just seeing him on TV again.
And that’s before he brings out President Barack Obama.
The premise of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is right there in the title. It’s another Letterman talk show, but – in theory at least – with all wheat and no chaff. The host won’t be grilling the fourth-billed actor from some new network sitcom. It’ll just be him and some of the most famous people in the world. Next month: George Clooney. In the four episodes after that: Jay-Z, Tina Fey, Malala Yousafzai and Howard Stern.
Having an ex-U.S. President on your first episode is equal parts brilliant and risky. What better way to generate headlines about a new show than to land one of the most in-demand guests on the planet? And if part of the core appeal of this series is for longtime Letterman fans to spend some time with someone they miss, well… for a large number of people, there’s almost no one more missed than President Obama.
But here’s the potential problem: Letterman and his team have made it all too easy for people to judge My Next Guest based on how they feel about Obama. The first episode went up on Netflix in the wee hours of this morning. By the end of today, the headlines in the left-leaning press may say that the President doesn’t go far enough in directly criticising Donald Trump in his interview. And in the right-wing media, there’s likely to be some pushback against Obama’s only real partisan comment, “If you’re watching Fox News, you’re living on a different planet than if you listen to NPR.” (Watch closely and you’ll see the ex-POTUS wince a little as he’s saying this, as though he knows he’s just delivered a soundbite that’s going to be taken out of context.)
Letterman’s interview with Obama is fine, but not always scintillating. The host is a little too fawning, and the President’s a little too cautious. The best exchanges between them are the more personal ones, talking about their childhoods and their children. During those moments they’re just Barack and Dave: the dope who had trouble assembling a table lamp when he dropped his daughter Malia off at college, and the crusty old schmo who call his son Harry’s cell phone a “device.”
The larger question that the first My Next Guest raises – and doesn’t always satisfactorily answer – is, “Is this the right format for David Letterman’s next act?” Because the beard isn’t the only thing that’s new here.
When Netflix announced this show, the streaming service described it as a mix of long conversations and field-pieces. In the first episode, there’s roughly 45 minutes of chit-chat at City College, interrupted periodically by a segment where Letterman goes to Selma, Alabama with Congressman John Lewis, to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and reflect on the history of voting rights and racism – then and now. There’s nothing even remotely jokey about those scenes. The wise-ass version of Dave is tabled, replaced by a 70-year-old American who’s honestly and somewhat movingly trying to understand what’s happened to his country, and whether he could’ve done more to make a positive difference.
Even back in the theatre, the look and tone of My Next Guest doesn’t have a whole lot in common with The Late Show. The stage is bare aside from two equal chairs. There’s no band (although Paul Shaffer did record a stripped-down piano theme). The digital cameras present something that looks more like a film than like a live-to-tape talk show, with a lot of low-angle shots and slow swoops. The audience has either been discouraged from applauding for every stirring political statement or all that clapping has been removed in the editing. Letterman and Obama both play to the crowd quite a bit – and are very funny when they do – but the emphasis is on a serious conversation, not frivolity.
Does this really play to Dave’s strengths? Or is this show just an hour-long version of that old Simpsons clip of Krusty the Clown in the 1960s, asking the chairman of the AFL-CIO, “Is there a labor crisis in America today?“
Frankly, it’s a bit of both. Freed to be more overtly political, the comedian in this first episode sometimes tries too hard to let everyone know he’s down with the resistance. To be fair, there’s something very genuine about this… and even kind of sweet. Letterman seems to be sincerely thinking, “If I’m going to have a show, I want it to be worth my time.” But few of Dave’s devotees are likely to come away from this first episode thinking that his expressing outrage at President Trump’s insulting tweets about Congressman Lewis is more entertaining than when the former leader of the free world kids the host about his “biblical” beard. (“Do you have a staff?” Obama asks.)
Still, there are enough of those moments of levity and humanity to make the next episode of My Next Guest just as much of a must-see as the first. Letterman may have idolised Johnny Carson, but in the last decade of his Late Show run, his shtick was a lot closer to what Jack Paar did in his post-Tonight Show years, or like Dick Cavett in the 1970s. When he was sitting across from the right guest, it was like eavesdropping on a couple of erudite raconteurs at a party. The new show seems to be aiming to capture that vibe for a full hour, once a month.
Maybe it’ll work. Or maybe future episodes will continue to be a clunky hodgepodge of earnest dialogue, amusing asides and ageing liberal guilt. Whatever happens, it’ll be a pleasure just to keep hearing the voice one of TV’s all-time greats, as he tries to figure out the best way to use it. Welcome back, Dave.