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First and foremost, the best thing about My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman is that David Letterman is back. Let’s get that out of the way.
Netflix having enough spare cash under the La-Z-Boy to pay millions to bring one of the legends of late night out of retirement was, especially for all of us who didn’t have it come out of our pockets, totally worth it.
AIR DATE Jan 12, 2018
Late night has, by the way, a whole lot of talent in its current, super-crowded neighborhood, but there will always be something special about Letterman for those who spent their formative late-night years with him, as there was for those prior who did the same with Johnny Carson.
Letterman kicks off his six-part, monthly series for Netflix on Friday with the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, aka that person who makes you even sadder that he’s not president right now because of how quickly 45 has turned the country into a shithole. That’s probably why the audience for Letterman’s first show, filmed in New York, went absolutely insane when Obama was introduced by the host (one of the show’s conceits is that nobody in the audience knows who they are there to see).
Unfortunately, if you were hoping for such a thing, there was no discussion of Donald Trump, directly, between Letterman and Obama. This becomes a bigger disappointment as the breathing room of the hourlong show announces itself and Letterman is allowed to relax, not break for commercial and not say goodbye to the president after two short breaks (the debut episode opens with scenes from when Obama visited Letterman while still in office in 2015 and the two joke about what they’ll do to fill their time in the near future).
The no-Trump-talk edict pretty clearly came from Obama’s camp, as he’s kept his remarks about Trump’s horrendous first year in an arguably too-reserved, tight-lipped lock. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction would have immediately leaped into more immediacy than merely Letterman’s return if the two were allowed even 10 minutes to talk about the election (there’s nothing about Hillary Clinton, either, nor the Russians, and very little about the state of the world other than Obama less-than-obliquely noting that our country is fractured into two different worlds when it comes to the information people are getting, wanting and believing).
Otherwise the debut of Letterman’s next act is interesting if not groundbreaking, featuring a few pre-taped segments with Congressman John Lewis talking about the civil rights movement while he and Letterman cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with a deeply moved Letterman then talking in depth with Lewis about what it was like to help lead the famous march into Selma, Alabama. If this seems a non sequitur in the context of the Obama interview Letterman is leading onstage before it cuts away, there’s a connection. Lewis believes if there’s no march, if there’s no movement, there’s no Obama presidency. This first episode returns to Obama onstage and then again back to Lewis walking the bridge, going deeper into a discussion of our racial divide and the awakening of one young Barack Obama. If you were hoping that there would be “Stupid Pet Tricks” or some other mothballed skit from the past, you’re out of luck.
But it’s Letterman’s interest in Lewis and his admiration for Obama that give you a glimmer of why he wanted to do this Netflix show.
While there are humorous quips, it’s clear Letterman wants to talk about substance, no matter whom he’s talking to (the exclamation point on that comes next month, when George Clooney is his guest and what would otherwise be a mostly jocular discussion between two friends and interesting people ends up being a lot more serious than you’d expect — still highly entertaining, but also pretty far from his CBS days).
That said, it seems the right time to reflect on what seems ever more obvious now, having seen these first two episodes (Netflix also made available part of an interview with Malala Yousafzai, who will be one of Letterman’s guests in the future, as will Jay-Z, Tina Fey and Howard Stern): In the late stages of Letterman’s late-night run, he became a much more emotional host, an interviewer obviously more interested in things his guests were not pitching; Letterman wanted to talk less superficially, more honestly, and with more feeling. It was a long-evolving process and you could say it was sped up either by his heart surgery or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but those are easy markers. It had been coming out even before that — not outright boredom with talking about movies or TV series, or even a moving away from funny or silly bits, but a definite push toward something a little less rote or mechanical in the responses he wanted from his guests.
That has now manifested itself in My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, in which Netflix allows Letterman a space to be more open about himself and also to dig deeper on topics that he’s interested in, with well-chosen guests whom he clearly likes and respects.
There’s a moment in this first episode with Obama when a clearly emotional Letterman somehow manages to keep the tears back as the two talk; it’s another indication that an older, more introspective Letterman, who doesn’t have to do the same old thing night after night, allows himself to let out a little more of himself, to move away from mini-segments of guests talking about the movies they’re in after a silly personal anecdote.
And while he clearly tries to keep the focus on Obama (and Clooney as well), it’s almost more interesting to see Letterman’s own continued change.
The logo for the new series is lovely. Paul Shaffer has added some appropriately jazzy riffs (there’s no band, of course, the only constants in the first two episodes, which took place in New York and Los Angeles, being the two leather chairs plopped down on sparse, massive stages inside lovely theaters; the airy feel and cinematic look of these Netflix shows are in stark contrast to his network show). Letterman’s now-trademark, post-retirement overgrown beard is still present. What’s revealed here is a newer (but older) Dave, and that is equal to the main attraction of the guests, though Letterman would clearly not like that notion.
If you’re thinking that Letterman coming out of retirement, lured to Netflix, is going to lead to something wholly new and super exciting, well, no. That’s not really the point, it appears. These are really just live, in-depth, onstage interviews that were taped for your enjoyment. That’s it. Nothing revolutionary here. But reinventing the wheel isn’t necessary if watching Letterman be allowed to be serious, to talk at length to people he’s interested in, leads in turn to a little more insight into Letterman himself. That’s worth both an investment of your time and Netflix’s money.
Premieres: Friday (Netflix). Subsequent episodes will appear once a month for six total.
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