When David Letterman retired from his long-running TV show on CBS, it was the end of an era. Those who grew up on Letterman’s caustic and postmodern humor were conditioned by his wry observations and punchy retorts to see the world through his cynical eyes. There’s a whole host of comedians who say Letterman was their inspiration for getting into comedy. However, it’s clear that whatever absurdities Dave used to mine for humorous content, have given way to a desire for substantive conversations — which might explain the beard.
Well, after a long absence from television, Letterman is back for a Netflix series that aims to put the “talk” back in talk show. “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman” is that show. Letterman is without a band, without much of an opening monologue, and without a desk to sit behind. Instead, he opts for a live audience, two chairs, and a stage. That’s pretty much it for the setting. The show itself aims to be more than a showcase for Letterman’s particular brand of humor. Instead, it’s more like Letterman is channeling Dick Cavett or Charlie Rose (before he disgraced himself) on “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” Maybe that’s because his first guest was Barack Obama, or that he also interviewed John Lewis in Alabama at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (the site of a huge march in 1965 for civil rights). It’s kind of difficult to do comedy bits when you’re talking to a guy whose history has been to oppose racists, fight for civil rights, and commit himself to the long arc of justice. Just from that lineup, it’s clear Letterman has no intention of going back to his old comedy ways. Indeed, by the end of his show on CBS, Letterman was becoming more political in his rants and more desirous of substantive conversations. On his Netflix series, he has an opportunity to just that — which he does with Obama.
What does one ask a former president who is the first non-white to hold the highest office in the land? Well, considering Letterman has interviewed Obama before, the obvious elephant in the room question is the current president. However, they sidestep Trump and the whole rollback of the Obama administration’s work in the two terms of his presidency. Why? Maybe Obama said, “Trump’s off limits because I don’t want to feed the Troll.” A cautious move, but probably a good one if Letterman is trying to do what other talk shows aren’t: transcend the daily shit show of Trump. If every other talk show, media outlet, and the workplace is talking about our current president, why do the same?
Unfortunately, this left Letterman in a bit of a bind: what do you talk about. Well, he asked Obama about what it was like to drop his daughter off at college, the work of his foundation, his life growing up with an absent father, what he did right after he left the White House, and, well, it kind of went on like that until he cut away to a recorded segment with John Lewis about the Civil Rights Movement. The overarching theme of the show is how the sacrifices made during the 1960s paved the way for someone like Obama to be president. Letterman certainly alludes to the backlash that’s happened since Trump became president, but Lewis tries to assuage Dave’s anxiety over the rapidity of change in the other direction by saying that progress is often beset by setbacks — but in the end justice will prevail.
While it was great to see Letterman back in his element interviewing people like Obama, Dave’s interviewing skills seemed a bit off. Clearly, he’s capable of getting guests to open up by asking interesting questions, but too often he went down avenues that didn’t shed much light on Obama, the persistence of racism in our country (and world), or talking about ways to address issues like racism. He did, after all, have two men who have given a great deal of thought about race — because they have lived their lives defined by it. Not necessarily by them, but by the larger culture’s construction of it.
First shows often suffer from rocky starts, and “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman” is not immune to such pitfalls. However, because of his years in the business, the odds are Dave will shake off the maiden voyage hiccups sooner than later.