When David Letterman left the Late Show in 2015, it felt like a generational changing of the guard. After over three decades as a late-night host, the comedian was stepping away, letting Stephen Colbert reinvent the show while Letterman enjoyed the free time to do, well, nothing — other than grow a really serious beard. So when Netflix announced last year that he would be coming out of retirement to host a talk show, it raised a couple of questions. What could Letterman do outside the limitations of network television that he hadn’t already done, and would a David Letterman series still seem relevant given that the late-night world has moved on?
The first episode of the show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, is out now, featuring President Barack Obama. As it turns out, there’s quite a few things that Letterman is able to do outside the bounds of network TV. And when compared to the quick-turnaround, snarky tone that permeates so much late-night material today, Letterman’s honesty and degree of emotional introspection don’t just make him still relevant; they make him absolutely essential.
Perhaps the most obvious way that My Next Guest Needs No Introduction breaks from Letterman’s other shows is that it’s not a daily, or even weekly, talk show in the way that audiences are used to thinking about them. It’s a monthly program, with Netflix giving the comedian the go-ahead to create six, one-hour episodes that will be released between now and June 2018. The lineup starts big with the former president, and continues from there: George Clooney, Jay Z, Tina Fey, Howard Stern, and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.
Judging by the Obama episode, the format is different, too: there’s no host desk or live band (something Obama himself notes early on in the first episode). There’s just a pair of chairs and conversation, with the show periodically cutting to an on-location segment — in this case, Letterman joining Congressman (and civil rights hero) John Lewis for a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis was beaten by police officers in 1965 while taking part in a civil rights march.
The subject matter alone distances itself from the more irreverent stretches of Letterman’s career. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is funny, but it is Letterman — replete with his now trademark beard — using his skills as a conversationalist first, and a comedian second. The result is a thoughtful, sobering discussion with Obama that ranges from family anecdotes (Obama describes how it took him a half hour to put together a lamp for his daughter Malia when she went to college), to the way that algorithmically driven social media results are hampering people’s abilities to understand perspectives outside their own, with truly troubling consequences for the American political system.
There’s a fine line to walk with interviews like this, and in talk show scenarios politicians usually resort to either easy talking points or bland anecdotes that make them seem as relatable as possible. There’s a bit of that in play, here — at one point Obama starts talking about embarrassing his daughters while dancing with his “dad moves” — but Letterman is able to keep the conversation feeling fresh, relevant, and genuinely insightful.
Part of that is simply 33 years of experience; Letterman has always been an effortless interviewer, able to guide his guests no matter how agreeable or confrontational they may decide to be. But freed from the promotional cycle merry-go-round that drives most late-night television, the Netflix show allows the host to dig in and tackle things from a more thought-out, thematic perspective. The interview with Obama is obviously about the former president’s return to normal life, and his reflections on this moment in our political history. But the episode is also about the broader context of what Obama meant, and how he came to win the presidency in the first place.
Letterman’s segments with Lewis highlight the struggle of the civil rights movement, and how that fight was about moving one step closer to a world where a black man could be president of the United States in the first place. “We will redeem the soul of America,” Lewis says when Letterman asks him about the damage he feels the Trump administration is doing to the country, and it’s hard to imagine any of Letterman’s previous shows being able to deliver the moment with such weight and earnest resolve.
It’s also due to Letterman himself. Aside from the expected self-deprecating jokes, there’s a sense of true self-reflection that runs through My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Perhaps it’s the subject matter of the Obama episode, or the interview with Lewis, but there’s a subtle throughline that’s hinted at several times: the idea that after Letterman took time off to travel and spend time with his family, he is now reassessing what he has accomplished in his life. And, perhaps, that he feels he could have done more.
“Mr. President, this is what I am struggling with at this point in my life. I have been nothing but lucky,” he says in the show’s final moments. A month after Lewis faced down the incident now known as Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Letterman explains, he and his friends were trying to get on a cruise ship so they could purchase alcohol without worrying about the local age limit. “Why wasn’t I in Alabama?” he asks, seemingly on the verge of tears. “Why was I not aware? I have been nothing but lucky.”
It’s a powerful moment, even more so because it’s coming from a person known as one of the most acerbic wits in late-night history. It’s also impossible to imagine this kind of revelation — or even this show — being welcomed on a broadcast network where ratings come at a premium. In that world, broad appeal is key, which has the unfortunate side effect of creating disposable shows that never push too hard or ask that much of the viewer. But with Netflix, it appears that Letterman has discovered a platform that drops many of those pressures.
It’s not a show that will be easily distilled down into disposable YouTube clips, though there are some great exchanges. And it’s not a program that should be viewed with attention turned halfway elsewhere. It’s thoughtful, funny, and moving, but more than anything else, it is proof that David Letterman still has something to say.
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