David Letterman needed a break. Apparently, it was CBS that gave it to him.
Just three short years ago, Late Show was getting whipped in the headwinds of younger competition, Dave was increasingly tired and grouchy and visibly bored, and after a television hosting career that lasted longer than most of our lifetimes, he was canned by the network.
Wait, what? Didn’t Dave decide to retire in 2015 to make way for Stephen Colbert?
“I had a little show for awhile, and then I got fired,” Letterman monologued from the stage to open his new series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, which debuted Friday on Netflix. “And now here I am, and I have not so much what I regard as a show, but something called … Netflix?”
It was an off-hand comment that played like a joke. But when Letterman says, two-plus years after giving up the desk he fought so hard to claim, that he was fired – it means he was fired. It means the story we were told, about Dave deciding to retire after the longest tenure in the history of late-night TV, wasn’t true. It means someone from the CBS throne room told him his time was up — start making arrangements.
And after two-plus years of wandering in the wilderness of normal life, growing Old Testament whiskers and giving only one substantial interview (to New York Magazine), Letterman has re-emerged on Netflix – who hasn’t? – with a leaner, cleaner format, one more tailored to his emeritus status as an elder statesman of the talk-show circuit, one that plays to what was always his greatest skill: the interview.
Don’t get me wrong — Dave was a masterful monologue artist, and his wacky, stunt-based sketches had punk underpinnings as well as a certain irreverence simmering with generational rage. One could also argue that his Top 10 list paved the way for listicle culture before there even was an internet. But Letterman is simply the greatest on-camera interrogator who ever lived; it was what elevated him from reliable funnyman to something our language doesn’t even have a word for.
On Friday, matched with the planet’s most sought-after interview subject of the moment — our erstwhile President Barack Obama — Letterman 3.0 had the potential for something truly dazzling, the perfect ingredients to launch a format as innovative and disruptive as Netflix itself.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is, in and of itself, a fairly unremarkable thing: Two chairs on a stage, one possessed by Letterman. There was an occasional cutaway to Dave walking-and-talking with Rep. John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama — they talked glowingly of the former President, the only connection here — but that’s about the gist. Interviewer, subject, and an hour to fill.
On the bright side, here was a version of Dave we hadn’t seen for a while — spry, rested, light on his feet again, a twinkle in the eye to match his Santa Claus beard. Dave has gotten that spark of childlike curiosity back, and gone is the world-weariness that dragged behind Late Show as it lumbered toward the finish line. But that Old Dave cynicism was what made him most formidable; New Dave soft-balled and genuflected to Obama (himself looking much more at ease after a full year out of the White House).
To be fair, the little scrap of news at the top of the hour was not lost on his first guest.
“You and I both just lost long-term jobs,” Obama said, cracking a grin. “I was not fired, though.”
While it’s easy to imagine Obama luxuriating in some downtime — “I sort of enjoyed puttering around the house, figuring out how the coffee maker worked, fighting with Michelle for closet space,” he said — a forced idle period was not as comfortable for Letterman, your classic racked-with-guilt gothic Midwestern workaholic.
“There was palpable sadness on my part,” Letterman said to his guest, “and then I see you were hang-gliding, and climbing volcanoes and wind surfing and wrestling sharks and you’re on somebody’s private island … and I’m at Bed Bath & Beyond picking out hangers. Something’s wrong here.”
“Did you just brood in the dark somewhere?” Obama shot back, and as Lettermen started to riff on his time in the wilderness, he realized that, a quarter of the way into the hour, the subject had become interviewer.
“Now here’s how this is gonna work,” Dave correctively quipped. “I’m gonna ask you stuff…”
And from that moment, if this was Old Dave, we might have gotten some dangerously sharp questions, dipped as always in the silky lacquer of his good nature — but questions, nonetheless, that cut down to the bones of things. We might have seen Obama squirm beneath the weight of the 800-pound orangutan in the room, but Dave never summoned him to the stage. The word “Trump” may not even have been uttered during the hour — though his presence was surely acknowledged — and perhaps that was by some friendly design, some pre-arrangement between Obama and Dave’s conscience not to turn My First Guest into a blistering roast. That would be our first indication that we’re dealing with New Dave now.
Obama was, however, afforded the opportunity to remind us just how bad things were when he took office — “two wars and a collapsing economy” — which, when you think about it, is a lot more tangible than Trump’s baseless “I inherited a mess.” Obama inherited far worse than a mess, he inherited a global financial crisis that threatened the existence of the Republic, and in eight years had put us on the very course for which Trump is now happily taking credit.
Obama also laid out the biggest problems facing the country today, of long-term and worsening inequality, rising college and healthcare costs, and “all the money going to a handful of people at the top.”
But again, no mention of Trump by name, though if Dave had decided beforehand not to talk about the man, he’s certainly clever enough to work around his own rules.
“To hear you describe this in a way I can understand,” he said to Obama, “makes me so happy that you’re still the President.”
It got a big laugh. That was not lost on Dave, who played the callback card later, when it was time to signal that the hour was nearly up.
“Now, Mr. President, I know you have to get back to the Oval Office…”
It was one of those Classic Dave moves — a wistful, offhand joke that’s really a push in the direction of something else, an attempt to elicit something of value from his subject, the kind of gambit that makes him the very best at what he does. But Obama didn’t bite, at least not politically. He went for the personal instead, and maybe that’s the greater reward.
“Now let me just say this,” Obama said. “If it were not for the Constitution, there’d be Michelle.”
The crowd roared, instantly thinking Obama was suggesting the former First Lady might have had her own presidential aspirations at the conclusion of his term, or perhaps in the near future. Quite the opposite.
“Nooooo, no no no no,” Obama implored. “You guys are misunderstanding me. What I’m saying is, I’m prevented from running again by the Constitution. But even if it were not for that amendment, Michelle would leave me. And I… want her around.”
And that’s just the kind of unexpected response that Letterman’s particular set of skills often elicits. Even if it wasn’t biting or headline-making, as we’d become accustomed to over the years, it was personal, it was insightful, and it was promising. New Dave can still get in there and shine a light.
The two men wound it down warmly, with a note of gratitude that New Dave seems to have found in his short respite from the game; at one point Letterman asked Obama “Don’t you say to yourself, ‘Boy am I lucky.’ And there was this element of chance to it, this element of serendipity?” Well, it looks like that’s what we’re getting with My Next Guest. It’s not going to be a rebirth, or a victory lap, or a middle-finger to those CBS executives who made Letterman relive the nightmare that was his departure from NBC.
This is the New Dave — a little older, a little wiser, a little less likely to go for the jugular, and instead go for the heart. Couldn’t we use more of that in these times?
New episodes of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction will debut monthly on Netflix throughout 2018.
Josh Dickey | Contributor