Notes on David Letterman’s Netflix Show

This best and worst thing about My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman is that it features its host genuinely trying to be a good person. In the interview with Barack Obama that launched this monthly Netflix talk show, Letterman says, “My son in 20 years will say to me, ‘Wait a minute, you knew this was a problem and you didn’t do anything about it?’ And I apply that to all manner of circumstances in life and in the world.” Since Letterman’s departure from CBS in 2015, he has hosted an episode of the climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously about India’s investment in solar energy, appeared alongside Jon Stewart and Obama at a USO event, and badmouthed his former TV guest Donald Trump in a slew of interviews. Now, his first major project since The Late Show sees him mostly forgoing comedy to celebrate the good works of notable people.

This is not quite the same David Letterman who many of us regard as a cultural hero. The next paragraph will be familiar to Letterman fans, but since most of it took place before I was born, on the ephemeral medium of the late-night talk show, maybe it bears repeating. During the 11-year run of Late Night with David Letterman (1992-1993) on NBC, Letterman occupied 12:30 slot after Johnny Carson and presided over the anti-Tonight Show. Letterman and Carson had plenty in common—both were white, preppy, Midwestern frat-boys, effortlessly funny but ice-cold, who spent much of their lives on television while retaining a stubborn unwillingness to reveal too much about themselves. But as Jason Zinoman writes in his essential biography/critical study Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, “Carson told jokes; Letterman deconstructed them. Carson was charming and even-keeled; Letterman was hostile and vexatious. Carson looked like he was born in a sport coat; Letterman wore sneakers with his suit.” His conceptual gambits included an episode shot on an airplane during flight, an episode in which the audience voted on the content, and an episode entirely dubbed by other voices. His distaste for show-business led to classic segments like an After School Special parody about the banality of network TV called “They Took My Show Away” (“Here’s a show called Manimal—this one’s about a crime fighter that can turn into a snake and a bird. This one is about a chimp who lives in Washington—you know that’ll be good”); “Feelin’ in Love,” a parody of Hannah and Her Sisters (!); and the corrosive “Christmas with the Lettermans” (featuring Pat Boone!). He was sometimes visibly bored by/combative with his big-name guests, while some of the most memorable visitors were arty weirdos like Sandra Berhard, Pee-wee Herman, Brother Theodore, Harvey Pekar, Andy Kaufman, and Divine. He also made stars out of human found-art-objects like stage manager Biff Henderson and an unusual wannabe-performer named Calvin DeForest (aka Larry “Bud” Melman), who more-or-less became the show’s mascot. There is a direct line between DeForest and such Tim & Eric discoveries David Liebe Hart and Richard Dunn.

It’s also worth noting that Letterman actually saw himself as an heir of—not a rebuke to—Johnny Carson. In a 2015 interview with (the disgraced) Charlie Rose, Letterman said, “Carson was head and shoulders beyond anybody doing it now, anybody who will ever do it.” He also downplayed his reputation as an innovator, saying “I think it was the vision of the people who I had around me more than me.” One of the great services of Zinoman’s book is illuminating the contributions of head writers Merrill Markoe, Jim Downey, Steve O’Donnell, and Rob Burnett, and showing how Letterman was often dragged into his most memorable segments. The more powerful Letterman became, the less inclined he was to strap on a Velcro suit, and once he moved to the 11:30 slot on CBS, his show became less innovative. Still, the CBS years had their pleasures: Letterman’s late-in-life fatherhood made him a warmer, more forthcoming presence, as did his Elder Statesman status. In contrast to the apolitical Carson, Letterman’s liberal-ish politics also began to emerge (see: his tense October 2000 interview with George W. Bush; his sparring matches with Bill O’Reilly; his war of words with Donald Trump), an evolution made possible, perhaps, by the paradigm-shifting success of The Daily Show.

Letterman’s prickliness also had its less-charming aspects. There was the casual sexism of his interactions with female guests, and the way his segments with working-class people or immigrants bordered on “punching down.” His well-documented self-loathing and serious struggle with depression made him a notoriously unpleasant boss. The office culture he presided over for much of his career has been described as a “boys’ club,” and the revelation of affairs with staffers hinted at an environment that could be genuinely toxic. If a defense of Letterman is possible, it is that he has come across as genuinely contrite, thoughtful, and even a little self-lacerating in interviews that have addressed his flaws.

In the context of a career dominated by irony and a life marked by selfishness and unhappiness, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is a vaguely touching attempt to make the world a better place. Episode 1 sees the man who discovered Larry “Bud” Melman walking alongside Rep. John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, while Episode 2 has an admirable segment where Letterman meets Hazim Avdal, the Iraqi refugee who George Clooney’s parents sponsor. None of this plays to Letterman’s strengths, but it’s noble of him to use his platform to put a human face on the refugee crisis. As a host, he is likeably modest and self-effacing, telling Clooney, “The reason that I like helping people is selfish: because it makes me feel good. That’s okay?”

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It’s the longform interviews that are the show’s selling point, and they live at an awkward midpoint between the punchy, jokey, heavily-edited soundbites of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and the raw conversations of a podcast like WTF with Marc Maron—in other words, too slick and too boring. This is the kind of show where a former president says, “I sort-of enjoyed puttering around the house trying to figure out, ‘Does the coffeemaker work?’ and fighting with Michelle for closet space.” If you’re like me, and regard Obama as a disappointment whose failures helped pave the way for Trump, and whose continued presence as a public figure (quietly pushing for Tom Perez as DNC chair; starting the Obama Foundation with a board full of private equity executives to Uber advisers; those darn Wall Street speeches) is a burden, there won’t be much here for you. On the other hand, if the Trump era has you nostalgic for Obama’s intelligence and empathy, maybe you’ll enjoy spending an hour with him—just don’t expect to hear anything surprising. Letterman doesn’t pretend to be a hard-hitting interviewer—he wants to spend time with people he admires and is grateful they accepted the invitation—but if the show isn’t particularly probing, funny, insightful, or natural, then what good is it?

Letterman’s limits as an interviewer are most apparent in his discussion with Obama about the Russia collusion. “One of the biggest challenges to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts,” says Obama. “What the Russians exploited—but it was already here—is, we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.” Putting aside Obama’s odd choice of news agencies, it’s disingenuous of him to forget that the media’s “baseline of facts” once included the idea that homosexuality was a mental disorder, that black people had severe cognitive deficiencies, that Soviet spies had infiltrated the top levels of government, and that Iraq’s weapons program and links to Al-Qaeda justified a pre-emptive strike. Obama also knows that “facts” are malleable and ideological: he tells Letterman that “within a year, we actually had the economy growing again, and within about a year and a half, we were actually adding jobs,” but doesn’t mention that many of those jobs were part-time, low-wage, and precarious, or that his tenure saw the further erosion of unions and the rise of the so-called “gig economy.” Trump won not simply because people didn’t have enough “facts,” but because the facts weren’t enough.

If the show offers anything of interest to a Letterman aficionado, it is seeing a master of his craft try to evolve, and struggling against the constraints of his format, his guests, and himself. He wants to have a more meaningful conversation with his guests than his late-night show allowed, but there’s still a limit to how much intimacy the live-interview format can provide, and it doesn’t help that his first two guests, Obama and Clooney, are among the smoothest, most rigorously on-message public figures in the world. It’s also a problem that Letterman is still so cagey and reserved, as if trying to keep himself at a respectful distance from his guests and audience. Both Obama and Clooney ask personal question of Letterman to his visible discomfort, and Clooney remarks, “People don’t know much about you, and people are very interested in you and how you became David Letterman.”

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