David Letterman’s woolly, post-CBS beard might be the guiding aesthetic for his new Netflix talk show. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman (quite the grammatical train wreck, that title) does away with the band, the Top 10 list, the neatly delineated segments with various guests, and nearly everything else we once associated with him on Late Show. That’s not to say there’s no method at all here, just that this is a more relaxed format than we’ve seen Letterman anchor in the past.
Letterman’s inaugural guest, former President Barack Obama, sits with him for over 40 minutes without commercial interruption, before a live audience, and talks about life after the presidency, his relationship with his mother, father, wife, and kids, the challenges of global poverty, changing technology and growing income inequality, and most movingly, the struggles of the civil-rights movement, without which he would never have become a political force himself. It’s in this section that My Next Guest veers away from what you might’ve expected, segueing to a handsomely photographed sequence of Letterman and John Lewis, U.S. representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, walking over Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of two legendary marches in 1965, one of which found Lewis enduring a beating by police. It’s fun to imagine Netflix subscribers clicking on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction because they’re looking to kill an hour and want to see what ol’ Dave is up to these days, and coming away with a miniature history lesson about one of the most important events in 20th-century U.S. history. That the episode takes its sweet time before returning in earnest to Letterman’s conversation with Obama suggests all manner of potentially fruitful avenues for future installments. Freed not only of commercial interruption but of the need to adhere to any particular structure, the show could go wherever Letterman’s mind decides to wander.
Other than the avoidance of anything related to Donald Trump, there’s nothing about this Obama interview that could really qualify as news — not that Letterman gives any indication of caring about generating headlines. A quarter of the discussion is a bit fluffy, and much of the rest covers ground that has been well-trod elsewhere. But the obvious comfort level between them does lend their discussion an air of intimacy that’s rare in sitdowns between people who are as prominent in their respective fields as these two. The title itself feels like a bit of humblebrag, but at this point it’s an earned indulgence, especially when your first subject is a two-term president. Letterman was never known for his interrogatory skills anyway — the occasional delightful curveball notwithstanding — and nothing he does here is going to reverse that impression. But his willingness to ramp things down into borderline small talk is fascinating because there isn’t much tradition for that kind of thing in the modern American talk show, which is still driven mainly by questions generated during backstage pre-interviews and consequently tends to feel canned, even when guest and host are having a good time. The looser and more structurally inventive things get here, the more fascinating the results could be.