David Letterman’s Netflix Show Reminds Us of the Value of the Talk-Show Interview

David Letterman chatting with George Clooney in the second episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Photo: Joe Pugliese/Netflix

Interviews are the foundation in the structure of the late-night talk show. But in recent years, their importance has receded into the background. Vehicular karaoke sessions, rounds of celebrity charades, pointed political monologues: These have become the more memorable, buzz-generating elements of the genre, not all that old-fashioned, back-and-forth talking.

It takes time to watch an interview, to invest in its dynamics, and to understand the value of what a guest has said to a host within the context of an entire conversation. And these days, it seems like ain’t nobody got time for that. It certainly doesn’t help that several of our current late-night hosts are not exactly masters of interview craft. (Did you immediately think of Jimmy Fallon when you read that sentence? Hmmm. Wonder why that is.)

That’s why it continues to be refreshing to watch My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, the Netflix series that debuted last month with a sit down between the late-night icon and President Barack Obama. On Friday, the second episode dropped, this time offering a 50-minute chat between Letterman and George Clooney. By focusing so heavily on long conversations, Letterman is not only departing from the format he adhered to during his late-night stints on NBC and CBS, he’s doing something more important. He’s reminding us that interviews — especially ones that aren’t micromanaged by publicists and allowed some room to meander — can and should be thoughtful and entertaining. This is an especially comforting idea at a time when Americans seem to have lost their ability to respectfully engage with each other.

When Late Night With David Letterman emerged in the ’80s, it was instantly clear that the host and his staff had no plans to do things the conventional way. Everything about My Next Guest suggests that for his second act, Letterman is operating in a similar, against-the-grain mode. Instead of anchoring a nightly show, he’s rolling one out on a monthly basis. Rather than appearing on a major broadcast network, he has parked himself on Netflix. Instead of reciting top-ten lists and attempting to answer the eternal question, “Will It Float?” Letterman is focusing solely on interviews and — at least so far — serious field segments that relate to to the interview subject. (In the Obama episode, it was a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Representative John Lewis; in the Clooney one, it’s time spent at Clooney’s parents’ home in Kentucky, and with an Iraqi refugee that the Clooneys helped move to America to pursue his education.) Instead of talking to whoever has a new movie to promote, Letterman appears to have chosen guests who he finds engaging; future interview subjects include Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z, Tina Fey, and longtime Letterman regular Howard Stern.

The result of these choices is a program that’s practically the opposite of what one typically sees on mainstream late-night TV right now. It’s gimmick-free — no one does karaoke in a car or plays any games — and heavy on talk that, while funny in certain moments, is more contemplative and personal than provocative or hilarious. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction takes what was once the whole point of a talk show — for people to talk with each other — and makes it the central focus again.

Over the years prior to his departure from CBS in 2015, Letterman’s interviews were sometimes great and sometimes not. But watching him conduct them was always interesting. In his NBC days, that was often because Letterman could be outwardly dismissive, if not plain mean, to guests he didn’t like much. (Cher once called him an asshole for a reason.) You were never sure if it would be totally comfortable to watch Letterman, which is precisely the reason you wanted to watch him.

When he moved to CBS, and especially in the years following the birth of his son Harry, the former Indiana weatherman softened. He became a little less cantankerous and more willing to play hype man for the celebrities who sat beside him. More importantly, despite the obvious preparations and preinterviews that preceded every exchange, Letterman seemingly cut his interview paths in whatever direction his mind chose to take him.

Sometimes that meant he stayed stuck on the same track for a while, either asking Paris Hilton repeatedly about her time in prison even after it was obvious she did not want to discuss it, or drilling down aggressively into the most mundane details. (Letterman once asked Nicole Kidman so many questions about Australian wildlife that she turned to the audience and asked, “Is this interesting?”) He could administer a sick burn in tense moments — see his argument with Bill O’Reilly over the Iraq War — but more often, he cannily played the dumb guy, asking the kinds of questions that a regular schmo might ask if he had a seat behind a desk and got to talk to Bill Clinton or Kim Kardashian. If you’ve ever interviewed people for a living in any capacity, you know that the hardest thing for a smart person to do is ask a question that might sound basic or dumb. Letterman was never afraid to do that, which made his interviews seem natural and honest, the product of a man who, especially in his later years on CBS, didn’t necessarily have his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture, but remained curious.

Letterman’s curiosity is still cranked up in My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, but now he has the mellow disposition of someone doing a job because he wants to, not because he feels like he has to. He doesn’t work in any gotcha questions or aggressively push for major revelations. (I was disappointed that he didn’t pointedly ask Obama about certain issues, particularly the Russians’ interference in the 2016 presidential election.) He’s more interested in finding through lines in their lives that explain who these men are, as well as the things they’ve done to help others. The format is at once more formal and more relaxed than the way he used to talk with his guests on Late Night or The Late Show; the first two interviews are conducted onstage in front of an audience, which gives them sort of a live podcast vibe.

Letterman steers the conversation toward subjects that usually don’t come up when the actor-director hits the junket circuit to promote a project, like the fact that Clooney had Bell’s palsy for the first half of his freshman year in high school or failed in his attempts to become a major league baseball player. Letterman does not play the dumb guy to the same extent that he used to, but he does act as a proxy for the Everyman and Everywoman watching from wherever they happen to be streaming Netflix. When Clooney starts talking about his father Nick’s work as a journalist and TV host, Letterman says, “Now a guy with a talk show would jump in here and say, is that where you decided you wanted to be a performer?” Even though Letterman quite clearly is a guy with a talk show, he separates himself from that identity. It’s classic Letterman self-deprecation, but it also gives the interview an almost folksy, relatable quality. The fact that he’s sporting a beard that suggests he could easily be conducting the interview from the back porch of his log cabin only adds to the vibe.

As in the interview with Obama, the Clooney conversation flows both ways, with the former Dr. Doug Ross expressing as much curiosity about the man interviewing him as the other way around.

“People don’t know much about you,” Clooney tells him at one point. “And people are very interested in you and how you became David Letterman.” Letterman is more forthcoming when the tables are turned than he once might have been, admitting to Clooney that he wishes he’d had more children but didn’t because he was too consumed by his “dinky” show.

Again, there isn’t a “Wow, you’ve gotta see this” moment in the interview. Nobody cries. No one shouts. But because we’re so accustomed to seeing televised interviews that are either vapid and overly orchestrated, or, as on cable news, contentious, there’s something special about watching intelligent people talk, organically share information about themselves, and actually listen to each other. That’s the other thing that made Letterman such a good host in his broadcast days. Even if he didn’t always remember from one appearance to the next what a celebrity had said to him, in the moment, he was always listening to them, not trying to get to the next gimmicky bit that might go viral on the internet.

There are many reasons that, as Clooney says, people are interested in Letterman. Certainly one of them is the fact that, especially as he has aged, he continues to seem very interested in other people and what they can teach him. Everyone who currently hosts a late-night talk show would be wise to pay attention to that quality, and to learn something from it.

David Letterman Is Reviving the Interview on Netflix