I never cared for David Letterman. I’m not really sure why, either. His influence was and is obvious what with the following generation of late-night hosts citing his career as foundational to their own turns in the chair. His comedic chops were second to none.
But he always seemed like the host for my parents—any parents, really. Adults that couldn’t hang with the goofs that Conan O’Brien provided or the sharp satirical bent of Jon Stewart. So when it was announced that he would be returning to his talk show stomping grounds with a Netflix series, it was just another press release glancing across the bow. Who, other than parents, would care?
It turns out that everyone should. Just because I didn’t mesh with his late-night predilections doesn’t mean I don’t respect him, and Letterman’s ability to host is both his greatest asset and the thing we need the most. This is a conversationalist that savors his throne, his prowess to bring celebrity down to his court and examine it with a vibrant yet easygoing tenacity.
As good as folks like Samantha Bee and John Oliver and Trevor Noah have been at covering vital topics at a depth a newspaper-averse society simply isn’t used to, late-night television has be flailing behind. Either they haven’t been able to accrue a meaningful cabal (Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers), or they won’t or can’t bear their teeth (Jimmy Fallon, James Corden). But Letterman had and has it all.
Decades ago, yes, people could tune into Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, but everyone knew what Letterman was up to. There were no niche shows because there were just so few even airing. And he used this platform to let people know that getting away with anything was unacceptable. He relished uncomfortable interviews and he could draw out things from guests that no one else could.
He could find the lonely, broken heart of a ragged, melting Lindsay Lohan. He refuses to play into Paris Hilton’s painfully obvious image rehabilitation campaign. And perhaps most memorably, he goes head-to-head with Bill O’Reilly in one of the most uncomfortably tense moments in television history. Letterman, above all else, is a man that is impossible to sway to any way other than his own.
He, in short, is an encapsulation of what we need from a talk show. Across almost every line, everyone is willing to watch him do this thing. (More than that, they want to.) And he is an unrelenting interrogatory force, almost freely able to elicit responses out of people that don’t want to give answers. Now enter My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.
This isn’t like the talk shows you’re used to. Rather than hurried, off-the-cuff daily production, there is a full month of execution between each of the six episodes. And his lineup is rife with potential. George Clooney and Tina Fey are always gems and while no one probably cares what Howard Stern or Jay-Z have to say anymore, they have had such immense careers, something interesting is going to come out of their episodes.
But none of them are the guest of the inaugural episode: President Barack Obama. And he sets a tremendous tone. This feels like a more raw exchange. There is no desk, no live band. Just Obama and Letterman and the latter’s desire to get out everything the former has held back for the past eight years.
Admittedly, some of it is the trademark talkshow fluff. (No one cares about Obama’s dad-level dance moves.) But they also get at critically relevant and poignant topics, too, like how algorithms are driving our ability to digest political opinions and the lingering effect that the Oval Office has on a person. And when the episode expands into an off-site interview with Congressman John Lewis, the discussion about civil rights and his personal involvement in the movement turns the viewing into a weighty, impactful experience.
It’s something that feels impossible in any other format with any other host. It’s a slow, simmering stew that could have only happened with the pointed tip of what this show wants to be. In an exceptionally tender exchange with Obama, after talking about the President’s integration back into a normal life, Letterman can’t help but be overcome with an urgency—a need to expose the ghost that has haunted him since his retirement.
“Mr. President, this is what I am struggling with at this point in my life. I have been nothing but lucky.” Thinking on Lewis and Bloody Sunday, he asks, “Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why was I not aware? I have been nothing but lucky.”
This is not a product of boredom, a man idling his time away in retirement. This is not the product of sponsors driving conversations about upcoming movies and albums and novels. This isn’t even the product of one man’s prodigious skill and his need to leave a positive mark on this world. This is about us and our absolute absence of a critical eye. And god damn if we aren’t going to fix it.