What does an interview with David Letterman look like in 2018? A little longer, a little less aggressive and a little more ponderous than the Letterman we remember.
The comedian and late-night host, 70, retired from CBS' The Late Show With David Letterman in 2015 after a 33-year late-night career on NBC and CBS. But two years later, and after growing a now-infamous beard, Letterman is back with a six-episode monthly interview series on Netflix, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, which debuted its first episode Friday with former president Barack Obama as the guest.
As Obama so astutely noted during their long interview, "It's a whole new ballgame now, man." The Letterman that came out of retirement to interview friends and icons is not exactly the same one who roasted celebrities with his Top 10 Lists. The result is a more reflective, if a little blander, host.
Letterman made his name in late night with experimental comedy, and later, a bold and antagonistic interview style that once led Cher to call him an "(expletive) hole" on air. But it's clear that the new show is shying away from that part of his persona. It probably helps that the guest roster includes great foils for him like George Clooney, Jay-Z, Howard Stern, Tina Fey and Malala Yousafzai — as a late-night host, Letterman at times had been noticeably unenthused to interview random starlets or young celebrities about upcoming projects.
Letterman's and Obama's conversation was long and free-wheeling, ranging from discussions of the president's post-Oval Office vacations to combating confirmation bias to his "dad dancing" skills. There's a bit of an awkward transition halfway through the episode, to an interview with Rep. John Lewis in Selma, Ala., about his legacy from the civil rights movement, before flipping back to Obama in the studio. (It is only in his mini-interview with Lewis that anyone mentions President Trump.)
The new format is looser and less comedic than a traditional late-night interview. The jokes were fewer and further between, and Letterman doesn't egg Obama for a sound bite or anecdote at any particular moment. Besides the length, the biggest change is the repeat interruptions to the conversation. In addition to the Lewis interview, the episode was interrupted with production elements, including photos and videos. Sometimes they added value, other times they felt like filler.
Overall, the conversation in the first episode is a bit lackluster. Obama is both the best and worst choice as Letterman's guest. Both men are in a similar place in their lives, looking at what their second act will be, but neither seems totally settled into that second act yet. The best part of the interview is Obama's account of dropping his daughter Malia off at college and the different ways each member of his family coped with it. Both men were noticeably more relaxed and eager when the conversation turned from the political to the personal.
The episode concludes with Obama and Letterman staging themselves walking offstage together so that the cameras can catch "a shot of us walking into the sunset together. The two old guys."
It's a sweet moment that serves as a reminder why it's nice but not vital to have Letterman back on our screens.
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