Going long: Dave Letterman is back to form in ‘My Next Guest Needs No Introduction’

By JIM SABATASO
Correspondent

Sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss someone until they’re gone. Growing up, David Letterman was a constant presence on my TV. I spent many a school night up late watching the “Late Show,” absorbing his absurdist comedic style, steeping in his biting sarcasm, delighting in his confrontational, puckish interview style. For a while, his sensibilities informed mine — right down to the Letterman-style ties my best friend and I used to one-up each other with at formal events.

By the time Letterman retired from the “Late Show” in 2015, I had long since stopped watching. Tuning in nightly became difficult as life got in the way. It seemed, too, that both age and developments in his personal life had softened the once notoriously prickly host — he underwent open-heart surgery, became a father and weathered an embarrassing public sex scandal.

Compared to his younger late-night competition, Dave felt like an elder statesman; respected but somewhat out of step with “the kids today.” His show was slow to embrace social media and struggled to attain next-day virality the way Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart did.

However, those closing months, saw a spark of Dave’s former feistiness as he adopted a zero-f**ks-given attitude. He became increasingly unconcerned with letting his left-leaning politics show as he spoke out on social issues in occasionally joke-free monologues that addressed the injustices he saw.

In his absence, Stephen Colbert has taken up that mantle as Letterman’s “Late Show” successor. Every night, Colbert speaks truth to power as he calls out injustices and mercilessly skewers President Trump.

In retirement, Letterman dropped off the map to travel and spend time with his family. He eventually resurfaced with an unruly grey beard — the “aging vagrant look,” he jokes — and a renewed verve as he continued to be outspoken politically. Dave wasn’t ready to ride off into the sunset just yet.

Which brings us to “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” Letterman’s new monthly Netflix series. The six-episode first season features Letterman hosting deep-dive hour-long interviews with a sampling of entertainers and global influencers, including, Barack Obama, George Clooney, Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z, Tina Fey and Howard Stern.

Letterman has always been a fascinating interviewer. On both “Late Night” and the “Late Show,” he never hid what he thought of his guests. He shredded those who were only there to promote their projects. He sniffed out entitled celebrities, eviscerating and embarrassing them with abandon. Along the way, he earned a reputation as late-night’s most intimidating host. Many guests never returned after taking one of Dave’s vicious drubbings. Others were too scared to even walk onstage.

By contrast, the guests he respected or was genuinely interested in yielded some of television’s most insightful and entertaining interviews. The Netflix series gives Letterman the freedom to cherry-pick guests and the space to let interviews unfold without the distraction of commercial breaks or broadcast network censoring.

Letterman makes use of the new format by bolstering the onstage interviews with produced field pieces that give a more intimate glimpse into his guests’ lives, as well as the issues that inspire and motivate them.

His interview with first guest Barack Obama, is a powerful and moving hour of television. Letterman’s deep respect for Obama is evident but never fawning, as he gets the former president to discuss his family, his relationship with his father, and the current state of American politics.

That episode’s field piece features Letterman walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with Rep. John Lewis. It’s a moving conversation that links the struggle of the Civil Rights movement with Obama’s presidency, as it contemplates the renewed white supremacist sentiment being stoked by President Trump and his supporters. The episode is both poignant and frustrating, as it forces us to wonder how we went from an exemplar of class and statesmanship like Obama to the monstrous sideshow of Donald Trump.

The second episode welcomes George Clooney. Quickly dispensing with a discussion of his A-list celebrity status, Letterman digs into Clooney’s humanitarian work in Darfur and around refugee resettlement. With a less intimidating guest, we see Letterman more at ease as his deftness as an interviewer shines through. Where his Obama interview is strong, if understandably rigid, his time with Clooney is looser and more freewheeling.

Through it all, Letterman still exudes his good-natured prickliness as he attempts to sidestep both Obama’s and Clooney’s efforts to turn the interrogatory tables on him and get him to open up about his own life. Clooney has a slightly better time of it, but the intensely private Letterman always manages to get back on the driver’s seat.

“My Next Guest” is a welcome return to form for Letterman. It’s also a reminder of the value of a long-form interview as an art form — a format that provides the space to ask deeper questions and give more thoughtful answers. While not lost entirely, it’s something that’s regrettably harder to come by as our attention spans shrink and bite-sized viral videos clutter our screens. This series stands as a welcome treat for those looking to take a deep dive with some of popular culture’s most iconic personalities.

CHECK IT OUT

The first two episodes of “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman” are now streaming on Netflix. New episodes are released monthly.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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