The first installment of David Letterman’s new series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, arrived on Netflix today, and I have already seen a number of tweets suggesting it is an antidote to the latest racist news. (For the sake of posterity: On this day, January 12th, 2018, we learned that President Trump had recently called Haiti and various African nations “shitholes.”) In the episode, Letterman sits down with Barack Obama for a nearly hourlong conversation that includes a discussion of civil rights and racism and an exchange with congressman John Lewis about the march on Selma, with footage of Letterman and Lewis walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
As news counterprogramming, this is effective, a reminder that not so long ago our president was thoughtful and righteous on matters of race, rather than being an outright racist. But being more soothing and uplifting than the five-alarm fire that is the Trump administration is not such a high bar to clear. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is pleasant, entertaining, occasionally moving, a little funny, and almost indistinguishable from a standard late-night interview, just stretched out. It is long, but it is not particularly deep. New network, new set, new beard: same Dave. You can take the host out of late night, but you can’t take the late night out of the host.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction opens with a bit of sparkly anecdote, gets dull when matters turn to policy or politics, prompts its guest for familiar stories (many taken from Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father), and then ends with more anecdotes about Obama’s dance moves and his eldest daughter going off to college. Obama is charming and dry, and Letterman is charming and curmudgeonly. It is a perfectly serviceable interview, with a few compelling insights into post-presidency life and some nice rejoinders from Letterman. (“To hear you describe this in a way that I understand, it just makes me so glad you’re still president.”) But its questions are late-night questions: They are designed to elicit an expected or predicted bit, not to meander, surprise, or plumb.
Letterman asks Obama no pointed questions about politics, and he asks very few follow-up questions about his feelings. Perhaps it was agreed beforehand that they wouldn’t discuss Trump—they never mention him by name—but Letterman doesn’t even ask how Obama feels at seeing, say, the landmark health care reforms he championed so systematically attacked, defended, and attacked again. Letterman’s questions about race, and his turn to John Lewis, are well-meaning but unsophisticated. He has Lewis repeat the basic history of the march on Selma and affirm the greatness of Obama before assuaging Letterman’s fears about the recent rise of white supremacy with hopeful assurances that racial progress only moves forward. Letterman clearly feels strongly about racism, but he has not thought deeply enough about it to engage these men who have in any substantive conversation.
Obama tries to show Letterman a way to do the new show differently. Early in the interview, Obama tosses a question back at Letterman: How has retirement been for him? Did he spend time with his wife and his son or “brood in the dark”? Letterman answers but then, in quintessentially gruff Letterman fashion, sets Obama straight, “This is how this is gonna work: I’m gonna ask you stuff, and you’re going to answer.” This is how the rest of the episode proceeds. But toward the end of the episode, Obama circles back to the moment, saying, “I wanted to ask Dave a lot of questions, but he got grumpy at the beginning.” This time, Obama perseveres and asks the most unpredictable question of the episode: Does Letterman feel lucky? Obama has found that successful people give themselves too much credit.
“This is what I have been struggling about. I have been nothing but lucky.” Letterman replies with angst in his voice, going on to say that when Lewis was marching on Selma, he was on his way to the Bahamas to get drunk with his friends. “Why wasn’t I in Alabama? I have been nothing but lucky.” He stops there, and then he won’t go any further.
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