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Netflix Brings David Letterman Back To The Interview Chair — With A Few Twists

Jan 12, 2018
Originally published on January 12, 2018 6:19 pm

Netflix usually presents its new shows one season at a time, with a dozen or so episodes available immediately, but its latest talk show is being unveiled at the unusual rate of one installment per month.

It's called My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman — and it's excellent. The program marks Letterman's return to the talk-show format and to series television, a journey he began in 1980 with his brief but brilliant daytime talk show, NBC's The David Letterman Show.

After that, he clocked 11 years on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, from 1982 to 1993, then went straight to CBS' Late Show with David Letterman, where he lasted another 22 years.

One of his final guests on CBS, before retiring in May 2015, was then-President Barack Obama, who was a year away from wrapping up a long-running job of his own. Letterman's new Netflix show opens with a clip of that final interview — which seems appropriate since Obama is the first guest on Letterman's new show.

For Letterman, the new show isn't merely a comeback; it's a reboot. His previous talk shows — all of them — were irreverent deconstructions of the genre. But they relied on the same basic format and trappings introduced by the Tonight Show hosts who invented and honed the form: Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson.

Carson was 66 when he retired; Letterman is now 70 — but the old dog has some new tricks. This is his first series not made for broadcast television, so there is no censorship of language. There is no topical opening monologue, because on Netflix these shows are meant to be watched whenever the viewer wants to see them. There is also no band, no flashy set and, because Netflix is a paid streaming site, no commercials or interruptions. There is, however, a studio audience — the premiere was taped last fall at the City College of New York, in an auditorium filled with mostly young people who had no clue who Letterman's guests would be.

This is a talk show stripped to its basics: one main guest for the hour, with the two of them sitting in plush leather chairs on an otherwise bare stage. Letterman retains his long, bushy white retirement beard — he calls it his "aging vagrant look" — but his questioning skills, and his listening skills, are as sharp as ever.

Paul Shaffer, the bandleader on Letterman's previous series, provides the theme music, but he's not on stage or on hand. The show's director, Michael Bonfiglio, has his cameras capture the action by constantly prowling. They glide slowly but add movement to an otherwise aggressively stark and static presentation.

Each show makes room for a brief, pre-taped, on-location piece, where Letterman visits and interviews someone with an association to the main guest. But the vast bulk of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is just two people talking — and not about a new project the guest wants to promote. Just interesting, unpredictable talk. Much of the conversation with Obama was personal, and the two men mostly stayed away from politics and news.

The premiere show also features another politician: Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Lewis is shown in an on-location piece chatting with Letterman about race, politics and history as the two walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where Lewis led a march protesting segregation more than 50 years earlier.

So don't expect a top 10 list or a "monkey cam"; Letterman is here to talk and listen — and that's about it.

For me, that is more than enough. There are countless talk shows on TV, but almost none provide the depth and length of conversation Letterman's new show provides. He and Netflix have scheduled six monthly installments of My Guest Needs No Introduction. If they don't keep making more, I'll be stunned. I'll also be very disappointed — because TV needs the curiosity and irreverence of David Letterman now more than ever.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, FRESH AIR's TV critic. The Netflix streaming TV service usually present its new shows one season at a time with a dozen or so episodes available immediately. One of the new series premiering today on Netflix, however, is being unveiled at the unusual rate of one installment per month. It's Netflix's newest talk show. It's hosted by TV's oldest talk show host. And it's excellent.

The new show is called "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman." It marks Letterman's return to the talk show format and to series television, a journey he began with his brief but brilliant daytime talk show NBC's "The David Letterman Show" in 1980. After that, he clocked 11 years on NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman" from 1982 to 1993 then went straight to CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman," where he lasted another 22 years.

One of his final guests before retiring in May, 2015, was then President Barack Obama, who was a year away from wrapping up a long-running job of his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MY NEXT GUEST NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN: Now let me ask you, what will you do when you're not president?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I was thinking you and me, we could play some dominoes together and...

LETTERMAN: Dominoes.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: All right.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: We can, you know, go to the local Starbucks and...

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Letterman's new Netflix show opens with that clip because the first guest on Letterman's new talk show is Barack Obama. If there's ever a guest who embodies the title of this new one-hour talk show, "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction," it's a former U.S. president. For Letterman, this is not merely a comeback; it's a reboot. His previous talk shows - all of them - were irreverent deconstructions of the genre. But they relied on the same basic format and trappings introduced by the tonight show hosts who invented and honed the form - Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. Carson was 66 when he retired. David Letterman is now 70, but the old dog has some new tricks.

It's his first series not made for broadcast television. So there's no censorship of language. There is a studio audience. The premiere was taped last fall at the City College of New York in an auditorium filled with mostly young people who had no clue who Letterman's guests would be. There's no topical opening monologue because, on Netflix, these shows are meant to be watched whenever the viewer wants to see them. There's no band, no flashy set and, since Netflix is a paid streaming site, no commercials or interruptions.

It's a talk show stripped to its basics - one main guest for the hour with the two of them sitting there in plush leather chairs on an otherwise bare stage. Letterman retains his long bushy white retirement beard. He calls it his aging-vagrant look. But his questioning skills and his listening skills are as sharp as ever. Paul Shaffer, the bandleader on Letterman's previous series, provides the theme music, but he's not onstage or on hand. The show's director, Michael Bonfiglio, has his cameras capture the action by constantly prowling. They glide slowly but add movement to an otherwise aggressively stark and static presentation.

Each show makes room for a brief pre-taped on location piece where Letterman visits and interviews someone with an association to the main guest. But for the vast bulk of "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction," it's just two people talking - and not about a new project the guest wants to promote - just interesting, unpredictable talk. Most of it was personal. And they mostly stayed away from politics and news but came close once.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MY NEXT GUEST NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: There is a democracy, and the voting process is being monkeyed with by foreign countries.

OBAMA: Hypothetically.

LETTERMAN: Hypothetically. What is more damaging to that democracy? Would it be the diminishment by the head of the democracy of press, or would it be somebody screwing around with the actual voting process?

OBAMA: One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don't share a common baseline of facts. There is a well-known senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And one time he was debating one of his less-capable colleagues. And the guy got flustered and said, well, Senator Moynihan, that's just your opinion, and I have mine. And Moynihan says, sir, you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.

What the Russians exploited - but it was already here - is we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet...

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: ...Than you are if you, you know, listen to NPR. Now...

BIANCULLI: Also, in this premiere show is another politician, John Lewis. He's shown in an on-location piece chatting with Letterman about race and politics and history as the two walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where Lewis led a march protesting segregation 50 years earlier but don't expect a top 10 list or a monkey cam. Letterman is here to talk and listen, and that's about it. And, for me, that's more than enough.

There are countless talk shows on TV, but almost none providing the depth and length of conversation Letterman's new show provides. He and Netflix have scheduled six monthly installments of "My Guest Needs No Introduction." And if they don't keep making more, I'll be stunned. I'll also be very disappointed because TV needs the curiosity and irreverence of David Letterman now more than ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "FABLES OF FAUBUS")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, we talk with Melba Pattillo Beals. She was one of nine African-American kids who, in 1957, participated in the hard-fought integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. It was one of the early battles of the civil rights movement. She has a new memoir called "I will not fear." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Theresa Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "FABLES OF FAUBUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.