What could seem better than getting David Letterman and President Obama together again and sitting them down in front of an audience to talk for an hour about whatever's been on their minds since they both left their old jobs? What better fantasy come true for anyone who misses both men terribly?
Unfortunately, Letterman's new show for Netflix, a six-episode series called "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction" fails to deliver on its promise, falling flat in its Friday debut. Letterman, who retired so elegantly in 2015, seems only half-engaged here and far too much in the thrall of his first guest, who left office a year ago and has avoided the talk-show circuit until now.
Both men seem rusty at the art of banter. They're off their game. The interview doesn't produce any surprising or newsworthy statements from Obama. Instead, Letterman asks Obama to talk about his upbringing, his mother, his reckoning with his own identity — well-trod territory, retold as if viewers have never heard of this person named Barack Obama.
The discussion meanders along the surface, touching on Russian interference in U.S. elections and the state of discourse in American society — though never deeply. "One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don't share a common baseline of facts," Obama says. "What the Russians exploited, [was] already here — we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR."
Obama describes his disappointment that social media, which was so key to his 2008 and 2012 victories has become a carefully calibrated weapon.
"I had a very optimistic feeling about [social networks]," Obama says. "What we missed was the degree to which people who are in power — special interests, foreign governments, et cetera, can in fact manipulate that and . . ."
"Propagandize," Letterman offers.
"Propagandize," Obama says.
"I was under the impression that Twitter would be the mechanism by which truth was told around the world," Letterman says in his trademark deadpan.
The interview offers few if any direct jabs taken at the current president, probably because Obama's too smart to take the bait and Letterman's too reluctant to offer it. There are also lots of jokes about both men being quote-unquote unemployed. "You're hang gliding, you're climbing volcanoes, you're wrestling sharks," Letterman observes. "I'm at Bed Bath & Beyond picking out wire hangers."
Free to be whatever he wants in front of the camera now, Letterman opts for befuddled pussycat rather than old lion. He fawns over the former president for most of the hour, reaching a climax near the end (after a plug for Obama's foundation and library), when he says, "When I was a kid, and it's still taught today, irrespective of the man or woman who holds the office, you have to respect the office of president. Without a question of a doubt you are the first president I truly and fully respect."
The format of "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction" is in many ways what some viewers have longed for in the talk-show format. Stripped of decor (the interview was shot with two leather chairs on a darkened stage at City College of New York), the show is able to intently focus on conversation, which is no longer beholden to whatever movie or book or TV show the guest is selling (presidential libraries and foundations notwithstanding). Paul Shaffer recorded a jaunty instrumental for the animated theme, which seems to be the show's lone nod to Letterman's old format.
The bridge was also the site of one of Obama's most memorable speeches, delivered on the 50th anniversary of the march. Letterman seems sincerely if belatedly in awe of what happened there. It's Lewis who gets the opportunity to deliver the show's clearest comment on President Trump, after Letterman asks the congressman about his decision to skip last year's inauguration.
"Without being just flat-out specific about it," Letterman says. "How big a setback is the current administration [to civil rights]?"
"It is a major setback to the hopes and dreams and aspirations of a people," Lewis says. "Not just African Americans, but all Americans, because I think what has happened in America today is a threat not just to the country but the planet."
Back onstage, Letterman gets several laughs by pretending Obama is still in office. After a particularly wonky answer from Obama, Letterman replies: "To hear you describe this in a way that I can understand, just makes me so happy you're still president." Near the end of the hour, he says to Obama: "Now, Mr. President, I know you have to get back to the Oval Office . . .."
In the episode's final minutes, Obama, pondering his own success and the lives of successful people, asks Letterman if he feels like his life has been lucky.
Letterman gives a beautiful answer, verging on tears: "Mr. President, this is what I'm struggling with at this point in my life: I have been nothing but lucky. When John Lewis and his friends [marched across the bridge], in April of '65 me and my friends were driving to Florida to get on a cruise ship to go to the Bahamas because there was no age limit to purchase alcohol, and we spent the entire week, pardon my French, s---faced. Why wasn't I in Alabama? Why was I not aware? I have been nothing but lucky."
Rather than wrap up with this, "My Next Guest" would have done well to keep the cameras rolling another hour, and begin the show at this deeper, more personal and more meaningful moment, and work forward from there. And more than once it seems Obama should be the one interviewing Letterman.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman (one hour) now streaming on Netflix. The next episode, featuring George Clooney, streams Feb. 9.