Last year, at a party after Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show, a Netflix executive approached Lydia Tenaglia with an idea. Would her production company, Zero Point Zero, want to work on a talk show? She had one concern: ZPZ, most famous for working with the late Anthony Bourdain on “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” was more comfortable in the field.
But that’s exactly why Jonathan Mussman, Netflix’s director of production, approached Tenaglia. “It’s an art,” he says, “and they are really the finest in field story production.”
So Mussman brought ZPZ in for Season 2 of “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman,” which will be available for streaming Friday. Letterman and Tenaglia spoke of four key moments viewers will see during that second season, which features Kanye West, Melinda Gates, Lewis Hamilton, Tiffany Haddish and Ellen DeGeneres.
Episode: Lewis Hamilton, five-time Formula One racing champion
Moment: Letterman on the go-kart track.
Scenario: Hamilton got his start racing karts with his father’s help. That leads Letterman to visit a track and race two upstarts, Christian Rutty, 12, and Chloe Chambers, 14.
Tenaglia: The obvious choice would have been to have Lewis and Dave in the go-karts racing each other. What was less obvious was to tap these two young go-karters who were, in many ways, somewhat analogous to Lewis’s experience coming up. Lewis clearly articulates onstage, “I was kind of a scrawny kid. I wasn’t athletic or tall, and I was oftentimes bullied, and when I sat in the seat of one of these cars I found my powers.” This scene with Dave and the kids, you see a young girl and everybody says, “I’m a girl and everybody looks at me as deficient, and I’m out here kicking ass.” And the boy comes from a background or an upbringing of not being the most powerful kid in the school, but “Get me in a car and I can ride with the best of them.”
Letterman: Go-karts, for a kid, that’s a pretty distant third or fourth from soccer. But they were so committed to it and could express themselves so delightfully. At one point, when we were getting ready to have this race, one of the kids said to the director, “Is it okay if we pass him?” They had already figured me out. I’m telling you, I thought if I had them, if I can make the first turn, I’m home free. A second later, they all go by me.
Episode: Tiffany Haddish, comedian
Moment: Weeding Haddish’s garden.
Scenario: Haddish had a difficult childhood, spending several years in foster homes after her mother’s near-fatal car accident. Instead of doing a field piece in a comedy club or on a movie set, Letterman helps her with her backyard garden — and shoveling dog poop.
Letterman: In [Haddish’s] book, she references her life, her home and her neighborhood. And it was a reflection on that. The idea of cleaning up her yard . . . you probably know this about me, but shoveling dog [poop] is one of the things I’m really good at. You need a pointed shovel. I think the term is spade and you don’t need something you buy at Bed, Bath and Beyond. That tells you the extent to which her head is exactly where it needs to be for exactly where her career is. Who would have blinked if we were in Beverly Hills or Bel-Air? Everybody would have said, “If you earned it, there you go.” I think she — and I mean this in the highest praise possible — I think she’s got a good heart. And you think of the damage her heart endured over the years.
Tenaglia: I think we had brief conversations about comedy club-type stuff, but seeing her in her own home, it just resonated. It was a beautiful counterpoint to what she was articulating onstage. In the early parts of the interview, you hear about her growing up in foster care and the field piece is really her. She hasn’t moved that far away from where she’s grown up. The very fact that she’s got a home, and she’s built herself a piece of refuge was the piece that made the most sense. And the humor came out naturally because you’re sticking two comedians together, two great improvisational comedians together.
Episode: Kanye West, rapper
Moment: Letterman went to one of West’s Sunday services, held in a room with ever-changing light inspired by artist James Turrell. The problem comes just before filming. West tells ZPZ that they can’t use their standard cameras.
Tenaglia: We went into it and we had one guy, who is an amazing DP [director of photography] with his camera, and immediately we were told, you can’t bring that in there. It’s going to kill the whole vibe of what Kanye’s trying to create. I think the way you deal with it is when someone emphatically tells you you can’t use your big broadcast camera, you have to heed that. The alternative is you’re not going to shoot it. Having been in the field on so many different things where you have to be improvisational, you have to think on the fly, and figure out how you work with those parameters. So the team quickly powwowed, they stationed people with their iPhones and everybody had their angle and they let it roll. We were plugged into the audio board. It’s worth noting, too, that was Dave and Kanye’s first real meeting with each other.
Letterman: I knew that that was what was going on. It’s not my problem. It becomes the problem for the people recording it. I knew whatever was going to happen there, we would have to live with TV cellphone video. He had invited us here. I was curious about it. I did not know what to expect. The setting of it couldn’t have been more incongruous. We drive all the way to the Burbank airport and in that neighborhood is a recording studio and they had turned it into this very intimate setting for this experience. I was wildly curious about it, and found it to be really touching. And loving. And I think an aspect of the man that I had not expected.
Episode: Ellen DeGeneres, talk-show host
Moment: DeGeneres has spoken eloquently in the past about her sexually abusive stepfather and her mother’s failure to believe her. But Letterman asks her about it during the taping in a theater packed with an audience. She pauses, and he waits, remaining silent to let her decide how to proceed. She eventually tells her story.
Letterman: I didn’t know what to do. Luckily in my life I’ve not been in that situation where somebody is telling me something horrifying. I don’t know — do I hug them? Do I touch them? I was paralyzed. . . . This is compounded by the fact that I had met her mother the day before and I don’t know when that took place and then she tells this story.
Tenaglia: I think we all collectively held our breath when Ellen launched into that story . . . in some ways it felt so anomalous to what we have come to know about Ellen. She’s in everyone’s living room, she’s funny, she always makes people laugh, and for her to share this very painful memory, and the manner in which she did, almost felt like you were getting access to another part of her that people don’t often see. It was incredible, Dave’s patience in that moment, because you can see . . . he’s thinking, “How can I let this moment happen, how can I support this moment?”