Letterman's back — but the late-night landscape has changed
David Letterman's mastery of late-night TV, filled with stupid pet tricks and the monkey cam, made him the champion of irony.
His detachment interviewing celebrities of the day and his refusal to buy into his own comedic bits always suggested he was yearning for something less trivial.
Now he has it.
Letterman is back on the small screen, with a Netflix show that lets him push away the constraints of timeslot, network and expectations. But some say he needs to push even harder.
Reaching for substance
His new series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, kicks off with an hour-long interview with former U.S. president Barack Obama, but quickly takes a detour into the Deep South.
"Recently," Letterman explains, "I did something that was so important to me… I went to Selma, Alabama."
I would have liked to see Dave push him more.- Matt Wilstein, The Daily Beast
Now we're watching a short documentary showing Letterman meeting with Rep. John Lewis, congressman and activist, recalling his historic 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Lewis led the non-violent demonstration, but they were attacked by armed police. Lewis was billy-clubbed, injured and hospitalized.
"What's on the other side of the bridge?" Letterman asks Lewis.
"The vote," he answers. "Barack Obama."
"A dull chat"
Get ready for another side of David Letterman.
His interview with Obama, recorded in New York before a live audience, is the first since he left office.
It's affable, charming, folksy, intimate and disarmingly emotional — but some critics say that's not enough.
"The interview doesn't produce any surprising or newsworthy statements from Obama," critic Hank Stuever complains in the Washington Post. "Both men seem rusty at the art of banter. They're off their game."
Deadline called it "a dull chat between two well-spoken men," faint praise when one of those men is the first African-American president and his successor is accused of racism.
"It is interesting that the name Trump was not spoken by either man during their interview," Matt Wilstein tells me on Day 6.
Wilstein writes on TV and entertainment for The Daily Beast. As a longtime late-night fan, Wilstein is happy to have Letterman back and enjoyed the obvious camaraderie between two powerful men in their post-career phase — or, as Letterman puts it, who both "recently left long-term jobs."
But Wilstein also says something is missing.
"There wasn't much from Obama in terms of what's been happening over this past year — which I think is why a lot of people, including myself, were tuning in to see what does he think of everything, because we really haven't heard a lot from him since he left the White House," he says.
"I would have liked to see Dave push him more."
Letterman and Obama may have had an understanding about Trump before they entered into the interview.
Most presidents refrain from criticizing their successors. It's a tradition that likely won't continue when Trump leaves office.
"By not breaking that norm, Obama is just showing that he's classier person than the man who is breaking all the norms," says Wilstein. He feels that if Letterman had applied more pressure, there could have been different results.
"Obama could have said, 'You know, I'm not going to go there. I don't want to talk about that.' And then we'd be criticizing Obama for not answering those questions. Or maybe he would have surprised us all and said a lot more than we think he would have."
Conversation about race
When Letterman breaks away from the Obama interview to take us to Selma, Trump's name is finally heard.
He and John Lewis directly connect the president to racial unrest, something that doesn't happen in the conversation with Obama.
"It kind of took me out of the interview with Obama," says Wilstein. "At the same time, Letterman has said that he wants to do that in each episode, go out into the field talk to somebody else who is related to the guest."
Wilstein says it underscores the gaps in Letterman's conversation with Obama.
"I wonder whether he did the interview with Obama and then thought, 'There's not enough criticism of Trump in this piece. Let me talk to someone who will really go there.'"
But Wilstein says it's a mistake to view the conversation between Obama and Letterman in the context of the chaos of the Trump White House.
Netflix released My Next Guest Needs No Introduction hours after reports of Trump denigrating African nations, but the episode will stream long after the news cycle has moved on.
"They're not expecting that everyone's going to watch it on the first day," Wilstein says. "And really it has a longer look than a traditional late-night interview. And I think that's the appeal in this case, for both Obama and Letterman, to do an interview like this. There's a reason why Obama has not been on Kimmel and Colbert."
There's also a reason why Wilstein thinks the conversation between Obama and Letterman is more important that the things they left out.
"I think what makes it worth watching is just… just seeing these two guys who were really giants in the culture, who have been out of the picture for the past year. And really just seeing what they want to talk about when they get together. And I just found it really rewarding and interesting to watch that."
To hear the full interview with Daily Beast writer Matt Wilstein, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.