Letterman transcends typical talk show format

Photo courtesy of Netflix

At the ripe age of 70, David Letterman has decided to make a triumphant return to the talk show universe with his new Netflix series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” Letterman has been a staple on late night television since 1982, and his retirement from CBS’s “Late Show” in 2015 left everyone wondering about his next move.

He spent the following three years not only growing an impressive beard but also dreaming up ideas to reinvent the traditional talk show. The inaugural episode of “My Next Guest” tries to bring a new perspective to an old format, which is embodied by the first guest, Barack Obama.

From the first minute of the show, it is apparent that Letterman does not intend to follow the polished, professional aesthetic of the “Late Show.” The stage is barren, furnished only by two chairs. The most noticeable omission is the live band, which had accompanied David for the past 15 years.

Even the camera work is hand-held, and David steps out to deliver his signature monologue with no pomp or fanfare. The monologue itself is more personal in nature than what viewers have come to expect from Letterman, and his past as a stand-up comedian shines through. He then calls out his guest, and true to this new format, Barack Obama saunters out casually to take his place on stage.

Those who are familiar with Obama and Letterman’s lives after stepping down from their respective roles will see the parallels in the paths they have taken. Obama has been spending more time with family and supporting philanthropic causes he is passionate about, as has Letterman.

This similarity makes Obama the perfect candidate for the inaugural episode, and the two
immediately have a lot to discuss. The initial conversation revolves around Obama’s family life and his relationship with his wife
and daughters.

The conversation is funny, sweet and charming. Both men seem to have an air of contentment that makes them open up quickly and speak without reservation. This show will not comprise a series of rapid-fire interviews with a litany of famous guests; instead, it promises to be a single, meandering, hour-long conversation that is completely unscripted.

The show occasionally cuts to a piece of content that is relevant to the conversation, like a photo or a short video. This style is another step away from the traditional talk show format, where the camera rarely leaves the guest’s face.

As the interview progresses, conversation moves from family anecdotes about Obama’s “dad moves” on the dance floor and into a more serious realm. Race in America is a part of the media narrative on an almost daily basis, and the meat of the episode includes a poignant history lesson on this topic.

Explained by the country’s first black president, the discourse is facilitated by Letterman’s deep interest in the subject. The show is interspersed with powerful images and black-and-white footage that provide historical context for
the conversation.

The show also includes a hidden gem within this segment: an emotionally moving interview with Congressman John Lewis as he and Letterman walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge. This bridge is where Lewis was beaten by police during a peaceful protest, a moment that later proved to be pivotal to the civil rights movement in America.

The interview tries to remind everyone of the struggle that brought this country to its current state. At the end of this mini-interview, the show returns to Obama, who carries the conversation forward to his own ascent in the political world and ends with a hopeful vision for the future.

In the interview, there is a moment when Letterman laments his lack of involvement in the civil rights struggle during his youth. This honesty exposes a raw, earnest side of him that has been hidden for years beneath a veneer of quick wit and snarky comments.

There is no question that Letterman is a big admirer of Obama. Indeed, the interviewer does not ask probing questions and can even seem fawning at times. This behavior is perhaps the one way Letterman failed to disobey convention with his new show.

Ultimately, “My Next Guest” gives viewers a unique twist on the typical talk show, and it will be interesting to see where Letterman takes this format in the upcoming episodes, which will be released monthly over the next five months.