At first, I was disappointed with the premiere of David Letterman’s new Netflix show, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” for what it did NOT do.
The guest is Barack Obama, and both the interviewer and the interviewee struggle mightily not to mention President Trump.
There are a few glancing allusions to the current administration in a brief conversation about the media, social media, and possible Russian meddling in the last election: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts,” the former president says. “If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.”
But the name Trump is never uttered, despite the fact that the dominant theme in the episode is racism, including, mid-episode, a taped interview between Letterman and U.S. Representative John Lewis, a leader in the civil rights movement, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. While news is peaking – and piquing – about Trump’s insults toward African countries and Haiti, all of the Selma material in “My Next Guest,” including clips of Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, feels muted and evasive.
But then I realized that both men were committed to staying on the high road. It was as if they tacitly agreed — and I suspect they explicitly agreed before the interview, too — that the episode would not stoop to the level of insult and provocation. They refused to break into the news cycle with comments meant to rally Democrats or to incite Trump to yell back on Twitter.
So nice work on the classiness, guys.
However, then I was disappointed with what “My Next Guest” DOES do, which is nothing interesting at all.
The two sit facing each other in chairs on a stage at City University of New York, with no desk between then and no Paul Shaffer and his band delivering intros and outros, and they essentially discuss historical and biographical material we already know about, and without much depth. Letterman gushes about Obama’s memoir “Dreams From My Father,” as if he doesn’t realize it came out in 1995, and they revisit Obama’s youth in Hawaii. Obama describes how he became inspired by civil rights, how the absence of his father led to his desire “to be present in my children’s life,” and how he does not miss “the trappings of the office.”
Obama also says he’s not about to return to presidential politics. “I’m prevented from running again by the Constitution,” he says, “but even if it were not for that amendment, Michelle would leave me. I want her around.”
It’s all pretty rote and familiar, and what’s worse is Letterman’s stage and interviewing manner, which is clearly rusty. He fawns over his guest more than he should, he makes awkward jokes about this new-fangled thing called Netflix, and he drives the conversation into a mutual children-appreciation session so that he can enthuse about his son and Obama can enthuse about his daughters.
It’s great to see Obama looking healthy and smiling broadly. “You’re hang gliding, you’re climbing volcanoes, you’re wrestling sharks,” Letterman says to him about their respective retirements. “I’m at Bed Bath & Beyond picking out wire hangers.” And it’s potentially entertaining to see crotchety Dave, with his beard and white socks, remaking himself into a kind of hipster grandpa.
But the first hour of “My Next Guest” — Letterman has planned five more monthly episodes — is a frustrating exercise in talking a lot but, ultimately, saying very little.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.