Letterman’s Legacy

Image: Joe PuglieseNetflix

This essay originally appeared in Doryanthes journal, May 2018

No introduction is needed, but surely some explanation is warranted. Is Letterman’s Netflix venture a reaction to Trump, or is it inspired by something even closer to home? 

Did you hear about that couple that got together in the 60s for that one hot affair, that lead to that one hot marriage and, consequently, that one quick divorce? After the divorce, he left and left her to raise their son. Dad died 20 years later in a car accident and she met her early demise another 13 years after that. Both left this world never knowing that the product of their seemingly unremarkable union would go on to become the first African American President of the United States. 

But, that guy needs no introduction. 

David Letterman’s new Netflix series – My Next Guest Needs No Introduction - leaves you exploring narratives and ideologies long after each one-hour episode. And really, doesn’t the best journalism always leave you with more questions than answers? (Or, is it the worst?) Former late-night television host, David Letterman is out of retirement and has returned to streamed screens with a six-episode series. One episode is released each month, and each fixates on one guest per hour. At the time of writing, guests so far needing no introduction are Barack Obama, George Clooney, Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z and Tina Fey. June will feature Howard Stern (Australians may remember him as a vulgar 80s ‘shock jock’, but reports indicate he has since evolved into a more respected - sombre even - interviewer and searcher of truth).

What’s the name of Dave’s game? 
Image: Joe PuglieseNetflix

Australians may also remember David Letterman as that grumpy talk show guy, who displayed varying degrees of humour, and who Steve Vizard tried to imitate for a spell on Tonight Live. Americans, on the other hand, consider Dave to be something of an institution. His Emmy-winning shows, Late Night with David Letterman and The Late Show aired over the course of 33 years and 6,000 episodes, making him the longest-serving host in US late-night TV history. He shut the shop in 2015. Hardly surprising; he was 69 by then. A respectable retirement age especially considering the length of his tenure and, by Letterman’s own admission, considering he had a raging case of lack of interest in his own show.  

So, a mere three years later he’s back. And why? It’s certainly not a case of needing to supplement the super; with a reported net worth of $424 million, David Letterman is definitely not short of coin. 

Maybe retirement wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As Letterman refers to consistently throughout the series, this 71-year-old is a first time Dad to 13-year-old, Harry. It’s a domestic scenario that surely presents challenges for everyone at Casa de Letterman. This attempted re-emergence into the zeitgeist might be nothing more than a ploy to get out of the house. 

Whatever the case, Letterman is nothing if not conscious that even in the short time he has been out of the limelight, the world has moved on without him. 

From the moment this giant man steps on to the stripped backstage for his interview with Barack Obama, he outright flaunts the fact that he’s an old guy and, quite possibly, passed it. His long, grey beard and regular patter of self-deprecating age-related quips are his signature and almost a dare to haters. 

Still, the audiences reassure him with generous laughter, warm applause and standing ovations.  

The interviews 
Considering the show’s moniker is My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Letterman allocates a hardy allotment of each interview to going over old ground with his guests; family backgrounds, timelines of life events and already well-known career highlights. Each conversation follows the same formula: a humorous exchange, background story, career highlights, politics. 

After 33 years of interviewing, no one is going to teach him how to suck eggs, but Letterman’s style is more to paint a picture in broad strokes, rather than to drill down into the microcosms of subjects for really meaty discourse. (He’s no Richard Fidler.) 

Yet these interviews are a long way away from the puff piece celebrity segments filmed in the Ed Sullivan Theatre for all those years. There are no dog and pony shows, no books to sell or movies to promote, and while these discussions don’t quite classify as intellectual, the subject matter du jour taps into a raft of contemporary cultural anxieties. 

Importantly, they home in on Dave’s two major personal anxieties: Trump and parenthood. It’s when these topics raise their heads that the conversations really come alive.  

Image: Joe PuglieseNetflix
Letterman is clearly rattled by this post-Obama, traumatic Trump times. More than an undercurrent; the present-day President is a scab that Letterman cannot stop himself from picking in each interview. It is palpable just how incensed he is that this person now represents him as an American. Yes, this septuagenarian has come out of retirement to speak out against what he refers to as “the ugly side of America that we wanted to believe was gone.” Even his least political interview with Tina Fey is strong in its antiTrump sentiment. In fairness, this probably should not be that unforeseen, given she awarded the coveted Mark Twain Prize for American Humor for her satirical send-up of Sarah Palin. 

Parenting is just as likely as politics to fire up this old man. Fatherhood is clearly a role that weighs heavily on David Letterman’s mind, and he freely admits to confusion and a deep fear of ineptitude where it is concerned. In one ep, he jokes that he is so old, that his son is really more Harry’s future step father’s problem than his own.  

With the exception of Malala Yousafzai, Letterman finds empathy and parental camaraderie in his guests. President Obama shares his own fathering stories; comparing the experience of his firstborn leaving home to “open heart surgery” and his struggles with Allen keys, furniture assembly and the family’s collective embarrassment over his Dad style dancing. 

Clooney’s another late-to-life Dad who Dave is keen to compare notes with (Letterman’s standout question would have to be,“do you still drink?) 

Highlights: What was it like on the first day you woke up not as President? 
Letterman opens the series with a great first question and thus opens a porthole to the life of an ex-president and the man behind the public persona. If Letterman’s conversation with Barack Obama had a subtext, it would be: man, I wish you were still president. 
Image: Joe PuglieseNetflix

The interview is an unadulterated re-introduction to Obama the Orator. The man’s speaking style is downright impressive. Poetic, charming, intelligent, engaging. Hardly a shock, but a nice place to visit; respite from the aggressive, divisive, amorphous administrative addresses that we are more commonly exposed to lately. 

If you have any affection for Mr Barry O’Bama, this episode is worth watching alone for footage of one of his most famous speeches.  

“… the idea held by generations of citizens that the idea of America is a constant work in progress, who believe that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.”  
Such was Obama’s choice of phrasing on the 50th anniversary of three protest marches along an 87-kilometre highway in Alabama to demonstrate the desire of African-American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote. 

You see, each episode features interludes that cut away from the main interview, showing Letterman on location talking to someone, somewhere, somehow linked to an ideal or issue that the interviewee of the day represents. In the Obama ep, our host is filmed walking across the bridge on which Obama’s Selma speech was made in 2015. He is walking with John Lewis, one of the original ‘Selma marchers’ and a personal hero of Obama. 

John Lewis explains the historical significance of the bridge, the marches and ongoing pro-African American activism. Although highly relevant to US audiences, the information provided is not exactly fresh territory - more of a memory of a memory – but moving all the same. 

Letterman concludes his first episode by quoting Obama to Obama. “You evoke the phrase ‘against all odds maybe someone who can change or make history.’ You, of course, describe yourself.” This is a concept that is obviously on his mind.

Highlights: I’ll be Liz Taylor 
Image: Joe PuglieseNetflix

In the second interview of the series, George Clooney oozes Hollywood charm and is a prime example of the blurred lines between US celebrity and policy. Politicians become celebrities and celebrities become leaders of the free world (if Bernie Saunders had only got himself a reality TV show, the world could have been a very different place today). 

After rehashing the Clooney Chronicles that revealed a tenuous connection between the Clooneys and the Kennedys (aunt Rosemary was a close friend of Bobby), Letterman gets to the good stuff. He wants George to explain human rights law to him. You see, Clooney’s wife, Amal is a barrister who specialises in international law and currently caught up in a bid to take ISIS to court over their genocide of the Yazidis in Syria. Gutsy, gripping, newsworthy. 

So, given his curiosity, why didn’t Letterman interview Amal instead of her movie star husband? To be fair, Gorgeous George forayed into international human rights prior to meeting Amal. Most notably, in public campaigns drawing attention to injustices surrounding the Sudanese genocide at Darfur. However, Clooney remains humble. He understands his role as “I’ll be Liz Taylor”. He acknowledges that he is the famous, pretty face followed by mainstream audiences and is despairingly crucial if one is to steal people’s attention away from the Kardashians to more serious world matters, even temporarily. 

One suspects that Letterman knows this too.  

Highlights: Nobel peace prize winner at 17 
Image: Joe PuglieseNetflix

Perhaps the most unexpected inclusion in the Letterman series is an interview with Nobel peace prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. She is the only interviewee that probably does require some introduction (then again, Madonna’s a supporter, so maybe not). 

For those playing at home, Malala is a Pakistani activist for female education especially the education of women and children in her home in northwest Pakistan, where the local Taliban had at times banned girls from attending school. At 15 she was shot in the face by a Taliban gunman but continued fighting for her recovery, for other women and her education. At 17 she became the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize and currently studies at Oxford University. 

The natural rapport Letterman exhibits in his interviews with the other A-listers is missing when he speaks with Malala. However, his admiration and compassion for her is visceral. This conversation does some heavy lifting right from the get-go: attempted murder, women’s rights, education, world peace. You know, just the run of the mill top of mind topics for most 20-year-olds. 

And while this isn’t a run of the mill Letterman interview, it is a story this man lucidly wants Americans, in particular, to hear. 

He advocates her as an ambassador of peace and empowerment and a source of inspiration. In her and in others of her ilk of her generation, he has hope. 

Highlights: Illuminati-ng 
Image: Adam Rose

By the Jay-Z interview, the penny finally drops as to the purpose of The Letterman Resurrection. 

This is a man who wants to understand. He wants reassurance that the world he is leaving his son to inherit is going to be alright. He wants his son’s generation to understand what came before them and the mistakes that must be realised, remembered and never repeated. 

Through Jay-Z, Dave wants to understand the heroes of kids today and the cultural context that rouses them. 

He wants to understand the experience of his fellow Americans. What is their relationship with the N word? Is the East Coast/West Coast rap rift over? What is ‘flow’? 

Furthermore, during a field trip to the recording studios of legendary music producer, Rick Rubin, Letterman uncovers a connection that links the Beatles to Kanye West and to Madison Ward; past, present and future. The footage closes following a searing duet between singers, Madison Ward and Lucas Nelson with a plea to “let go of your plans … don’t be afraid of change”. “Did we like that?” Letterman asks at its conclusion.  

I think the problem will take care of itself 
Image: Michele K Short

So overall, is Letterman trying to simply entertain or is he trying to educate or remind an insular America about what’s important? Is his polite - almost detached at times - curiosity a ploy to spoon feed the audience? 

Answer: all of the above and then some. He’s asking questions and leaving them. 

He’s also trying to assuage the fears he has for his son’s future when he’s not around.  

David Letterman: I think this problem will take care of itself.
Jay-Z: I think it takes people like you speaking and especially all of the young people across the country to say ‘this isn’t right. I don’t feel like this. I don’t represent what he represents and I’m going to change that’.  
That’s Letterman’s hope, anyway. 

You can watch My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman on Netflix.  

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