When David Letterman taped his final “Late Show” on CBS on May 20, 2015, I felt a genuine sadness. I had watched Letterman for decades, ever since I was a high school kid taping episodes of his brilliant old “Late Night” show on NBC to watch the next day after school.
And now he was retiring, and I was sure I would never see his face again. Letterman never seemed to need the audience the way some talk show hosts do, and appeared long past ready to throw one last pencil through the window and call it a career.
I was right about one thing — now that Letterman has grown that majestic beard, we’ll never see his face again. But less than three years after retiring from the "Late Show," Letterman is back on Netflix with “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman.” The first episode, with former President Barack Obama, was released last Friday.
The show will release one episode per month until June. Future guests range from George Clooney to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.
What’s striking about “My Next Guest” is what isn’t there — no desk, no set, no monologue, no live band (although Letterman’s longtime bandleader Paul Shaffer wrote the theme song). And, tellingly, no comedy. While the freewheeling hourlong conversation between Letterman and Obama has a few chuckles, in general Letterman asks thoughtful questions and gets thoughtful answers.
Letterman asks Obama what it was like to not be president for the first time in eight years, about the lack of shared and accepted facts among Americans, about how racism seems to persist in the face of all reason. President Donald Trump’s name is never mentioned (which must have driven him crazy if he watched), but it’s hard not to know who Obama has in mind when he quotes the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
There are pre-taped segments from the field, but instead of Letterman bugging New Yorkers on the street or visiting Rupert G in the Hello Deli, we watch him walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis.
Letterman keeps the spotlight off of himself and onto his subjects as much as possible. When Obama naturally throws a question back, Letterman mock-bristles: “Here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to ask you stuff and then you respond to stuff.”
But he ends up getting as personal as he ever was on “Late Show.” There’s a poignant moment near the end of the episode where Letterman talks about how, as a college student in 1965, he was off in the Bahamas partying while Lewis was marching in Selma. “This is what I am struggling with,” he says. “Why wasn’t I in Selma?” It’s bracing to see the man who once wore a Velcro suit in the 1980s be that serious, even remorseful, on camera.
He’s not done with humor (there’s a live studio audience, and he still seems eager to make them laugh). But he’s done with silliness. “My Next Guest” has Letterman stripping away the things he’s outgrown, embracing the things he’s more interested in and still putting on an entertaining show.
It’s not perfect, but after Letterman releases his sixth episode of “My Next Guest” in June, I hope he doesn’t depart us again.
Also on streaming: The road to enlightenment is anything but a straight one on Hulu’s “The Path.” The series, about a charismatic cult, began with Aaron Paul playing one of the leaders of the group who had lost his faith. As Season 3 starts this Wednesday, Paul’s character Eddie has performed a miracle and is now the leader of the group, which is growing in power.
BritBox, the BBC’s streaming service, has an innovative way of revisiting its treasure trove of old shows. In “Lost Sitcoms,” the channel is taking the scripts from old comedy shows of the 1950s and 1960s (the filmed episodes themselves have been lost) and reshooting them with new actors in front of a studio audience.