My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman, review: Barack Obama deserves a chat show more than this grump

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Barack Obama with David Letterman

<!--td {border: 1px solid #ccc;}br {mso-data-placement:same-cell;}-->David Letterman is a titan of American late night television but it is a reputation largely built on an instinct for edgy comedy and the pioneering cultivation of a disgruntled, anti-showbusiness persona. Presumably by design, his new Netflix series is shorn of many his most celebrated tics and tropes (he remains reliably grumpy).

Gone are the house musicians to guffaw at his jokes and gimmicks such as the famous top 10 list – invaluable safety nets when a celebrity failed to live up to their billing. 

The long-form interview is markedly different from the canned anecdote delivery that often passes for intelligent exchanges on US talk shows. In the first of six episodes, to be released monthly,  Letterman (70) appears less than entirely comfortable with the new format. He has a dream debut guest in former American President Barack Obama (Jay Z, George Clooney and Tina Fey are lined up for later instalments). 

Yet while Obama seems up for going beyond the usual talking points, he is constantly prodded back on course by a rather humourless Letterman – who doesn’t help himself by sporting an off-putting Methuselah-esque beard. 

Especially uncomfortable is a moment early on when Obama, after some humdrum remarks concerning the transition from the White House to civilian life, tries to turn tables on his interrogator.

David Letterman's My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

He asks Letterman about a holiday the host took following his retirement from the CBS Late Show in May 2015 and Letterman goes with it for a few seconds, detailing a family trip to Japan. Then he stops short and gruffly rebuffs Obama’s scrutiny. 

“I’m gonna ask you stuff,” he says, without levity. Obama, having demonstrated an eagerness for a bit of what young people would call “banter”, reverts to reheated comments about the burdens of office, income inequality and the important of the Sixties civil rights movement. He talks, too, about his steadfast mother and absent father –  observations that will be familiar to anyone who read his book, Dreams From my Father, first published 23 years ago. 

A name that crops up just once is Donald Trump – and only in a pre-recorded sequence in which Letterman, wearing a charity shop hoodie and jacket, accompanies civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis across the Selma, Alabama bridge where Lewis was set upon by state troopers 53 years previously. 

The softly spoken and considered Lewis had found himself on the receiving end of a Trump twitter tirade when he declined to attend the new President’s inauguration. The election of Trump is, he ventures, a setback for all Americans. 

Back at the sparsely appointed studio, Letterman has already posed some vague questions about the dangers of foreign interference in the American democratic process.

But he does not canvas Obama’s opinion on the Trump administration. Did Obama veto questions about the incumbent in advance? Is Netflix concerned it might alienate the 62 million Americans who voted for the President? 

Either way, the omission is conspicuous – especially in light of the nightly pummelling dispensed to Trump by Letterman successors such as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel.

Just as disappointing is Letterman’s reluctance to present Obama in anything but a blandly reverential light. Even the ex-President appears slightly underwhelmed. 

Talking about eldest daughter Malia leaving home for college Obama embraces with gusto the cliche of the useless dad. He recalls welling up over his child’s imminent departure and outlines the several hours it took him to assemble a rudimentary lamp for her (former First Lady Michelle was meanwhile dealing with the looming empty nest by scrubbing the bathroom).

Barack Obama with David Letterman

These are endearing insights – as is Obama’s aside about dad dancing in front of Prince – and they serve to humanise the ex-President. It’s a pity Letterman didn’t press for more. Even a jokey back-and-forth along the lines of the “The Good Wife or Suits?” questionnaire with which Prince Harry teased Obama during their Today programme interview would have sufficed. 

With time almost up, it feels significant that it is Obama who tries to take the exchange somewhere interesting. “I wanted to ask Dave a lot of questions,” he says. “He got grumpy at the beginning.” 

Obama then outlines what seems to be one of his guiding philosophies in life: you can be talented and hardworking but ultimately success is all about luck.

“There’s an element of chance – serendipity at least”. This prompts Letterman to share a strange anecdote about going on a booze cruise in Florida in the same month that John Lewis and his fellow protesters were having lumps beaten out of them in Alabama. 

“We spent the entire weekend s___-faced – why was I not aware [of Lewis and his cause]?”

It’s one of the rawest moments of the entire conversation. Tellingly it is Obama who draws it out of Letterman rather than the other way around. Perhaps Netflix should give the ex-President his own chat show and allow Letterman go back to lavishing attention on his beard.