Let­ter­man’s de­but lacks the lus­ter of his late-night gig

The TV icon sits down with for­mer pres­i­dent Obama, and both come across as flat in a me­an­der­ing chat

The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY HANK STUEVER

What could seem bet­ter than get­ting David Let­ter­man and Pres­i­dent Obama to­gether again and sit­ting them down in front of an au­di­ence to talk for an hour about what­ever’s been on their minds since they left their old jobs? What bet­ter fan­tasy-come-true for any­one who misses both men ter­ri­bly?

Un­for­tu­nately, Let­ter­man’s new show for Net­flix, a six-episode se­ries called “My Next Guest Needs No In­tro­duc­tion,” fails to de­liver on its prom­ise, fall­ing flat in its Fri­day de­but. Let­ter­man, who re­tired so el­e­gantly in 2015, seems only half-en­gaged here and far too much in the thrall of his first guest, who left of­fice a year ago and has avoided the talk-show cir­cuit un­til now.

Both men seem rusty at the art of ban­ter. They’re off their game. The in­ter­view doesn’t pro­duce any sur­pris­ing or news­wor­thy state­ments from Obama. In­stead, Let­ter­man asks Obama to talk about his up­bring­ing, his mother, his reck­on­ing with his own iden­tity — well-trod ter­ri­tory, re­told as if view­ers have never heard of this per­son named Barack Obama.

The dis­cus­sion me­an­ders along the sur­face, touch­ing on Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in U.S. elec­tions and the state of dis­course in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety — though never deeply. “One of the big­gest chal­lenges we have to our democ­racy is the de­gree to which we don’t share a com­mon base­line of facts,” Obama says. “What the Rus­sians ex­ploited [was] al­ready here — we are op­er­at­ing in com­pletely dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tion uni­verses. If you watch Fox News, you are liv­ing on a dif­fer­ent planet than you are if you lis­ten to NPR.”

Obama de­scribes his dis­ap­point­ment that so­cial me­dia, which was so key to his 2008 and 2012 vic­to­ries, has be­come a care­fully cal­i­brated weapon.

“I had a very op­ti­mistic feel­ing about [so­cial

net­works],” Obama says. “What we missed was the de­gree to which peo­ple who are in power — spe­cial in­ter­ests, for­eign gov­ern­ments, et cetera — can in fact ma­nip­u­late that and . . .”

“Pro­pa­gan­dize,” Let­ter­man of­fers. “Pro­pa­gan­dize,” Obama says. “I was un­der the im­pres­sion that Twit­ter would be the mech­a­nism by which truth was told around the world,” Let­ter­man says in his trade­mark dead­pan.

The in­ter­view of­fers few if any di­rect jabs taken at the cur­rent pres­i­dent, prob­a­bly be­cause Obama’s too smart to take the bait and Let­ter­man’s too re­luc­tant to of­fer it. There are also lots of jokes about both men be­ing quote-unquote unem­ployed. “You’re hang­g­lid­ing, you’re climb­ing vol­ca­noes, you’re wrestling sharks,” Let­ter­man ob­serves. “I’m at Bed Bath & Be­yond pick­ing out wire hang­ers.”

Free to be what­ever he wants in front of the cam­era now, Let­ter­man opts for be­fud­dled pussy­cat rather than old lion. He fawns over the for­mer pres­i­dent for most of the hour, reach­ing a cli­max near the end (af­ter a plug for Obama’s foun­da­tion and li­brary), when he says, “When I was a kid, and it’s still taught to­day, ir­re­spec­tive of the man or woman who holds the of­fice, you have to re­spect the of­fice of pres­i­dent. With­out a ques­tion of a doubt, you are the first pres­i­dent I truly and fully re­spect.”

The for­mat of “My Next Guest Needs No In­tro­duc­tion” is in many ways what some view­ers have longed for in the talk-show for­mat. Stripped of decor (the in­ter­view was shot with two leather chairs on a dark­ened stage at City Col­lege of New York), the show is able to in­tently fo­cus on con­ver­sa­tion, which is no longer be­holden to what­ever movie or book or TV show the guest is sell­ing (pres­i­den­tial li­braries and foun­da­tions not­with­stand­ing). Paul Shaf­fer recorded a jaunty in­stru­men­tal for the an­i­mated theme, which seems to be the show’s lone nod to Let­ter­man’s old for­mat.

In the first episode, Let­ter­man also de­liv­ers a taped seg­ment, in which he walks across the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was beaten and ar­rested along with oth­ers who marched across the bridge in sup­port of civil rights in 1965.

The bridge was also the site of one of Obama’s most mem­o­rable speeches, de­liv­ered on the 50th an­niver­sary of the march. Let­ter­man seems sin­cerely if be­lat­edly in awe of what hap­pened there. It’s Lewis who gets the op­por­tu­nity to de­liver the show’s clear­est com­ment on Pres­i­dent Trump, af­ter Let­ter­man asks the con­gress­man about his de­ci­sion to skip last year’s in­au­gu­ra­tion.

“With­out be­ing just flat-out spe­cific about it,” Let­ter­man says. “How big a set­back is the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion [to civil rights]?”

“It is a ma­jor set­back to the hopes and dreams and as­pi­ra­tions of a peo­ple,” Lewis says. “Not just African Amer­i­cans, but all Amer­i­cans, be­cause I think what has hap­pened in Amer­ica to­day is a threat not just to the coun­try but the planet.”

Back on­stage, Let­ter­man gets sev­eral laughs by pre­tend­ing Obama is still in of­fice. Af­ter a par­tic­u­larly wonky an­swer from Obama, Let­ter­man replies: “To hear you de­scribe this in a way that I can un­der­stand, just makes me so happy you’re still pres­i­dent.” Near the end of the hour, he says to Obama: “Now, Mr. Pres­i­dent, I know you have to get back to the Oval Of­fice . . . .”

In the episode’s fi­nal min­utes, Obama, pon­der­ing his own suc­cess and the lives of suc­cess­ful peo­ple, asks Let­ter­man if he feels like his life has been lucky.

Let­ter­man gives a beau­ti­ful an­swer, verg­ing on tears: “Mr. Pres­i­dent, this is what I’m strug­gling with at this point in my life: I have

been noth­ing but lucky. When John Lewis and his friends [marched across the bridge], in April of ’65, me and my friends were driv­ing to Florida to get on a cruise ship to go to the Ba­hamas be­cause there was no age limit to pur­chase al­co­hol, and we spent the en­tire week, par­don my French, s---faced. Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why was I not aware? I have been noth­ing but lucky.”

Rather than wrap up with this, “My Next Guest” would have done well to keep the cam­eras rolling an­other hour, and be­gin the show at this deeper, more per­sonal and more mean­ing­ful mo­ment, and work for­ward from there. And more than once it seems Obama should be the one in­ter­view­ing Let­ter­man.

“You’re climb­ing vol­ca­noes, you’re wrestling sharks. I’m at Bed Bath & Be­yond pick­ing out wire hang­ers.” David Let­ter­man, in his in­ter­view with for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama

My Next Guest Needs No In­tro­duc­tion With David Let­ter­man (one hour), now stream­ing on Net­flix. The next episode, fea­tur­ing Ge­orge Clooney, streams Feb. 9.

JOE PUGLIESE/NET­FLIX

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