Mostly, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” is about David Letterman’s beard. The bushy protuberance is a 6-to-8 inch addition to Letterman’s face, and seems to be the threshold between the host of “The Late Show” — who retired in 2015 — and the roving, eccentric interviewer he has since become. Letterman’s CBS persona didn’t have room for the beard, and whatever the beard might represent. His Netflix persona has so much facial hair it’s a topic of conversation. President Barack Obama jokes about it, as does Letterman’s second interviewee, George Clooney; Letterman mocks his own beard while at home with Clooney’s parents in Augusta, Ky. (I don’t know yet if Malala Yousafzai, his guest for the third episode airing in March, has the same sense of humor — but I wouldn’t put it past her.) It’s like the beard is a wardrobe change, an icebreaker, and the elephant in the room; to notice the beard is to notice that Letterman, in 2018, has changed.
“My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” will debut new hourlong episodes monthly — starting with this morning’s premiere episode, featuring Letterman’s interview with former President Obama. (Future episodes will feature Yousafzai, Tina Fey, Jay Z, and Howard Stern.) It’s a coup for the debuting show, and for Netflix, to have snagged Obama’s first talk show interview since his departure from office. It’s also a high bar to set with the first episode of a new series; Obama is such an unlikely, singular interview subject. But at least a few things are immediately evident. First, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” is going long: An hourlong episode means a lot of facetime with a guest, even if the interviews are broken up with produced segments. Second, Letterman’s Netflix series is almost entirely about private citizens acting for the public good. His emphasis in speaking to Obama is not about the reach of public office as much as it is about how change of any sort ends up arising from the actions of interested individuals. Clooney’s episode, which would otherwise be a cut-and-dry Hollywood profile, takes a surprising turn when Letterman visits Clooney’s hometown and meets the young, painfully earnest Iraqi refugee they helped resettle.
And maybe most importantly, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” is Letterman’s repudiation of Trumpism — in the form that he is most comfortable in, in a medium that he is, arguably, a master of. To be sure, it’s hard to make anything that is even remotely high-minded that isn’t a repudiation of Trump — that bar is so very low, and getting lower. But Letterman makes no bones about it, especially in the first episode: The episode draws a contrast between the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. and the march from Selma, Ga. to Montgomery, Ala. led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. Obama wouldn’t quite be drawn into the discussion of Trumpism that Letterman clearly was hoping to have, but he’s happier to discuss the far-reaching significance of the march. Letterman’s interview with Obama is intercut with segments where he walks across the Edmund Pettus bridge with Congressman John Lewis — and though Obama wouldn’t talk about Trump, Lewis is certainly game to. Reading between the lines of both his presentations and his lineups, Letterman in his new show has assembled a roster of humanity that Donald Trump, and his administration, are usually trying to undermine, dismiss, or disenfranchise: Refugees, black men, outspoken women, and Howard Stern.
There are drawbacks to the format. Letterman’s access still has limits, and the celebrity guests ensure that the interviews retain a bit of the fluffy sweetness of broadcast TV. It seems highly likely that there are thorny topics his high-profile guests rule out, and the fact that the episodes were taped last fall mean that the questions can feel a bit stale. It was surprising to see that Clooney’s episode had no mention of of the #MeToo moment, for example — and that one won’t be airing until February. And the length of the episodes isn’t quite justified by the material, which is candid but not necessarily groundbreaking. With so many podcasts and talk shows out there, it’s hard to make a case for another interview show — but then again, the draw with “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” is not that they are interviews, but that Letterman and his individual subjects will nab viewers. Fans of Letterman might miss his zanier bits — regrettably, nothing is thrown off a roof — and there’s a ceiling on how many times rich men can joke about how they don’t know what to do with their free time before there needs to be a moratorium. But overall, Letterman’s new effort isn’t bad, and it’s great to see that beard getting the screentime it richly deserves.