After a three-year absence, a decidedly more casual version of America’s longest reigning late-night host greeted an ecstatic studio audience with characteristic understatement: “I’m Dave Letterman. I had a show for a while, then I got fired.”
Now he has another show, called “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman.” It debuted Friday on Netflix, and the special guest who kicked off the premiere was also returning to the public eye.
“The stereotype of former presidents is that you’re sitting around your house, waiting for someone to call,” said the 44th president of the U.S., Barack Obama, in his first talk-show appearance since leaving office a year ago. “[That we’re] lonely …”
“No, that’s me,” quipped Letterman, who was on air for 33 years before passing the baton to his successor, Stephen Colbert, in 2015.
Retirement jokes framed an hour-long conversation that was entertaining and moving, fun and serious, veering into areas both of them had avoided in their former roles.
A bearded and bespectacled Letterman, 70, was uncharacteristically emotional, reverential and even sentimental at points. He also appeared free of the face powder, grooming and crisp dress shirts required by network TV.
Obama, who at 56 appears to have grown younger since he left the White House, spoke in less guarded terms about political divisions among Americans, the role special interests and media play in those divides, the rise in racism and the very real danger of voter suppression.
The chemistry between the two was instant and palpable, not all that surprising — Obama appeared on the “Late Show With David Letterman” several times over the years, and he made a cameo on the show’s final episode.
Like two old friends reuniting after years apart, they compared notes on their kids, their careers and aging: Letterman’s son shudders at compliments from his father; Obama’s daughters find his dancing unbearable (cut to a photo of the former leader of the free world busting awkward moves at a Prince performance).
At several points, Obama turned the interview onto Letterman, who began answering questions before realizing he’d been played. “This is how this works. I’m going to interview you,” said Letterman.
Obama shook his head. “This is a whole new ballgame,” he said. “New set. No band.”
In addition to no band, there was no desk, no “Top Ten” flashcards or pencils as props. Just two armchairs and two men.
Neither did the uncluttered format feature a long opening monologue, other guests or commercials, allowing for a deeper and more lengthy conversation than the usual late-night or news interview.
And without the inherent restrictions of network TV and its advertisers, the two spent a good portion of the show delving into uncomfortable topics that talk-show hosts of Letterman’s era once avoided.
Letterman was intent on discussing the rise of racism in America, a conversation interspersed with footage of another interview Letterman recently conducted with U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
In it, Letterman walked Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with Lewis, retracing steps that the then-young civil rights activist, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others took in the landmark 1965 march to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights.
Lewis said that march led directly to Obama becoming the nation’s first African American president. Letterman asked Obama what he thought.
He answered in a remarkably frank but characteristically eloquent manner: “The long view on human history: It turns out we come up with all kinds of reasons to try to put ourselves over other people.
“Racism is a profound example of that, but obviously, biologically, there’s no actual reality to it other than we made this thing up. Over time, what happens is, because it manifests itself in very concrete ways — slavery, Jim Crow, subjugation — it becomes a social reality and it ends up having very real impacts. It is true that African Americans on average are poorer than other Americans. It’s not because of their race, it’s because of the social constructs over the course of 300 to 400 years that made them poor.”
Other things they touched on: Obama’s first month in office (“We forget how bad things were,” he said of his early first term. “Two wars and a collapsing economy.”) and the state of the democracy today: “One of the most damaging things to our democracy [is that] we don’t have a common baseline of facts. We are operating in different information universes … If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than if you listen to NPR.”
But the time they got to changes in voting laws made in 2013, which some believe have led to voter suppression in many regions, Letterman and the audience were clearly moved by Obama’s remarks.
“We’re the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting,” Obama said. “We create all these barriers and difficulties. That’s all directly related to our history … Those vestiges of thinking that only some of us are worthy of having a say, that carries on.
“People opt out themselves because they just don’t think anything can happen. They figure, ‘My voice doesn’t matter, my vote doesn’t matter, Washington is broken, rich people are going to make the decisions.’ The lesson to draw from Selma has less to do with the particulars of the laws that were changed or were not changed. It has more to do with the spirit that said, ‘OK, I’m a Pullman porter, I’m a maid, but if enough maids and Pullman porters walk, and pray, and sing and show this injustice, we can awaken the consciousness of the nation.’”
An emotional Letterman practically teared up at the end of the hour, telling Obama that though he he had been taught to always respect the office of the presidency, “without a doubt, you are the first president I truly and fully respect.”
The two men were then shown walking offstage and accidentally bumping into a camera crew in the hallway. Obama suggested they retake the scene.
“They want a shot of us walking into the sunset together. The two old guys,” said the former president. “This way, they will be able to create this poignant moment.” No such shot was needed, but down the long hallway they walked toward an open door.
‘My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)