This weekend saw the return of familiar face to our TV screens. No, not David Letterman, but Barack Obama. The President, who left the Oval Office last year to make way for the newly elected Donald Trump. His choice of his first talk show interview since exiting the White House is a telling surprise: Netflix. And, moreover, a Netflix show hosted by David Letterman, a presenter who has also been absent from screens for some time.
But My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, as its unwieldy title suggests, is a deliberate step into the left-field – mostly for the better. The show eschews the current late night structure of multiple guests in favour of a single figure, chosen by Letterman because he considers them extraordinary and admires them. The line-up is impressively eclectic, ranging from George Clooney and Malala Yousafzai to Jay-Z, Tina Fey and Howard Stern – and rather than a short burst of chat, with a stunt designed to go viral on YouTube, the focus here is on conversation, pure and simple. Episodes are around an hour long, recorded in front of a theatre, not a studio. This is stately, old-fashioned chat, with no frills or gimmicks.
It’s a move that makes a lot of sense for Netflix, which struggled to make waves with its previous talk show effort, presented by Chelsea Handler. That attempted to court topicality by interviewing celebrities and talent from Netflix projects, the kind of format that would make sense on normal TV channel, but can easily date in a virtual library that will sit there for years to come. Handler was the draw, but wasn’t enough of one. While Letterman is a major name in US TV, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction keeps the spotlight shining firmly on the person who isn’t behind the desk.
But, of course, there isn’t a desk: just a couple of chairs in a large auditorium, and it’s an environment Obama is immediately at home in. It helps, no doubt, that the two are genuine friends in real life (Obama was one of Letterman’s final guests before he retired), and that mutual respect and affection shines through. The result is a soft-balled affair, which opens with a faked phone call from David arranging Obama’s visit, but one that feels believable casual and informal; there are no difficult questions here.
Let’s get the orange-wigged elephant in the room out of the way first: this is a Trump-free zone, and Letterman doesn’t really broach the subject of the current White House administration once. That will disappoint those hoping for a fire-and-fury condemnation of the direction the USA is currently headed, but it’s equally a reassuring reminder that not all Presidents are angry, ranting, lying children. Letterman steers Obama towards his childhood, and Barack’s heartfelt reflections on his mother and his identity are sincere and profound. He continues to muse on family with the current life of the Obama family, praising his wife, Michelle, with a conviction that will make you swoon, and doting on his daughters and how different they are in personality.
When sending Malia off to college, Obama confesses: “I was basically useless.” He laughs at how he spent an hour assembling a four-part lamp, trying not to cry, while everyone else did more meaningful things – an endearingly honest take on fatherhood and getting older, especially after years of thinking of Obama as a serious, professorial figure. (His “dad moves” on the dance floor also come up for discussion.)
Obama has lost none of his insight, though, and he talks of the current schism in America (and society on a wider basis) with a typically wise understanding. “People watching Fox News are on another planet,” he explains, in the sense that they are receiving figures and narratives that are entirely different to someone who listens to PBS.
“You’re entitled to your own opinion; you’re not entitled to your own facts” is the maxim he returns to, something that cannot be reiterated enough in the modern age.
Letterman is cheeky and teasing, something that Obama reciprocates back at his host (particularly when it comes to Letterman’s great big bushy beard), but any lack of hard-hitting interrogation is made up for by the space such an approach opens up: there is room here for a short filmed segment outside of the theatre, which sees Letterman head to Selma, and speak to activist and Congressman John Lewis. He’s an incredible, ordinary man, who has been arrested multiple times in his life for actively trying to make change happen – some of those while he’s been a politician. It’s a loving tribute to his commitment to moving forwards, which includes clips of Obama’s walk over the Selma bridge (and Letterman’s apology for not joining in freedom marches in the 1960s because he was going on a cruise to the Bahamas) – exactly the kind of thoughtful reflection on history and change that you wouldn’t get on a modern late night talk show.
There’s humour and a healthy serving of anecdotes, but that’s the overwhelming tone set by this series’ opening episode – and while that makes for underwhelming television in a sensationalist post-truth, post-expert age, it’s a welcome change to the normal media cycle. Letterman’s focus on his guest rather than himself pays off handsomely with his first guest. How it will work with his next (George Clooney), or whether the show will change tone, is yet to be seen. But by spacing them out on a month by month basis, Netflix and Letterman ensures that his in-depth conversations have a chance to be heard and resonate individually on a more long-term basis, rather than worry about ratings and viral clips. Taken on its own, this first interview is a testament to the absorbing power of two people talking, and a hugely moving reminder of just how inspiring it is to sit back and listen to Barack Obama talk. America, as he’s often said before, isn’t a perfect country, but a work in progress – and for one brief, peaceful hour, he gives you a sense of hope once again.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.