David Letterman blew up the talk-show format as soon as he arrived on Late Night in the 1980s. So it makes a weird kind of sense for him to come out of retirement and blow up it all over again, with his beard bristling and his grumpy streak untamed. His eccentric monthly Netflix chatfest My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is a whole new Dave – he interviews only fellow megastars from Howard Stern to Jay-Z to Barack Obama, giving each a full episode. No Late Show antics here (Paul Shaffer only appears via his theme music). No desk, just two chairs on a stage. No monologue. No attempt to make friendly chitchat with thirsty stars pimping their latest product. In other words, none of the schmoozola business a late-night talk show is supposed to handle – just a host who’s famous enough to do exactly as much of the job as he goddamn feels like doing.
It’s bracing to see Letterman back at all, since his avowed reason for quitting was that he just didn’t give a crap anymore … which wasn’t exactly a secret to his viewers. By the time he signed off in 2015, he’d made a Late Show staple out of jokes about mailing it in. He’d stopped going to meetings or rehearsals. “My input now is less than it’s ever been,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Josh Eells, almost proudly. “I tell the producers, ‘I’m not a producer, you’re the producers. You come get me when the show is ready, and it will either go smoothly or it won’t.’ Which is maybe an indicator that you shouldn’t be hosting your 11:30 comedy show much longer.” On his farewell night, he counted the episodes – all 6,028 of them – before telling us, “A pretty high percentage of those shows absolutely sucked.”
When he was gone, we started seeing tabloid photos of him rambling on the beach in shorts, brandishing his fuck-you beard. This was a man who’d learned to like sleeping late in the morning. Then what happened? Well, like many people who spend years counting the days until they can take this job and shove it, maybe Dave realized that sleeping late is fun for about a month, especially if you happen to be the kind of insanely driven individual who becomes a talk-show host in the first place. As he confessed to Obama in the opening episode, “Even before retirement, there was a certain amount of brooding in the dark.”
But with My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, he gives less of a crap than ever, skipping zany gags for conversation on his own cranky terms. His first two guests so far have been Obama and George Clooney. Neither was a hard-hitting interview, but they weren’t idle banter, either – both were a mix of political talk and awkwardly emotional doofy-dad anecdotes. In field pieces, he visits an Iraqi refugee in Clooney’s home town and discusses civil rights with John Lewis. Future episodes will include Tina Fey, Malala Yousafzai, Stern and Jay-Z.
It’s not a groundbreaking show, and doesn’t aim to be – it’s just Letterman engaging topics that genuinely rouse his interest, making zero effort to turn it into zingy television. Which isn’t to say it isn’t funny. Both Obama and Clooney came strapped with quips about Dave’s facial hair. “He’s got this Biblical beard,” Obama cracked. “Do you have a staff?” Clooney paid him a compliment: “I like this Soggy Bottom Boys look you’ve got going on.” (Although an O Brother, Where Art Thou? joke from the Cloon does probably count as promoting product.)
It has to be weird for Dave on the sidelines – after all those years of getting told he was too mean for the job, late night has finally turned into the combat zone he always not-so-secretly wanted it to be. The late-night scene he left behind in 2015 was a terminally nice blahscape.
But that died the night Jimmy Fallon affectionately rumpled the hair of a certain Republican presidential candidate, while a nation turned its back and gagged. In these fractious times, there’s nothing to be gained by playing cute, which means Stephen Colbert, occupying Dave’s old show, can now tell the President, “Sir, you attract more skinheads than free Rogaine.” He later informing our toxic commander-in-chief that “the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladmir Putin’s cock holster.” Imagine how Dave feels getting left out of this.
But he’s not trying to talk tough on My Next Guest – just aiming for in-depth conversations with smart folks he doesn’t despise. It’s in the booming genre of post-retirement vanity projects a la Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the show where Jerry Seinfeld almost accidentally invented a template for veterans looking for an honorable way to get back on TV without returning to the high-stakes ratings game. It’s funny how Dave is doing this while his longtime nemesis Jay Leno remains very quietly on the air hosting Jay Leno’s Garage on CNBC, where you can see him cruising with Dee Snider in a Dodge Demon or giving John Lydon his first driving lesson. Man, this feud just will not die.
In his Rolling Stone exit interview, Letterman admits he was “very irritated” when he first saw Seinfeld’s show—”because I thought, ‘Well, that’s the perfect idea, goddammit.'” He wanted to do his own rip-off version on his Montana ranch: Comedians on Horses Getting Coffee. But ultimately, he’s not really a horses guy, or any kind of relaxing-hobby guy. Letterman’s always been the workaholic, and his life’s work happens to be conversation. What sports cars are to Jay and Jerry, grouchy throat-clearing is to Dave. So My Next Guest is an ingenious way for him to get back to work, with no pressure to entertain and no pretense of starting a new career. And with its ornery edge, it definitely feels like vintage Dave.