When Johnny Carson retired into the late-night sunset, never to be seen again except for a rare appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, I was OK with that.
But Letterman retiring didn’t seem exactly right.
Certainly he couldn’t keep up with the Jimmy Fallons or James Cordens. Certainly he never wanted to learn Twitter or Facebook. His displeasure with all of that was noticeably obvious. But Letterman was just hitting a second or third stride as an interviewer, as someone who had opinions about society, celebrity and politics, and when he had a guest who intrigued him, he really dug deep. When a celebutard appeared, his annoyance made us at home feel better about the whole thing. So even though he let his beard grow white and long, and spent more time with his wife and son and finally became a family man instead of the rogue scoundrel of his earlier TV days and late-nights, Letterman needed to remain a part of our national and international conversation.
In that way, his new monthly venture with Netflix fits him perfectly.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman debuted Friday with former President Barack Obama as his first guest.
Watching two guys who had it all, reminiscing about having it all, could smack of more privilege than it invariably does here. There are some light anecdotes and biographical charting, and their common experiences with parenting. Case in point: Obama recalling the time Prince played the White House shortly before his death, and dancing alongside his daughter.
The show opens with a couple of clever segments setting up Letterman’s new talk-show franchise (which, btw, is a Worldwide Pants production, with new theme music provided by his longtime sidekick, Paul Shaffer), and ends with a tease to his next episode, coming in February: George Clooney.
In between, Letterman and his staff cut away from the Obama interview a couple of times, out to Selma, Ala., where Letterman talks and walks the historic bridge with Congressman John Lewis, now 77, but just a young activist of 25 when he led that 1965 voting rights march to Selma that would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” Letterman’s chats with Lewis in Selma not only offer chances to build a bridge back to Obama, but also some timely thoughts on the two steps forward, one step backward progress of civil rights, and how Trump factors into all of that. Furthermore, the Selma segments help break up the Obama interview and keep the flow of that moving forward.
The live studio audience also keeps both elder statesmen honest. For any major revelations they may not have divulged because of the audience, their presence also prompts these two professional public people to play to their oratory strengths.
All of which makes this a great version of a Letterman podcast; even greater that it’s on video.
These two moments stuck with me, and I hope they stick with you, too.
First, on the pros and cons of social media.
Obama: “In our campaign, 2007-2008, we were some of the earliest adapters of social media. And we were reliant on a bunch of 22- and 23-year-olds and volunteers, who we were sending out, and they’d just go! And they were communicating entirely through social media, and we essentially built what ended up being the most effective political campaign probably in modern political history. So I had a very optimistic feeling about it. I think what we missed was the degree to which people who were in power, people (with) special interests, foreign governments, etc., can in fact manipulate that (“Propagandize,” Letterman interjects), and propagandize.”
Letterman: “I was under the impression that Twitter would be the mechanism by which truth was told around the world.”
The audience laughs.
Obama: “If you are getting all your information off algorithms being sent through a phone, and it is just reinforcing whatever biases you have – which is the pattern that develops. There was an interesting experiment. Not a big scientific experiment, but just an experiment that somebody did during the revolution that was taking place in Egypt, in Tahrir Square. Somebody took a liberal, a conservative and quote-unquote a moderate, and sent them on a Google search. Egypt. Type it in. And for the conservative, it came up: Muslim Brotherhood. And for the liberal, it came up: Tahrir Square. And for the moderate, it came up: Vacation spots on the Nile. But whatever your biases were, that’s what, where you were being sent. And that gets more and more reinforced over time. That’s what’s happening with these Facebook pages, where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point, you just live in a bubble. And that’s part of why our politics is so polarized right now. I think it is a solvable problem, but I think it’s one that we have to spend a lot of time thinking about.”
Letterman: “It seems like a valuable tool that has turned against us.”
Then, toward the end of the hour, Obama wants to turn the tables by interviewing Letterman. The former president asks the former TV talk-show host if he feels lucky.
Letterman doesn’t take the question lightly. Instead, he pauses, and replies: “This is what I’m struggling with at this point in my life. I have been nothing, if not lucky. When John Lewis and his friends in April of 65, March of 65, were marching across that 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, shitfaced. Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why was I not aware? I have been nothing but lucky. And the luck continues here this evening.”
And we’re all lucky for it, too.