Graham: Letterman's 'Next Guest' a blunder

Excellent guests, an iconic host: David Letterman's streaming talk show should be a home run. So why is it such a slog?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

No more network execs telling him what to do. Free reign over time and guests. No holds barred. So why is David Letterman's Netflix show such a crushing disappointment? 

David Letterman, who said goodbye to his long-running talk show two years ago, will say hello to TV again with a new show for Netflix. Netflix announced Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, that the six-episode series has Letterman combining two primary interests: in-depth conversations, and in-the-field segments sparked by his curiosity and humor.

"My Next Guest Needs No Introduction," Letterman's streaming talk show, just wrapped its six-episode first season. Dave's guests were a murderer's row of A-list megastars: former President Barack Obama, Jay-Z, George Clooney, Tina Fey.

Freed from the constraints of the late night show format, Dave is allowed to go deep with guests and burrow into any subject he wants. On paper, at least, you can't ask for more.

Yet there's a stiffness to the enterprise that is peculiar for the 35-year television veteran. "My Next Guest" isn't particularly funny, nor is it revelatory, nor is it especially interesting. Even for fans of the trailblazer who helped shape the face of the late-night TV, it's a slog. So what's going on? 

When Dave wrapped up his 22-year run at CBS in 2015, by all accounts he was tired. He'd done every Top 10 list in the book, helped every star promote their movie of the moment, and lumbered through his nightly monologue more times than anyone cares to remember. He wore his resignation on his face and in his eyes.

So it was surprising that the 71-year-old's next act would be a TV talk show. OK, he wasn't on a network, he was on Netflix. And the format wasn't the typical TV dog-and-pony show: No house band, no set, no monologue, just two chairs, an audience, his post-CBS man-of-the-woods beard and a conversation. 

Except conversation was never Dave's strong suit. As a sharp comic mind, he always relied on his wits, and those wits best served him in eight-minute interview bites. He got the best out of his guests during their short time on his couch. But thrown into a long-form interview, he's exposed.

Compare that to Jerry Seinfeld, another TV vet who is reexamining the traditional TV talk-show format. Rather than making a late-career bid at reinvention as a Serious Interviewer, Jerry sticks to his strengths and extends his show-about-nothing ethos into his convivial, quickie "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" series. He routinely gets more out of his guests in 15 minutes than Letterman does in a full hour.

Dave's first episode is with Obama, by all measures a cool cat, and a flex as a first guest. But Obama knows the game as well as anyone, and as an interview subject, he's too guarded to give up the goods. Consider it a wash. Then things take a turn: midway through the episode, we hard cut to Letterman walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with civil rights leader John Lewis. Huh? There's a tie between the two -- the first black President and a historic figure in the fight for civil rights -- but the juxtaposition is jarring, like flipping to a different show in the middle of the interview. 

Dave continues the side trips in subsequent episodes, to diminishing returns. Clooney's parents leading a guided tour of George's childhood home has its charms, but in the Jay-Z episode, Dave pays a visit to Rick Rubin's Malibu studio because, um, Jay-Z and Rubin worked together in the past? So here's Dave, hanging in the studio with Rubin and vibing out to a generic female singer, Jay-Z nowhere in sight, and you're thinking, OK, looks fun, but what's the point here? Even worse is when Fey casually mentions a chicken joint in Chicago, and Dave invites Buddy Guy (Buddy Guy!) to join him there, and Guy says he's never been to the place or heard of it in his life. (A suggestion: If you're heading to Chicago to hang with Buddy Guy, let him pick the spot.)

The breakaways help mask the shallowness of Dave's interviews. With Howard Stern, Dave goes over Howard's past, his relationship with his parents, his early days in radio and his fights with the FCC, all of which are well-documented in Stern's 1993 book (and 1997 movie) "Private Parts," as well as just about any episode of his radio show.

With Fey, Dave unburdens himself and essentially apologizes for not having any female writers on his NBC show, using Fey as a stand-in for all women. 

And talking to Jay-Z, Dave asks why rappers are always using that dang n-word, tackling 1989's hottest question, and ostensibly making Jay-Z answer for all rappers. 

Dave totally breaks form with his guests in his interview with Nobel prize winner and activist Malala Yousafzai, which mostly seems like him paying penance for all those years of Stupid Pet Tricks.  

Also with Jay-Z, Dave brings up Jay's extramarital affairs, invoking his own indiscretions with his wife in the process. Finally, a moment! But Dave speaks in vagaries, never asking a direct question, and gets a bunch of non-specific mumbo jumbo in return. The exchange is indicative of his entire show: two huge personalities talking circles around each other, neither of them saying anything.

Given the choice, Stupid Pet Tricks seems pretty good.

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