David Letterman feels like a no-brainer pick to host a monthly talk show with some of the most famous people on the planet. With decades of experience and a career-long cultivation of a personality built on whatever the opposite of being starstruck is, Letterman’s also someone with plenty of time on his hands to do it. All those pieces went into making his ongoing Netflix series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”
After four episodes, the show has largely settled into a version of itself that future installments probably won’t stray too far from. The guest of the month appears to the adoring surprise of an unsuspecting audience. The guest and Dave have a wide-ranging conversation from upbringing to career to an obligatory comment on The World We Live in Now (and the one person most associated with it). If anything, the biggest surprise is how deferential Letterman’s become when interviewing famous people. The show is removed from the usual late-night project promotion cycle, and it’s all the more casual for it.
But the best parts of “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” happen away from the theaters in front of a full audience. It’s not the guarded conversations with President Barack Obama and George Clooney and Malala Yousafzai that make for the most interesting TV. It’s the occasional road trips with Letterman and the crew that are sprinkled throughout most of these episodes.
Sometimes whimsical, sometimes profound, these detours let the Letterman persona shine through in the most satisfying way. In his in-theater interviews, the extended runtime leads to a more patient discussion. Letterman sometimes prefaces more challenging personal questions with a “now, you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to” setup. Not so with the more impulsive, spur-of-the-moment segments, even when speaking to other elected representatives. Letterman and intense preparation aren’t incompatible, but that mode is rarely preferable to his more spontaneous stuff.
In these remote pieces, there’s the impression that we’re getting the more unvarnished Letterman. The curiosity that he has with Clooney or Jay-Z comes alongside questions with publicly available answers. When out in a less-controlled environment, that’s replaced by a stronger sense of inquisitiveness. You get the sense that when he’s talking with Rep. John Lewis or just going around Oxford with Malala and crashing libraries and residence halls, this is a purer expression of what he’s interested in, now that he doesn’t have the burden of having to put on a show more than once a month.
April’s episode with Jay-Z has some poignant moments, featuring the artist talking about his experiences watching childhood friends go to jail or his mother living an out life. The rest of the interview, though, touches on areas that are probably best left to a host that doesn’t have to ask a question about whether the East Coast-West Coast feud of the ‘90s is over.
The much more natural fit for Letterman is the five-minute quasi-monologue he does to intro the episode. Doing basic crowdwork and pontificating about why we name buildings and who we name them after, even having a quick back-and-forth with Judd Apatow, feels closer to the heartbeat of the show than asking celebrities about their inspirations.
It’s when the show takes a trek to Malibu to visit the studio of legendary producer Rick Rubin that Letterman really comes alive. Talking about shared musical interests, snooping around the backyard with an old converted Bob Dylan tour bus and listening in on a recording session, it’s hard not to get as excited about what you’re watching as Letterman is. It’s a little bit of that wonder and excitement that makes the Future Islands performance one of the most memorable moments of his later “Late Show” tenure. (The Rubin segment doesn’t quite have a “I’ll take all a that you got!” moment, but the smile is still undeniable.) And the tiny chat with Rubin does the same thing the conversation with Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge does in the series’ first episode: It unlocks another level of the main guest’s importance that Letterman’s conversation style wouldn’t otherwise do.
If the guests are the headline, then these moments away from the centerpiece interviews are Letterman’s better chance to play around with the form. If he wants to go to In-n-Out and grab a burger with Clooney or play some foosball with some Oxford undergrads, it may not be as deep an experience, but it feels truer to what made Letterman such a distinctive host in his heyday.
The interviews themselves still have moments of insight, particularly the one with President Obama, which still managed to catch the former Commander-in-Chief in some candid moments and wasn’t purely an hour of back-patting. But Letterman has always been a comic that was most entertaining at his least scripted. When the funniest guy in the room has a chance to really be himself, it always leaves room for more.
“My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” is available to stream on Netflix.