Johanna Schneller: New Letterman too cosy to be compelling, even with Obama
Friendly, supportive chat seems to be format of veteran host’s new Netflix show, and that’s a shame.
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The Show: My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Season 1, Episode 1
The Moment: What he didn’t ask
Seated in two chairs on an otherwise empty stage, David Letterman interviews Barack Obama. “How did you feel when your terms ended?” Letterman asks.
“I don't think relief is the right word,” Obama replies. “There was a sense that I’d run the race.”
What Letterman doesn’t ask, what I’m yelling at the screen for him to ask: How does it feel to see your legacy dismantled piece by piece, out of spite?
Later, in an inset segment, Letterman walks across Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge with U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who did the original march for voter registration rights. He asks Lewis a version of my question: “How big a setback is the current administration?”
“It is a major setback to the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations of a people,” Lewis solemnly replies. “And not just African-Americans, but all Americans.”
Freed from the comic demands of late-night TV, Letterman can ask his guests sincere questions. (Hour-long episodes will arrive monthly.) Based on his upcoming lineup of people committed to making positive change — George Clooney, Malala Yousafzai, Tina Fey — Letterman is making a subtly political statement.
But there are two kinds of interviews: there are ones where the interviewer is unknown to the subject and asks tough questions; these yield surprising, if sometimes uncomfortable results. Then there is the Letterman kind, where the interviewer and subject are pals; these yield pleasurable, warm moments, but never push the subject out of his/her comfort zone.
Maybe Obama struck a deal: I’m not talking about Trump. I wish, though, that Letterman forced himself to try.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction streams on Netflix.
Johanna Schneller is a media connoisseur who zeroes in on pop-culture moments.
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