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David Letterman meets Barack Obama – has the talk show legend lost his edge?

Obama and Letterman … genuine warmth
Obama and Letterman … genuine warmth Photograph: Nettflix

In May 2015, David Letterman bowed out after 33 years of being America’s most irascible late-night television host. It was a grand affair. A who’s who of American pop culture were there: Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey and Jim Carrey all made jokes at his expense, while making sincere comments about his impact on America, and them.

The Foo Fighters played Everlong over a montage of his best bits, tears were shed and then … well, late-night moved on. Stephen Colbert and the Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) took over. Dave disappeared, resurfacing briefly with a beanie hat and unkempt beard to berate “Trumpy” on the front cover of New York magazine. If he was going to have a third act, it became clear it might not be a straightforward one.

Another guest on one of Letterman’s final shows was Barack Obama, who is the first guest on his comeback show: My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman (Netflix). It’s a monthly interview where Letterman will gently grill guests including George Clooney, Malala Yousafzai and Jay-Z. If this first outing is anything to go by, it might be a bit too gently for its own good. After a lukewarm opening in which we see Dave in his office, apparently on the phone trying to set up the interview, there is some patchy back-and-forth with the audience – we’re in a theatre, not a studio – before Obama is unveiled.

Letterman contemplates
Letterman contemplates Photograph: Nettflix

The conversation is all very respectful (the two are genuinely friends), and at times funny and quite moving. Obama talks about his mother and his childhood and affectionately discusses trying to keep up with his daughters and the perils of dad dancing. He also acknowledges where he might have gone wrong while in office: too much focus on being presidential, not enough on the disappearing middle class.

There is also a conversation about the polarised state of the US. “People watching Fox News are on another planet,” he says to big laughs, but he means that they’re getting information and facts that are completely different from someone who might listen to public radio. It’s playful and polite, but ultimately pedestrian. There’s not one mention of Donald Trump, which is understandable for Obama (he’s avoided mentioning him since leaving office), but Letterman has chastised his late-night predecessors for not being hard enough on him. It’s an omission that grates.

The problem is that Letterman has lost his sense of mischievousness. His interviews on the Late Show always worked best when something was at stake. David Cameron, then prime minister, was made to look stupid by Letterman when he couldn’t answer questions on the British citizenship test, for example. Letterman loved to prod and poke at his guest’s sensitive spots – sometimes cruelly – but almost always for the benefit of the interview. Here, he’s mostly in retreat.

Toward the end of the interview, the pair discuss the life of civil rights activist and politician John Lewis. It’s a loving tribute to one of America’s progressive stalwarts, and it ends with Letterman seeking Obama’s forgiveness for going on a booze cruise to the Bahamas rather than joining the freedom marchers in the 60s. “Why wasn’t I there?” Letterman asks, fighting back tears. It seems as if Letterman is looking for answers – let’s hope he doesn’t forget what made him so good in the first place.

This article titled "David Letterman meets Barack Obama – has the talk show legend lost his edge?" was written by Lanre Bakare, for theguardian.com on Friday 12 January 2018 01.23pm

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