When discussing David Letterman, one incident always tends to crop up. It took place in April 1996, nine months after Letterman’s rival Jay Leno had overtaken him in the ratings, and it tells us a lot about how he dealt with the pressure.
During this episode, Letterman introduced a quick skit about a “David Letterman doll”, a floppy dummy in a double-breasted suit. The skit ended, and Letterman sat the doll in a chair. But, as he walked away, he circled back and punched it in the head. And then he did it again. And again. And again. And again. A minute later, he walked back and punched it another 10 times. Letterman’s first guest that night was David Schwimmer; on introducing him, he unleashed another volley of punches at the dummy’s head and invited Schwimmer to join him, screaming: “Go ahead, teach him some manners!” As the critic Jason Zinoman observes in his book Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, “the laughter got quieter. What was wrong with Dave?”
You can’t help but think of the dummy-punching incident as you watch the second series of Letterman’s Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, because there isn’t a trace of that Letterman in it. He’s absent. Sure, a Letterman is there, but it isn’t the one you know. This Letterman is like the shadow that gets left on the wall after a nuclear bomb goes off.
Especially if you were a Letterman fan, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is a strange series to sit through. There are no jokes. There’s no grouchiness. There is no longer any instinct for havoc. Instead, it’s about a kindly old man being deferential to a succession of people who only partly deserve it.
Take his interview with Kanye West, during which he sincerely compliments West’s clothing line (“I like the colour, I like the fit, I love the shoes,” he coos to Kim Kardashian in a filmed segment), or his interview with Tiffany Haddish, where he clenches his fists with sincerity and says: “Your talent is so powerful.” The Letterman of old would have watched this show agape. He used to make his guests work for praise. Now he just wheels it out on a platter.
The joy of old Letterman interviews was watching his guests struggle against him, whether they succeeded (when Cher called him an “asshole”), or failed (when Letterman walked out midway through an excruciating Crispin Glover segment). But there’s nothing for anyone to struggle against now. During his late-night days, Letterman was a subversive who looked like a straight. Now, with his cloudlike beard threatening to consume his body, he has become the opposite. He looks odd, but his interviews have become tediously, punishingly conventional.
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is so weirdly absent, so steadfastly unDave, that I have been trying to figure out what has happened. There’s an argument, posed by Zinoman in a recent New York Times piece, that Letterman has simply gained some perspective. He’s off the treadmill. He has realised that there’s more to life than his show. “Letterman doesn’t seem interested in looking back so much as discovering new things,” Zinoman writes. “He approaches these interviews with modesty, putting the spotlight on the guest, deferring to them, rarely challenging or probing too far.”
I wonder if there’s something else at play, though. This is a part-time job for Letterman. He has a whole year to pick a handful of interviewees, so they’re people he likes. However, on his late night shows, he was afforded no such luxury. Back then, like it or not, he had 10 people to talk to every week for 30 years, and they were slid under his nose by publicists and bookers depending on what project needed to be promoted. This conveyor belt of faces must have been exhausting, but it was also what gave him his bite. Letterman was never any good at hiding his feelings. When he was bored, we all knew it. When he was angry – as with the doll – we knew that, too.
Throughout his career, the secret to Letterman’s success was that he was always far more interesting than his guests. That’s still the case, but Letterman no longer believes it.
At the end of his new interview with Melinda Gates – an ordeal that feels about four hours long – Letterman claims to be jealous of her because she made a difference in the world, and he didn’t. This is so myopic that it hurts. Letterman spent three years forging the comedic sensibilities of a generation. It was his humour that informed shows, including Seinfeld and The Simpsons, that bled into their imitators, that bled into their imitators, and now it is just an immovable part of our culture. Directly or otherwise, Letterman changed how the world speaks. It’s one hell of a legacy and, watching him on Netflix, you wish to God that he would embrace it.