by Ryan Fine
David Letterman and Barack Obama have both kept relatively low profiles since leaving the posts they were best known for. Though the former Late Show host (and Ball State alum!) has made limited appearances at sporting events and in climate change documentaries, the same is not true of the former president. With My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Obama makes his first television appearance since leaving the White House.
This was a complete surprise to the audience at the City University of New York, who had only been told that David Letterman would be there with a special guest. Most had come for the surprise. One confident audience member guessed Bill Clinton. But Letterman needed only say “44th president” before the crowd had already jumped to its feet, verifying his new show’s title right from the beginning.
What follows this lighthearted introduction is decidedly one of the most serious things Letterman has ever attempted. Over the course of an hour, he touches upon Obama’s life post-presidency and the historical implications of the past eight years, with surprisingly little direct analysis of a certain big red elephant in the room…but let’s get back to that in a bit.
Letterman begins with a question of sheer curiosity: What was it like to wake up one day and not be president anymore? This leads into a discussion of going on vacation, getting used to the old way of doing things, and deciding to stay in Washington, D.C. until both Obama daughters have graduated. Later, it dives a bit deeper into the historical significance of the first black president and how social media affected the 2016 election.
The problem is that for anyone who has read any major news outlets for the past year, this interview does not come packed with a whole lot of new information. This was a great chance for Letterman to come back into the spotlight in a whole new way. In enlisting Obama for a rare public appearance, he put himself in a prime position to prove that he could go beyond his funnyman persona and truly dig deep. But overall, this special is much more notable for its novelty than its actual content.
A lot has happened since the last time Obama gave a TV interview. One of the most divisive presidents in American history took office, a Republican-led House and Senate have put a new Supreme Court justice on the bench, Obamacare has narrowly avoided several repeal attempts and net neutrality is currently on extremely thin ice. All of these things have had a visible effect on the man’s legacy and they would have been at least worth mentioning. And yet, Donald Trump is not mentioned by name even once during the program.
The best moment of this episode is the one that doesn’t take place at the university. One of the landmark speeches of Obama’s presidency was an address at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the famous 1965 march that took place there. The march in Selma was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, and without it a black president in 2008 would have been a much more distant possibility. When the camera cuts away from New York, we see Letterman walk across the bridge with Representative John Lewis, who was arrested at the original march. Lewis explains the progression of the march to him, describing the progress that resulted and his hopes and fears about the present and future.
Despite its shortcomings, this interview remains reasonably entertaining. Supporters and opponents alike will at least agree that Obama is a gifted speaker, and his half of the conversation is engaging more often than not. However, the main takeaway from the first installation of My Next Guest is that David Letterman likes Obama a lot. Most of his contribution is simply to bring the former president back onto the public stage and shower him with praise. For anyone who just wants to see more of Obama, this show is perfect. Just don’t go into it expecting any new viewpoints or learning experiences.
Featured image from IMDb
'My Next Guest Needs No Introduction' Season 1, Episode 1: "It's a Whole New Ball Game Now"
Though the first episode of ‘My Next Guest Needs No Introduction’ will please those who desperately miss the sound of Obama’s voice, the episode doesn’t have much substance apart from the people involved. Letterman and Obama have a likable dynamic that makes it fun to watch at surface level, but the interview lacks a level of importance that could have really made Obama’s reappearance into something noteworthy.