I never quite got Letterman, while he was on CBS. Used to laugh at Jay Leno, his most popular counterpart on NBC, and I didn’t understand why the media and the intellectuals prefer Dave, until I found out Letterman was mostly into topical jokes, focused on US current affairs. In other words, things more difficult to relate to from afar. But now, on Netflix, Letterman is doing something totally different than he used to do on CBS. And Netflix itself is doing something different than any OTT platforms do: inventing a talk-show format by integrating the most attractive ingredients of American late night in a totally new construction.
You probably know Netflix is the biggest Video-on-Demand/OTT platform in the World, awarded for shows such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black or Narcos. I should tell you several things about Letterman though. Somewhere in 1954, Pat Weaver, Sigourney Weaver’s father, was the president of NBC and wanted a late night format, which was supposed to be more laid back and funnier than prime-time productions, in tune with viewers’ available attention at the end of the day, some kind of relaxation before sleep. In other words, a late night show.
After several attempts, in 1962, with Johnny Carson’s arrival, the late night on NBC became an iconic TV format, which was adapted and replicated everywhere: The Tonight Show, a mix of stand-up, sketches, talk segments and musical numbers. Carson was to become an institution in himself during his 30 years tenure. In 1992, when he retired, everybody was eagerly awaiting the designation of a successor. Both Carson and the public were favoring David Letterman, then a semi-permanent guest on the show. Still, NBC chose Jay Leno, which resulted in a wave of stupefaction.
Letterman got an offer from CBS, NBC’s rival network. He hosted The Late Show for 33 years, until 2015. On NBC, Leno started with several seasons of bitter defeats to Letterman, but ended as the leader, at least in terms of audience size.
Both Letterman and Leno were Carson’s heirs, each of them loved, respected and admired by the audience to an extent never achieved by other TV stars. Carson’s last TV appearance, on 13 May 1994, took place at Letterman and is relevant in terms of love and celebrity:
Cheers are totally spontaneous and last for 1’30”. Some decades later, Letterman and Leno retired, but even their successors are very high profile – suffice to name Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien or Seth Meyers. But, since Leno and Letterman, the TV audience is growing old and ratings decrease together with advertising revenues. Late night show is an institution, but an institution in crisis. And the hosts are losing that kind of global appeal that mixes good natured fun with social and political authority.
From the very first seconds of the Netflix show, one can realize My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is late night deconstruction. The name of the show itself eliminates the announcer’s institution. There is no desk or vintage mic in the Netflix show. No couch for guests, no panorama of a big city in the background. Brief backstage segments also blow up the typical flow of a traditional TV show.
The first episode features Barack Obama, and the first part of the show is what you would expect, a funny routine about retirement happening between two accomplices. Yet, slowly, the tone changes. Letterman is somehow pushing Obama out of his perfectly polished media persona in order to get some emotion from the former president. He gets emotional himself, admitting he’s an Obama fan and abandoning the jocular adversity typical for a late night host. There is a brief moment when the two are casually ruthless about Trump, but they don’t even bother to draw conclusions. There is reminescing about things that happened during their joint tenure of the White House/CBS show, but My Next Guest… is anything but a nostalgic show. It’s a radical rework of the American talk-show idea for a global audience, that digs for some kind of deeper truth in its guests, which are worldwide famous. The next episodes will feature George Clooney, Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z, Tina Fey and Howard Stern.
At 70 years and with his already famous biblical beard (a fashion among late night hosts, Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien had it too), Letterman is reinventing talk show. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is an austere 60 minutes of insightful slow journalism, interrupted only by brief behind-the-scenes or on location segments. No matter how fun, the entertainment crust conceals remarkable psychologic investigation.
After all, it’s just two people, face to face on equal chairs, on a dark background, hardly bothered by segments typical for crowded late night formats. It’s not live (how could it be on Netflix?) so Letterman has a long time to settle in a conversational flow and unfold ellaborated interrogative strategies. And you may or may not like Letterman’s going out of himself, but it’s a device requiring mutual openness from guests.
At the 2016 Spring Paris event, after its expansion into 130 new territories (including Romania), Netflix made clear the intention of looking global appeal not only by global distribution, but also by global production. At that stage, it only included fiction series produced in countries like France or Germany. I’ve asked Reed Hastings, Netflix’s founder, and Ted Sarandos, its Chief Content Officer, about any Netflix intentions for entertainment/non-fiction formats. They only gave a dissmisingly positive and very vague answer, but the concrete embodiment is here, almost two years later. The special nature of the Letterman show is emphasized by the programming: there are six episodes but Netflix hasn’t released them at once. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction will be a ‘monthly event’, according to the trailer.
There are only a few high-profile non-fiction shows on VoD platforms. On Amazon, Clarkson, May and Hammond’s Grand Tour is a pretty radical revamp of Top Gear, global in terms of locations, but still essentially the same show. Another interesting Amazon title, The New Yorker Presents, is a predictably high-brow mix of entertainment, journalism, animation and reenactment which could hardly be classified or attract a massive audience. With Letterman’s show, Netflix is not only aiming high, but also attacking another legacy TV stronghold, after drama series: big entertainment formats. And, while series and feature production was mainly competing with pay TV, entertainment is TV network/freeview TV business.
OTT platforms are notoriously scarce when it comes to public audience data so we can’t assess My Next Guest Needs No Introduction’s success in classic television manner. But Letterman’s performance on Netflix would be too narrowly judged in such terms, and we don’t need audience data to realize it’s a serious bid for public relevance and real journalism. Something digital platforms almost never do and television is doing less and less these days.
You can watch the Netflix show here.
Photo credits: KC Bailey and Joe Pugliese/Netflix, Pete Souza and Chuck Kennedy/White House, Wikimedia Commons