It can hardly be said that there’s a shortage of formidable talkshow hosts in 2018. If anything, the form has undergone a renaissance thanks to Donald Trump, who’s provided for late-night television a salvo of punchlines and a new jolt of life.
But ever since Colbert took over the late-night slot at CBS in 2015, there’s been a glaring void in the genre left by the departure of David Letterman. When he returns on Friday, with a new long-form talkshow on Netflix and a Gandalfian beard born of temporary retirement, that void will be filled. One way to measure the tectonic significance of Letterman’s comeback?
So, will the new David Letterman television venture bring back some that missed void? After spending over 30 years as a late night television host, Letterman retired in 2015 — but it seems that while you can take the man out of the television, you can’t take the television out of the man.
On Jan. 12, Netflix will premiere an interview series entitled My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, which will allow the comedian to ignore typical late-night structure and instead focus primarily on long-form interviews with notable figures. My Next Guest… is his biggest post-retirement project, but Letterman has still been working since his departure from The Late Show. He’s just been doing a lot less of it.
The most immediately obvious change in Letterman’s life is his much-talked about beard. In Letterman’s first post-retirement interview on Dateline, the former Late Show host admitted that his family was not fans of the facial hair, with his son even saying it was “creepy.” While the beard is definitely a new feature, it seems that Letterman’s priorities and interests have also shifted slightly. While the host is still wants to comment on the state of the world, he’s less interested in cracking jokes and more interested in finding the answers behind larger questions.
In a way, My Next Guest… is a spinoff of Letterman’s contribution to the Years Of Living Dangerously docuseries. The National Geographic series focuses on the continued effects of global warming on the world, and features celebrities acting as correspondents, speaking to experts on subject matters relating to climate change. The first episode of Season 2 of Years Of Living Dangerouslyfinds David Letterman traveling to India and interviewing Prime Minister Narendra Modi about renewable energy. His long-form interview with Modi may have been specifically about climate change, but it also closely models the structure that My Next Guest… seems to be using for similar in-depth looks at various topics.
In addition to his appearance on that show, he also participated in a web series produced by Years Of Living Dangerously called “Boiling The Frog.” In the series, Letterman and former Senator Al Franken have discussions about the ramifications of climate change, ranging from America’s relationship with the threat of global warming to the long-term effects of using coal for energy. So while Letterman is known primarily for interviewing actors, musicians, and other celebrities mostly about their work, My Next Guest… will focus on political issues. The show’s first season includes with influential figures such as Barack Obama (his first guest), Malala Yousafzai, and Tina Fey.
But it remains to be seen whether Letterman can match his past success on a new, less procedural platform. He won’t be the first comic to take his talents to a streaming service: Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman have attempted similarly structured shows on Netflix and Hulu, respectively, with middling results. Handler’s eponymously named talkshow, which she launched with the express purpose of moving away from celebrity gossip and towards more socially conscious subject matters, was a mixed bag, often funny but generally pedantic. Handler’s show was cancelled late last year after two seasons; its host has resolved to become more engaged politically.
Letterman’s retirement has shown him taking steps in a new direction for his career, and his career goes to show that it’s never too late to try something new.