Unlike his mentor and idol Johnny Carson, David Letterman has opted not to entirely disappear from the public eye after leaving late night. The irascible host, however, chose to return on his own terms, hosting a low-key talk vehicle in Netflix's "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman."
The six-episode series -- which will roll out individual episodes monthly -- certainly receives a promotional boost from the true-to-its-billing first subject, Barack Obama. But this is clearly a way for the host to keep his hand in the game, while stripping away the less appetizing aspects of his late-night gig -- at least for him -- by letting him spend time talking to people he genuinely enjoys and admires.
Letterman's level of engagement with his guests became a variable thing in his later years, when his attention could drift after the monologue. "My Next Guest's" expansive one-hour format showcases, lest anyone has forgotten, just what a skilled broadcaster he is, even in this narrowcasting age and platform.
"I had a show for a while, and then I got fired," Letterman jokes, warming up a studio audience that doesn't know Obama is his first guest, and which goes positively nuts once he appears.
After that, it's a pretty straightforward exchange between two guys who, as Letterman quips, "both recently left long-term jobs."
Obama and Letterman's second guest, George Clooney, each try asking him questions, which the famously private comic usually evades with a joke. But the spare set and approach does allow for more give and take, in a conversational manner, than a talk show where guests have something to plug normally would.
The interviews are broken up a bit with photos, and one taped segment. For Obama, that includes Letterman visiting with civil-rights icon John Lewis during a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; with Clooney, Letterman sits down with the actor-director's parents, and -- in a throwback to his first show -- hangs out with the him outside an In-N-Out Burger.
The three-plus decades Letterman spent in late night serve him well in this setting, both as a listener and in the rapport he has developed with these newsmakers. With Obama and Clooney, Letterman -- a late-in-life dad -- talks to them about experiencing fatherhood, which is about as much as he opens up.
Like Carson, Letterman has been a source of fascination -- someone who came into millions of homes every night, yet who has always been guarded in his public-facing demeanor. Alluding to his bushy, Moses-like beard, Obama asks wryly, "Do you have a staff?"
Letterman makes clear that his admiration for Obama is unreserved -- something he contrasts with the other presidents with which he professionally overlapped. "I was ready for the next stage," Obama says, when asked if he experienced any relief when his presidency ended.
In addition to Clooney, Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z, Tina Fey and Howard Stern fill out the six-episode run. "My Next Guest" isn't the biggest project on Netflix's slate, but it's nevertheless nice to see Letterman back in front of an audience, in part because one suspects -- with these guests -- that he'd be just as happy to chat without one.
"My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman" premieres Jan. 12 on Netflix.