Letterman and Obama talk racism, Fox News, and daughters in new Netflix series

Former President Barack Obama, David Letterman (Photo: Netflix)
Former President Barack Obama, David Letterman (Photo: Netflix)

The irony is all too obvious that David Letterman’s new Netflix interview with former President Barack Obama started streaming the morning after President Trump called people he doesn’t want to let into America citizens of “shithole countries.” It’s not the vulgarity so much as the mindset revealed by that phrase that makes many of us shudder, and listening to a different president talk for about an hour about America’s best instincts is a relief, for a little while.

Letterman’s new show — a six-episode, monthly project titled My Next Guest Needs No Introduction — takes place in front of an audience, no band for music, no desk, less an opening monologue than a few opening remarks. Letterman and his guest sit across from each other in easy chairs. Dave is late-period-Dave, wry, amused, and relatively relaxed. Here, Obama is very much the same. (Only Letterman has a beard, though, about which Obama makes a few jokes.) The interview starts off seriously, with a discussion of the divisions that have opened up in the country during the past year. Obama observes, “If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than if you listen to NPR” — and you know the former president is speaking in front of a self-selecting, New York City audience because the applause and derisive laughter start after Obama says “Fox News,” thus proving his point. Make no mistake, this is a lovefest: After responding to a question in which Obama explains his approach to the economy after taking office, Letterman jokes, “To hear you describe this in a way I can understand just makes me so happy you’re still the president.”

They discuss civil rights and racism, with Letterman inserting footage of an interview he’d done with congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis to illustrate a few points. (Without naming Trump explicitly, Lewis refers to the current president as “a threat not only to the country but to the planet.”) But there’s room for a lot of lighter subjects, such as Obama describing what it was like to drop daughter Malia off at college — lots of self-deprecating anecdotes about being a doting but dopey dad.

It’s not a great interview, but it’s a cozy one. The conversation has the easy intimacy that can occur when two famous, successful men have reached points in their lives when they can be slightly less guarded. As the credits roll, Netflix plays a brief clip revealing that Letterman’s next guest will be George Clooney. Warning: More beard jokes will be made.

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman is streaming now on Netflix.

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