First, let’s put into perspective just how old David Letterman is. The man is 72 and hosted Late Night With David Letterman from 1982 to 1993, and The Late Show With David Letterman from 1993 to 2015. He’s been on air for 6,028 episodes over 33 years. That’s longer than the TikTok generation has been alive.
He got REM to play at this show in 1983 – back when they had hair – and made them famous. Drew Barrymore was on his show in 1995 – she stood on his table and flashed him. Demi Moore sat in his lap and took a selfie. Julia Roberts kissed him on camera – several times. Cher called him “an a****le” and got invited back over and over. Donald Trump has been a guest 30 times – back when he was a New York real-estate mogul who just wanted to be famous.
And Letterman hasn’t always come across as a benign, off-duty Santa Claus. He’s been clean-shaven for almost all his career, doing his live shows in suits made from Velcro, magnets (he tried to stick to a refrigerator), fizzy tablets (he jumped into a vat of water) and cereal (he sat in a tub of milk).
It was game-changing for its time. While his precursor, Johnny Carson, stayed away from politics and kerfuffle, Letterman, who’d performed stand-up, had razor-sharp comebacks and grouchy comments. He wasn’t afraid of making guests uncomfortable. And his shows were mildly disdainful of everything, even celebrity and show business. When Joaquin Phoenix came on a few years ago, disoriented (and probably drunk), Letterman called him out: “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight!”
That attitude made him one of the most feted artists at the Emmy’s – 52 nominations and 10 wins. There was, for a long time, no one like him. Then, suddenly, the fans grew up and turned into competition.
Late-night slots were filled with political comedy, with Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report. Conan O’Brien sharpened his comedy to suit a global audience. Jimmy Fallon was challenging Priyanka Chopra to a hot-wing-eating spree and getting Ariana Grande to do musical impressions of Christina Aguilera. Surely you’ve watched them online? Those segments were created precisely so they’d have a viral afterlife on YouTube. Plus, out of nowhere, James Corden was getting celebrities to sit in cars and do silly sing-alongs. They were going viral as well.
Letterman (and viewers) knew for a while that he was falling swiftly behind. In May 2015, he hosted his final Late Show, and just like that, the face that was on TV every weeknight upped and disappeared. He spent time growing a beard, obviously. He also dropped in to India in 2016, examining population and energy consumption for an episode of the National Geographic documentary show, Years of Living Dangerously. But he produced largely nothing. Until last year.
When Netflix announced that a Letterman show was in the works, everyone was excited. A streaming platform meant the content wasn’t bound by a Friday release or this morning’s tabloid scandal. Netflix was creating edgy programming. And Letterman was getting $2 million per episode – this was no throwaway deal.
Watch a trailer for his episode with Shah Rukh Khan here
The show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, looked at a single celebrity in a long-form televised Q&A. Barack Obama kicked it off with his first screened interview since he completed two terms as US President. Other guests included megastars George Clooney, Jay-Z, and Kanye West, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and Melinda Gates.
If you stayed up to watch The Late Show before 2010, the Netflix special will seem a bit toothless and deferential. No one’s flashing anyone. There are no unexpected questions or antics. The man who sneered at celebrity is now chummy with celebrities. Letterman is still grouchy, but affectionately so. The George Clooney episode focuses more on Amal Clooney’s human-rights work.
So when the much-publicised episode with Shah Rukh Khan releases on October 25, don’t expect the unexpected. Prepare for an intimate chat and some laughs. Given that Shah Rukh has done more than his share of interviews in his 30 years in show business, perhaps he’ll welcome the bonhomie as well.
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