What do you do when you’ve become more famous than you ever hoped and have more money than you could ever spend and you have absolutely nothing left to prove to anyone? If you’re David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld, you keep doing whatever it is you do, as often as you’d like, and all the better if you can do it on Neftflix.
“I don’t even know what this Netflix is,” Letterman jokes in the intro to his new talk series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman. “All I know is that when it works, the danger of radioactive poisoning soars in your home.” As opening lines go, that’s a fairly giant turd. But along with Dave’s new beard, it heralds a new beginning: This is not Late Night Letterman, and it’s not about trying to be funny.
It’s still too early to judge Next Guest as a series—Netflix will debut one episode per month through June—but the premiere was pretty boring. Once you get past Letterman’s new look (hey, it’s Santa Claus from those ol’ Rankin/Bass specials!) and the joy of seeing his first guest, Barack Obama, take the stage (gosh, he’s just so much cooler than that other guy), the two men settle in for a perfectly poised and predictable chat. You’d think two retirees taking stock of their lives would feel looser than this. Alas, Obama is still very much the politician (the new administration is never directly addressed) and Letterman is far too enamored (“you are the first president I truly and fully respect”) to really dig in.
If Letterman’s Obama is the same dignified gent we’ve seen again and again, Seinfeld showed us something much more exciting: a cocky, smart-ass president who was still in office! Back in December 2015, Seinfeld drove a vintage Corvette to the White House for an episode of his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Seinfeld asked questions about the presidential underwear drawer. Obama admitted that nachos were his weakness (“That’s one of those things that I have to have taken away … I’ll have guacamole coming out of my eyeballs”). And Obama telling Seinfeld about his first night sleeping in the White House is infinitely more interesting than him telling Letterman what it was like to sleep late on his first morning of not being president.
Comedians in Cars, which just relocated to Netflix for its 10th season, is the perfect show for right now. Episodes rarely last longer than 20 minutes. They’re all based on a simple conceit. (Jerry loves cars and coffee and comedy? Let’s get it all in one show!) But for a series that might as well be called Celebrities in Public Getting Attention, the show feels remarkably frank. Seinfeld’s basically like, “Look, I busted my ass making 180 episodes of Seinfeld, so now I’d like to enjoy my spoils and just have some fun.” Some have criticized the affluence on display here, but in this era of word policing and humblebragging, a show that lets even Jimmy Fallon express his annoyance with the general public is a beautiful thing.
As for Letterman, his next guest is George Clooney. I’m trying to keep an open mind and believe that’ll be an hour well spent. But it’s taking a considerable amount of effort.