BACK IN THE SADDLE

Booking Barack Obama for David Letterman’s new show might be Netflix’s biggest coup yet

Obsession
Culture
Obsession
Culture

In a sentence that would not have made any sense a decade ago, former US president Barack Obama will make his first TV talk show appearance since leaving office on David Letterman’s new monthly Netflix series.

The streaming giant announced last week that Obama will be the first guest on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, which debuts on Friday (Jan. 12). Each 60-minute episode will consist of Letterman, who left his perch atop CBS’s The Late Show in 2015 after 33 years as host, interviewing “one extraordinary figure whom Dave finds fascinating,” according to Netflix. Other guests who need no introduction include George Clooney, Malala Yousafzai, Jay-Z, Tina Fey, and Howard Stern.

Netflix also released a preview of Letterman’s interview with Obama, in which the former president talks about the time he showed off his “dad moves” on stage with Prince, a few months before the legendary musician died.

“The key is what we call staying in the pocket,” Obama joked. “I think everybody here knows dads who get out of the pocket, and they’re trying stuff they can’t really pull off.”

Obama has intentionally stayed out of the spotlight since Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration a year ago. He has made a few low-profile speeches, and last month gave a radio interview to his new bromantic partner, the UK’s Prince Harry. But the former US commander-in-chief has not officially done a television interview since becoming a private citizen.

It’s a huge get for Netflix, and says a lot about the changing media industry that Obama would give his first major interview to a comedian on a streaming service, rather than a journalist on a serious network or cable news show—all of which were surely competing for Obama.

Based on Obama’s post-presidential moves, his choice makes sense. Over the last year, the former president has made a concerted effort to remain in the political shadows, even as some have called for him to take on Trump’s administration directly—especially when Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, remains under daily threat.

Or course, he was never going to stay silent forever, and appearing on Letterman’s new Netflix series gives Obama the best chance of avoiding the 24-hour spin zone of cable news. Netflix might be on almost every country on Earth, but it’s far less immediate and politically loaded than live television. It allows Obama to make steps toward a more public life again, while sidestepping the drama of an era in which the political press and the current US administration are embroiled in daily hostilities.

That Netflix lured Letterman out of retirement, when other networks and streaming platforms were vying for the comedian’s services, was quite a get in itself. By throwing lots of money at talented people and generally staying out of their way, Netflix has managed to stage several of these coups in the last year. Just days after Netflix announced it had secured Letterman for a new talk series, the streamer revealed it had also signed Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes—one of the most prolific and successful TV showrunners in the world—to an exclusive development deal. (Sooner or later we’re going to have to stop calling these moves “coups” and accept that they’re the new normal in Hollywood.)

And it’s not a bad deal for Letterman himself, either. He gets to come out of retirement to interview some of the most interesting people in the world a few times then ride back into the sunset. What 70-year-old former talk show host wouldn’t want to do that?

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