David Letterman may have given us more laughs than anyone in TV history. There's plenty of supporting evidence of it on his new YouTube Channel, which is constantly being updated with classic clips from his past late-night shows, a treasure trove for those who believe Stupid Pet Tricks is three times funnier than watching Lucille Ball stuff chocolates in her mouth.
But that trip down memory lane also reveals an ugly truth: Letterman was a lousy interviewer. He was easily distracted, bored with those he imagined were beneath him and eager to jump on every opportunity to sneak in a one-liner, even if it meant stepping all over a guest's story.
Letterman wasn't alone. Late-night hosts have a tradition of being more interested in comedy than conversation. But the 75-year-old entertainer has done something most of his contemporaries never did — he's evolved.
"My Next Guest Needs No Introduction," which recently dropped its fourth season on Netflix, is proof. This is the new Letterman — thoughtful, considerate, curious and dynamite at getting even the most guarded personalities to open up.
The six new episodes are the best yet, in large part because almost all the interviews were conducted without an audience, removing any nagging temptation to play to a crowd. Instead, Letterman is laser-focused on his guests, stroking his beard to signal that he's actively listening.
When he asks Billie Eilish about her ability to move a crowd, the pop star seems more impressed with his attitude than the question itself.
"I'm glad you asked," she says. "It sounds like you actually want to know."
Letterman is so tuned in that he catches Eilish making a slight facial tic, an observation that leads to a deep discussion about Tourette's syndrome.
In an interview recorded before the Oscars, Will Smith marvels at the fact that Letterman seems to have prepared for the discussion by reading his autobiography.
"Remember when I was on your show for 'I, Robot'?" Smith says. "You had not seen it and you thought I didn't know."
Letterman doesn't argue otherwise — but he does get Smith to show him how to land a punch, an eerie moment considering The Slap was just around the corner.
He approaches the subject of breast cancer with Julia-Louis Dreyfus with such finesse that the "Veep" star opens up like she's sitting across from Oprah Winfrey.
Letterman is even better these days with celebrities from a different generation. In past seasons, the guest list has included Lizzo and Kim Kardashian. This time around, he has Eilish and Cardi B.
During his conversation with the Bronx rapper, he manages to explore the origins of "WAP" without any of the old snark. When the pair visit the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., he escorts her around like he's Grandpa of the Year.
Not that he's condescending. Letterman is adept at playing the "dumb guy," admitting he knows next to nothing about a topic and practically begging his subject to educate him. It's a strategy that should be taught at every journalism school.
This version of Letterman won't appeal to everyone. There are plenty of goofy moments in the new season, including a shuffleboard match with NBA player Kevin Durant that triggers some all-star trash talking. But the nervous energy, the ability to turn crankiness into an art form, is gone. In its place is quiet dignity and a genuine interest in others.
Those are exactly the qualities that would make Letterman an ideal member of the "60 Minutes" team. Don't laugh. If Oprah can do it, why not Dave?