David Letterman on his surprise Ukraine trip and Zelensky interview

David Letterman sits down with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.

In late October, David Letterman, who, in a previous television incarnation, considered a Taco Bell drive-through sufficiently adventurous for a remote segment, flew to Warsaw, hopped into a van for a five-hour drive to the Polish border with Ukraine, and caught an overnight train to Kyiv. And then, in an active subway station 250 feet below the embattled capital, the 75-year-old late-night legend sat with President Volodymyr Zelensky for a special episode of his Netflix show, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” The program goes online Monday and Letterman, in a Zoom this week from his home, talked about why he decided to go to a war zone for an episode, certainly a departure for an interview program that has featured George Clooney, Lizzo and Kevin Durant in recent years. (This interview has been edited for space and clarity.)

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Q: Dave, so very simply, what makes you decide Ukraine is a good idea for the show?

A: Forget the show. Forget me. This is a good idea, period. It seems like we’ve had six to eight years of people talking like we were visiting another planet. And then suddenly Russia attacks Ukraine and we meet Volodymyr Zelensky and he’s saying things and behaving in a way we have not seen manifested by humans in quite a long time. The first time I saw him, he said, “This may be the last time you, my countrymen, maybe the last time you see me alive.” And then he says, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” Right away you’re reminded of what you know about Winston Churchill fending off Hitler.

Q: The fact that Zelensky was a performer and is so good at presenting himself, the first reference I have to that is Reagan. The master communicator and professional actor. Right? And Trump, the entertainer recast as something. When did you get the sense that Zelensky was genuine?

A: It’s interesting you invoke Reagan. And in those days, I always thought, well, we have an actor as president. What does this mean to the rest of the world? And I know now Reagan, in fact, was beloved. And then we have Trump, who is a mistake from the minute of birth. But I knew [Zelensky] was genuine. It’s there. It’s palpable. You feel it, you see it. And to me, he has not wavered. And you see the people that we met in Kyiv, this is the guy that lit that fuse. And these people don’t take democracy for granted. I don’t even know, Geoff, if I’m answering your question, I just get wound up about this guy.

Q: You’re interviewing Zelensky and let’s set the stage. This makeshift studio is an active train station. And there are trains going through constantly.

A: I was aware that there would be trains, but everybody said, you know, it’s not a problem. And so I’m thinking every 20 minutes the express will come through and you wave and that’ll be it. And so we’re down there minutes away from beginning, talking with the president, and it’s [makes the sound of a train]. And I tapped [executive producer Tom] Keaney on the shoulder and I said, “This isn’t going to work.” And he looked at me like I was the dumb kid in class and said, “nothing we can do about it.” And then when the guy comes out. There is my focus. It’s oh my God, it’s this guy. And I don’t know what it looks like, but to me talking with him, it was not a problem.

Q:Not only that, you get an air raid siren as the cameras roll.

A: The first one we heard was the morning we arrived in Kyiv on the train. At some point in the preparation, someone had said to our group, don’t ignore the sirens. So, okay, all right, I’m not going to ignore the sirens. We get off the train, there’s a siren. And you think, oh, well, how do I go about not ignoring this? We get to the hotel and the siren is still sirening, and then, you know, later it goes away. So when it happened with the president, I just felt . . . there’s no other person you would rather be with in that circumstance than Volodymyr Zelensky. And I said, “What do we do?” And he says, “Eh nothing.” And I just thought, oh, my God, this is Steve McQueen.

Q:There is a scene where you go to an underground comedy club and you actually did some stand-up.

A: Well, I was standing.

Q: Is it harder to do the jokes when folks in the crowd are not native English speakers, or is it pretty much your standard audience?

A: For me, it was my standard audience. I am accustomed to being onstage, surrounded by silence, so that was not a problem. It was so strange because there’s a curfew in Kyiv. There were blackouts that night we were there. But yet up until 9 o’clock, there’s people in a comedy club and the kid doing jokes about the war. And you think, good for him, good for them.

Q: Did you write your jokes? Like the one about visiting a small farming village and winning the award for Best in Beard.

A: That’s Mike Sweeney. He wrote it. And like everything else, if I had gone back the next night, that little set would have been so much better. It takes you a night to absorb the ambiance of the room. Which, in this case, was silence.

Q: And then, when you’re talking to Zelensky, he tells you a joke. Which begins with two Jewish guys from Odessa meeting and winds up with NATO in the punchline.

A: I love the universality of that joke, you know, the setup. It can’t just be a guy walks in. It’s got to be the Jewish guy. It’s a priest, it’s a rabbi. It’s a Buddhist, you know, walk into a bar. It’s just like, yeah, why not?

Q: It’s a pretty long joke. I can’t decide whether it was even funny or just funny because it’s the president during the war telling you a joke about NATO and Russia?

A: I knew that it was a burn, as the kids say, on NATO, and I think the audience responded. He told it. What am I going to do? No, I’m sorry, Mr. President. What? I’m sorry. I don’t get it. No, I knew the implication of the joke.

Q: I’d be remiss not to ask you about one of your past guests, Kanye. I think about that episode you did with him in 2019 and particularly his open talk about his mental health issues. I’m sure you have been following what’s happening now. His talking about Hitler and the Jews. What are you making of this?

A: People have said that this is a manifestation of mental illness. Other people have said, no, no, this is not the way mental illness manifests itself. So if you’re looking to find a reason, you’ll immediately think, oh, it’s the mental illness. Maybe it’s not. I think he’s in trouble.

Q: On the Kanye episode, you witnessed beautiful moments of artistry. You also saw some real belligerence and oddball behavior. When you think back to that, do you say, I see all the signs of what could have occurred here or are we trying to read too much into it?

A: That night was difficult for me. It seemed like a certain part of it was going all right. And then I just remember, I think the audience was screaming at him. I think he was talking back and forth with his wife. And I’ve never had this particular feeling ever in a situation like that where I just felt like, I would like to go home now. It seemed like whatever was needed here, I’m not sure I had a tool. It was like breaking up a bar fight.

Q: Let’s go back to Ukraine. There is a striking point where you’re walking around a town square and observing these displayed pictures of people who have perished. And it’s heartbreaking to see regular people who have died. And I can’t help but think about 9/11 and those boards that were up around New York City with messages and photos. There’s a kind of trauma that sets in these situations. And the question becomes how much do you confront it and how much do you ignore it? I imagine that is something you were thinking about during this time.

A: You’re visiting the home of these people. And this is the condition their home is in. So you take on that, you realize because people are coming and going about their lives, walking around through this plaza, and it comes over you. Your connection to 9/11 is exactly the same. In the early days of that, you could not walk anywhere toward that area and not feel the heaviness, and that’s the way it was in Kyiv. But they weren’t letting it crush them.

Zelensky said it the other day. He said, I’m not brave, I’m responsible. And that’s an excellent way of putting what he and people are doing. We’re not laughing about this. We’re taking care of business and we’re prevailing, for heaven’s sakes. And smart people have explained to me that, in fact, they will win this, they will win this and winning this is going to be . . . the transition of them winning this will have such a global impact. If they don’t win, it’ll be more of the same crap. So we’re on the doorstep here of monumental change. Am I talking too much?