Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Late-Night Formula: Science + Comedy = StarTalk

May 18, 2015

In the last few years, Neil deGrasse Tyson has done his part to make people learn something—without making them feel hemmed and hawed into it. His megahit revival of COSMOS brought space and time into millions of American homes. But before all of that, he was gabbing science on his radio show and podcast, StarTalk.

Now, Neil brings that show to the National Geographic Channel for the first-ever science-themed late-night talk show. (Surprisingly?) We chatted with Neil about how the show blends science and comedy—entertaining us while teaching something new.

What are you trying to accomplish with StarTalk, now that the show has evolved into a TV program? 
For me, StarTalk is an offering. It’s now jumped species from radio podcast to television, so the offering has other nuances to it. You get to see the guest, you get to embrace the body language of the comedian, my co-host, so I would expect StarTalk will reach people who don’t know that they like science, or know that they don’t like science. That’s who we’re after here. In my experience, the way to do that is to fold pop culture together with the science and the comedy. You come out of the box caring about pop culture, so once you see science threading in and out of it, you can’t help but recognize the ubiquity of science as a way of understanding the natural world.

Are there any current TV shows raising positive awareness of science and the science-oriented lifestyle? 
If you consider characters in programs like The Big Bang Theory— though they be caricatures, their banter is accurate science, and the whiteboard in the back gets its equations changed every show by a Ph.D Physicist who puts equations there that relate peripherally to the content of the script. Then you have shows like CSI (in three or four incarnations), where they have actors playing real scientists, and they’re good looking so they don’t resemble the weird person you’d never want to date, and they’re also evoking science to solve the crimes. There’s also the series Numbers, which displayed mathematics as a crime-solving tool for FBI agents.

So, on that tilled landscape, appears COSMOS. COSMOS airs in 181 countries via the National Geographic Channel. Who decides to do that, unless the network executives think we did the right thing? It works because the science is not being brought to you in the form of a syllabus that you’d have to fulfill. It’s being brought to you by casual banter, and you get to see how valuable science literacy becomes in the context of every day interaction. In regards to StarTalk, my co-host is a professional standup comedian who brings a buoyant force to the entire conversation no matter where it lands. It’s not like we’ve provided entertainment and stapled science to it. If we succeed, then we’ve done so because we’ve seamlessly threaded the comedy, pop culture and science. After you’ve finished watching the hour, there’s no way you can realistically extricate either the pop culture from the science or the science from the pop culture.

Have there been any favorite interviews thus far? 
I’d have to say my favorite so far was with Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter. I’d known him by name but not much more about him than that until the interview. It was fascinating to see how his brain was wired for thought, and how the creative process is captured and then turned into product. I was enchanted by that interview.

President Carter was also a fun interview. I didn’t ask him about the Middle East—you’re supposed to when you have him—but I asked him StarTalkian questions regarding his engineering background, and the fact that he taught celestial navigation to navy midshipmen. These are the kinds of bits of information that StarTalk explores.

Have you seen the new Star Wars trailer, and what are your expectations for the film?
I was never fanatical about Star Wars. I could recognize intellectually what it was trying to do, but never found myself flocking to those films. Certainly not in the way that I tried to catch my meaningful doses of Star Trek, which has some premise of respecting the laws of physics in the science and technology that they present. So I lean Star Trek!

With rumors of a new Star Trek TV show floating around the Internet, what would you like to see in a new series?
It depends on what influence they want to pull from the multiple incarnations of the series that originally aired. I would say that we have different social and cultural problems than what existed in the 1960s. So, (I’d expect) science fiction writers to be able to weave a story that touches on the social and cultural mores that matter to us all today, just as the original show in the 1960s and the Next Generation in the ‘80s/’90s did in their generation.

Why should DIRECTV customers watch StarTalk?
Among talk shows, a typical talk show will have a celebrity guest, and we’ll have that too, but we’ll also have a professional comedian on set. Together we will work to entertain you before you go to sleep, while you’re learning something. If I were being aggressive about it, I would just simply say: “Learn something for a change!”

By the way that is not a different mantra from most shows that air on the National Geographic Channel. In fact, on our evening, the line up will include shows where you will learn about how the brain works, and learn about society and culture. It’s a learning night, but the trick is to not turn it into a syllabus where it feels like an obligation. If it is, people will be turned off by it. If you want a lecture, come see my lecture. Read my books. But, if you’re kicking back with an hour to kill before you go to sleep, why not learn something? Blend it with everything else you care about in society. That has to give a sense of empowerment to the viewer.

StarTalk airs Mondays at 11/10c on the National Geographic Channel (Ch. 276).

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