The world's most famous astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, will soon be competing with the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. On April 20 StarTalk, the late-night talk show version of Tyson's popular radio show, will offer viewers science-based discussions at 11PM with luminaries like President Jimmy Carter, Christopher Noland, and Arianna Huffington. Tyson knows it's a bold experiment in television that aims to break new ground: "There's never before been a science talk show in the history of television," he says. "It's not what people expect just before they go to bed."
StarTalk is currently a popular radio show and podcast. What will it look like on television?
Our goal was to not change much. The big decision was, do we just bring cameras into the sound studio like they have one Howard Stern or Mike and Mike? National Geographic [the channel hosting the show] eventually convinced us that if we can create a new set for it then, why not? Except it's not actually a set, it's the whole universe, at the Museum of Natural History.
Will it look like any talk show in particular, past or present?
Let me tell you what we won't have: There will not be a band. There is no monologue. Any banter that goes on is educational. Still, guests are people seen from pop culture, because this is a collision of science, pop culture, and comedy. That's what StarTalk is. That is it's identity. If we get a typical a-lister, on most talk shows they might play a game with them or ask them what they had for Thanksgiving dinner — that sort of thing. But that's not how the conversation unfolds for StarTalk. It's an exploration of all the ways that science may have influence on the life and livelihood of the guest.
Like most late night TV, you will have a comedian as a co-host. Why?
I really like comedy. Comedians by and large are one of the smartest demographics out there. A comedian has to know and understand pop culture, social and cultural mores, politics. They have to understand it deeply enough to then re-shape it in a way and bring it back to make you laugh. This is an extraordinary intellectual feat. I think comedians have a huge role in delivering any kind of information. When you align them with science, then I think you've got a potent delivery vehicle to stimulate science.
Are you then following in the steps of shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show?
I didn't look at the statistics on this, but my casual feeling told me that at least once a week on the Daily Show as well as the Colbert Report, there was a scientist of some note. They would pick a scientist who had something interesting to say, whether or not you had ever heard of them. That's a different threshold of invitation than what is common core in traditional talk shows. The Daily Show would put content ahead of celebrity. When I would be on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart wouldn't play dumb — he would come to me with the everyman's curiosity and ask curiosity-driven questions.
Bill Nye will be on StarTalk as well. What is his part?
It started within our radio program where we intermittently have Bill Nye ranting for a minute about one thing or another. When I imagined his contribution, towards the end of each of these episodes, my reference point for that was Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes. He has a lot of overlapping kind of dead-pan humor the way that Andy Rooney had, but I definitely was thinking of Rooney when I thought we've got to have somebody or an element at the end of the show that could serve it.
What do you make of Nye's transformation to a science pundit who pops up as an expert CNN and Fox News?
So, he had to transition from the host of a kids show to being taken serious by adults. And the adults would have never known who he was, except every person who was rising from college knew because they saw his videos when they were in elementary school. So there's a huge, devoted following of people who basically learned their science from Bill Nye. Later, Bill Nye became a CEO of the planetary society and then he wrote his first book for adults (Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation) and that got him sort of back into the being an expert. What helps that immensely is that he moved to New York City recently and the news centers are all here, so that makes him easy pickings for stations that want to put him on comment in any interesting or politically sensitive science topic.
Do you ever get approached by celebrities who are secretly huge fans of science?
Our favorite kind of a-lister on StarTalk is one that is a secret sort of geek. For example, Morgan Freeman was a kid who would sit out on his porch and would look up and just sort of wonder what his place was in the Universe and travel toward the stars. I brought Josh Groban on and where did that conversation go? In high school he entered a science fair competition and glued small mirrors onto the surface of a large speaker cone. Then he put lasers onto each mirror segment, played his music through that speaker cone, and watched the reflection of the laser on the ceiling dance back and forth according to his music. I said, this is a card-carrying geek.
You have an impressive lineup already set for the show. Is there anyone you are hoping to get on the show later?
I want to get Charlie Sheen. I've actually met him before. He was under the care of the VIP service at the American Museum of National History and I bumped into them on the way up to my office. I said, why don't you come by my office for a few minutes? So he comes up, and Charlie Sheen spent upwards of half an hour asking me questions about what was there before the big bang, dark matter, dark energy, the search for life, space missions. I want to get him on and explore where this interest came from? Charlie Sheen contemplates the cosmos: That would be the title of that episode.
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